The fall and rise of Unai Emery

WHEN Arsenal appointed Paris Saint-Germain boss Unai Emery as the successor to Arsene Wenger in May 2018, it was seen as a somewhat imaginative appointment. He was a coach who was on his way up, he knew how to win major prizes in Europe and he was, for want of a better cliché, a “special one”. Smart and personable and untainted by cynicism. Arsenal were hoping for a new Wenger, a manager who could be a change agent just as the professorial Frenchman had been back in the late 1990s.

If Emery had been hired in 2016 rather than 2018, the story might have been different. PSG had secured Emery after he had pulled off a hat-trick of Europa League triumphs with Sevilla, beating Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool in the 2016 final in Basel. It was arguably the third of these successes that convinced PSG he was a coach with a future and he was lured to Paris and expected to make a team of globetrotters into European champions. He was also given the footballing diva, Neymar, to help that process.

But Emery found getting past clubs from his homeland a problem, notably in the catastrophic and somewhat embarrassing 6-1 defeat at the hands of Barcelona in the 2016-17 Champions League. This seismic defeat, along with the loss of the Ligue 1 title in 2017, sowed the seeds of Emery’s ultimate downfall in Paris, even though nobody has managed to bring home the trophy that “project PSG” has really been all about. By the time he arrived at Arsenal, Emery had won six major trophies, including a league title. There appeared to be something rather classy about Emery, who was 46 when he joined the Gunners.

It was clear from his early press conferences and interviews that Emery’s English was going to be a problem, especially if things didn’t go well on the pitch. It made for some slightly uncomfortable post-match discussions and also made him something of a figure of fun with some hacks. As Jonathan Wilson wrote in The Guardian, Emery was “written off by Arsenal because his Vs sounded a bit like Bs.”

At the Emirates, Emery took the club to the Europa League final in Baku but saw his lack-lustre team torn apart by Chelsea. Arsenal finished fifth and were losing their place among Champions League qualifiers. Confidence in him started to wane in the early weeks of 2019-20 even though Arsenal lost just one of their first eight league games. Even when they were finding it hard to win games, they had still lost just three times at the time Emery was sacked in November 2019 after a Europa League defeat at the hands of Eintracht Frankfurt. But performances were, generally, not good and the fans turned against him, claiming he didn’t care about the club. A lot of people probably thought they had heard the last of Unai Emery for a while as he returned to Spain and was eventually appointed Villareal manager.

Did Arsenal give up on Emery too soon? Certainly, the early months of his successor, Mikel Arteta (possibly the man they really wanted to take over from Wenger) didn’t suggest they had found a better choice. Indeed, Emery’s win rate at Arsenal was 55.1%, Arteta’s is currently 54%. Unfortunately, he was the wrong man for the wrong club just as David Moyes was never going to be successful after the departure of an icon at Manchester United.

How satisfying it must have been for Emery when Villareal knocked Arsenal out of the Europa League in 2020-21, although he had far too much dignity to gloat. He then went on to beat Manchester United in the final. He credited his former employer with helping him to win the Europa League, the experience of managing in England had been invaluable. At the same time, there was an underlying feeling Emery had been thrown back in the pond rather hastily.

In his own backyard, Emery was a man in demand. Villareal came calling eight months after he left Arsenal and he took them to seventh in La Liga. With a minimum of fuss, Villareal slalomed their way through the Europa League, going 15 games without a defeat and disposing of Arsenal and, after a prolonged penalty shoot-out, Manchester United. It was clear that United underestimated both Villareal and their specialist coach.

In the Champions League this season, they came through a group with United and then into the knockout stage, overcoming Juventus and Bayern Munich. Nobody really envisaged they would get past the round of 16, but their away form in the Champions League has been impressive. On the back of these surprises, a reassessment of Emery has begun and the verdict seems fairly unanimous – he is a quality coach who knows how to negotiate cup competitions and difficult opponents. In fact, only Zinedine Zidane has a better scorecard in knockout games in Europe.

Can he pull-off what would be a massive shock and eliminate Liverpool from the Champions League? It is the biggest ask because Villareal simply don’t have better players than the Reds, so Emery would have to produce something very special out of his hat. But their record in Europe means Klopp’s side will need to be at their very best over both legs, because Unai Emery seems to have perfected the sort of two-leg strategy that was a hallmark of teams like AC Milan, Liverpool and Bayern Munich, way back in time.

It’s truly good to see him back to where he belongs and a contender at the top table. It didn’t take long for him to return to the game after what had clearly become a nightmare in north London. The big question is, will he yearn to revisit the Premier League at some point, considering he has unfinished business in England, or will he eventually take one of the really big jobs in Spain? He may have a number of choices for his next big move, especially if he can add a Champions League final to his CV.

Football makes it easy to become a cynic

LIKE two boxers at the end of their career, Manchester United and Arsenal reminded everyone they’ve both seen better days when they drew 1-1 on a night of mediocrity at Old Trafford. Of the two, Arsenal looked like they have a plan, but the mighty MU, six years on from the departure of the godfather of football management, Sir Alex, don’t look any nearer to passing the baton on to the right man.

Ferguson versus Wenger, United v Arsenal, was the Premier League’s first big (intense) rivalry and both clubs are now suffering from hanging onto that era too long. The age of big money has left a number of sizeable clubs struggling to swim against the tide and there’s none bigger than these two. Ole Gunnar Solskjær is rapidly running out of time and could be a pre-holiday season casualty if he’s not careful. As for Emery, he’s probably got this season to call for the silver polish at the Emirates. A sad situation? Not really, football is cyclical and both Arsenal and United have had worse times. It’s a first world problem. Both will rise again, but their current plight, if that’s the right word, is most certainly self-inflicted and a result of their own corporate strategies.

Where is the imagination?

VERY rarely, football surprises us and opts for the unexpected. Football club owners and managers work with people they know, people they trust and can easily manage. It’s often “jobs for the boys”, or really, “jobs for the right boys”. It’s not just appointing managers, it’s also acquiring players. At the lowest levels, managers repeatedly go back to the players they know, hired hands that played for the club in the past. Higher up the ladder, club owners and presidents often have a limited range of vision. Real Madrid are talking of inviting José Mourinho back to replace Zinedine Zidane, who himself was a former employee. Is the management pool so lacking depth that people can only think of going back to those that once worked for them?

Thoughts and prayers, yes – but don’t count on us

THERE’S a healthy debate needed about whether Bury should have been allowed to apply for readmittance to the EFL after folding a few weeks ago. When the club was staring into the abyss, social media, fans, club and leading football folk were all sending their “thoughts and prayers” to Bury and their bealeagured supporters. Of course, in this age of virtue signalling, if Facebook had made a Bury crest, it would have appeared as a watermark over profile photos everywhere. The shallow nature of social media aside, Bury’s application to be admitted to League Two next season was unanimously rejected by the EFL’s membership. Why? Because if Bury go, it means one less club to be relegated to non-league football. It’s the old Turkeys voting for Christmas syndrome. It’s all a bit like the re-election voting that took place before relegation was first introduced. There’s an argument that Bury, or their phoenix club, should start in non-league, like others, but this episode has also uncovered the hypocrisy of conspicuous grieving.


Photo: PA


River-Cottage-Football: When wealth is all relative

JUST imagine, if Chelsea’s founding family, the Mears, had got their way, there might not have been a Craven Cottage and the football world would have been deprived of one of the real pleasures of watching the game in London.

Is there a more pleasant experience than walking from Hammersmith, past the Odeon (the theatre where, in 1973, David Bowie killed-off his alter-ego, Ziggy Stardust), progressing along Edwardian villa-ed streets, onto the Thames path and into Stevenage Road and catching a glimpse of Archibald Leitch’s most durable creation? I don’t think so.

Gus Mears, a Victorian businessman and owner of Stamford Bridge, the future home of Chelsea, offered Fulham the stadium at £ 1,500 per annum. They turned it down and Chelsea were born out of necessity. How football history would have been changed if Fulham had accepted that deal.

Early October and Fulham had their biggest home game of the season, an all-London clash with resurgent Arsenal. There was bright autumn sunshine and it was a midday kick-off on a Sunday. A couple of gleaming sailing vessels floated past Craven Cottage and the park was packed with “yummy-mummies” and off-duty hedge fund managers spending quality time with their offspring. A worthy charity run was in process, the panting runners weaving in and out of the crowd marching towards the stadium. It was all a bit like a Richard Curtis film script, you half expected Hugh Grant to be sitting on one of the river-facing benches, perhaps equipped with his black and white scarf. Everyone’s favourite fop is, after all, a Fulham fan.

A general view of fans arriving before the Premier League match at the Craven Cottage Stadium, London. Photo: Craig Mercer/Sportimage via PA Images

Fulham were in need of an uplifting and convincing result as their defence, in recent games, had looked naïve and fragile. They were in 17thplace, two points above the relegation spots. Beaten 3-0 in their last two Premier away games, against Manchester City and Everton, life in the top flight was starting to become very tough.

Arsenal, by contrast, had recovered from their first two games (defeats against Manchester City and Chelsea) and looked in reasonable shape. They had won eight in a row and new coach Unai Emery was settling in well.

Fulham didn’t really need an in-form Arsenal arriving at the Cottage at this moment in time, but they couldn’t avoid the big guns, so it was really “hope for the best”.

Their best was probably never going to be good enough, though, for although Fulham had spent £ 100 million on bolstering their squad, the mantra being potential rather than proven, Arsenal’s two star strikers, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, cost the Gunners a mere £ 102 million. Fulham may have had significant summer cash to spend, but they were still way behind their North London friends.

Aubameyang was left on the bench, so that could have been seen as one less problem to deal with, and Mesut Özil was also missing with an injury. Aaron Ramsey, who may not be an Arsenal player by the end of January, was also on dugout duty. Fulham brought back Maxime Le Marchand and Cyrus Christie, but relied on the team that lost at Everton.

Fulham started well, though. Hector Bellerin, he of the trendy top knot, mistimed a pass and Luciano Vietto, who had still to impress, dashed through and sent a deflected shot towards Bernd Leno, who pushed the ball for a corner. A lively overture. Arsenal settled and Alex Iwobi looked dangerous every time he gained possession. He gave the Fulham defence a difficult time and repeatedly exposed their weakness down the flank. “Here we go again,” said one home fan.

Just on the half hour, Arsenal went ahead. Iwobi worked his way down the left flank and he passed to Nacho Monreal, who drove a low cross to the near post where the waiting Lacazette pulled off a neat movement, owning the ball, turning and shooting into the net, all in a single movement. It was a classy, £ 47 million finish.

Fulham toiled to get back into the game and just before the interval, André Schürrle levelled the scores, André-Frank Zambo Anguissa picked up a poor pass from Monreal and Vietto prodded through to Schürrle, who chipped his effort over Leno. There was a sense of relief from the Fulham fans, but the joy was short-lived.

Arsenal were back in front in the 49thminute and it was a gem of a goal, Lacazette turning and sending a first-time shot from 25 yards past England hopeful Marcus Bettinelli, who appeared to be a little caught-out.

If that was easy on the eye, the third Arsenal goal was an absolute joy for those that like technical football. It started with Aaron Ramsey, who had been on the pitch for half a minute. The move involved Bellerin, Ramsey again, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and then Aubameyang, who fired the ball across to the still mobile Ramsey and he sent a cheeky backheel past Bettinelli. There were still 23 minutes to go, it looked ominous for Fulham.

Even worse was to follow in the 79thminute as Aubameyang scored an almost identical goal to Lacazette’s opener. All around me, people started to leave the ground as the Arsenal fans started singing, “we’ve got our Arsenal back”. Aubameyang added a fifth in added time to really reveal the gaping Fulham wounds. “Just because we’ve spent £ 100 million on players doesn’t mean we’ve spent £ 100 million on decent players,” said one disillusioned regular. “It is early days still,” I replied. “We’ll know in a month if the new players have what it takes. They’re still bedding-in.”

For the neutral, it had been an entertaining 90 minutes with some outstanding individual performances from Arsenal. The two strikers, Lacazette and Aubameyang showed why Arsenal invested so much money in them and the style of football was every bit as good as anything the Gunners served-up in the dying days of the Wenger regime. As for Fulham, they have played eight games, so they are not quite in a relegation fight just yet, but if their current run continues, and eight becomes 15 games, they may have a difficult time ahead. Reality has certainly arrived at Craven Cottage and it may take further cash outlays, certainly in defence, to ensure early season nerves don’t become late season trauma.

Photos: PA