Unai Emery is Arsenal’s new head coach. After an exhaustive search Emery emerged as a surprising pick, after the team seemed to be zeroing in on giving Mikel Arteta the first managerial appointment of his career. So, why Emery? And does the move, unexpected as it was, make sense?
Manager signings are difficult to evaluate in a vacuum. The job calls for lots of soft, difficult to measure, skills. It’s not just about tactics and substitutions, and monitoring fitness levels. In addition to the Xs and Os managers have to do all of the interpersonal things that keep a team humming. There’s the ego soothing, and man management, the times when a manager has to tell an old hand they just don’t have it anymore and a youngster will be taking their place. The times when they need to yank that youngster from the lineup and not destroy his confidence. They need to keep players involved and invested while dealing with all sorts of very public pressures. It’s hard figuring out who the best person to run a team should be.
Arsenal’s selection of Emery, along with naming him head coach and not manager, makes one thing abundantly clear. In the wake of Arsene Wenger, who had total control over every aspect of the club, the team is moving in a new structural direction. Emery will sit within that structure, not on top of it. His job is to handle the team. Other people are responsible for building it. Emery has worked that way before, most famously at Sevilla, but also afterwards at Paris Saint-German and before at Valencia. But, just because he has experience doesn’t mean he’s necessarily the right man for the job.
The positive case for Emery starts with his time at Sevilla. He finished fifth twice, then seventh in his final season. That’s roughly in line with his budget. On top of that, he managed the team to a sensational three Europa League wins in a row. Knowing exactly how heavily to weight those trophies is a difficult kind of question. Trophies are certainly not the be all, end all. It would not be a meaningfully different reflection of Emery’s skills if, instead of a threepeat, Sevilla had lost to Benfica, FC Dnipro or Liverpool in the finals and instead won two out of three. But, it’s also silly to ignore that Emery consistently won matches against a good subset of teams. Three years of Europa League is 39 games (one of those three years involved them dropping down from the Champions League and playing only nine games instead of the usual 15 that finalists would play), or an entire extra season of data. Sevilla’s Europa League success is a point in Unai’s favor, and a big one.
It’s certainly true that Emery’s Sevilla teams were less than inspiring. By his final season there they were downright moribund, especially away from home where they didn’t win a match all season, drawing nine and losing ten. But, how much of that is his fault is an open question. Emery was handed the squad by director of football, and Sevilla legend, Monchi. If the players that Monchi brought in were more defensively oriented, then it was up to Emery to get the most out of them. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that Emery’s style was dictated by his circumstances and not the other way around.
It’s possible to view the rest of his career through that lens. Emery managed Valencia for four seasons under difficult conditions. He finished sixth and then third three times in a row. Those teams were certainly accomplished attacking sides. Players like David Villa, David Silva and Juan Mata grew and thrived under Emery at Valencia before being sold off to the highest bidder to stabilize the books. And, while it’s true that after Sevilla Emery struggled in his first season at PSG (nothing is more emblematic of that adjustment than Emery bringing Grzegorz Krychowiak, watching his pet defensive midfielder utterly fail and then being forced to ship him off to find his level at West Bromwich Albion), and then managed to not win the league when faced with a miracle Monaco side, by year two he was much better. It is, of course, easy to be a lot better when the team you’re managing adds Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, but the point is that Emery didn’t shackle them. The team scored 108 goals, up from 83 the year before.
Look at the course of Emery’s career and it’s easy to make the case that he’s not particularly defensive minded, it’s just that his most notable success came with his most defensive sides.
It’s also possible to look at those facts and see exactly the opposite story. Valencia weren’t that high scoring, they notched between 59 and 64 goals per year when he was there. They did it with a bevy of talented attacking players too, all of whom went on to star at the biggest clubs in the world. Maybe they should have been even higher scoring than they were. The same is certainly true of PSG in Emery’s first year. Trying to instill defensive structure was clearly not the best plan, and it wasn’t until he was handed two of the best attackers in the world that he consented to take the reins off.
The concern for Emery at Arsenal would be that his inclination is to be defensive, and that it’s only when he is overwhelmed by talent that gives him no choice that he opens up. Will he look at Alexandre Lacazette, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and Mesut Ozil and see a team that has no choice but to play upbeat attacking football, or will he revert to his instincts and try to structure the team more conservatively even if it means stifling them.
Then there’s the Europa League mystique. Whatever tournament magic Emery had, it wore off quickly with PSG. He oversaw one of the greatest collapses in history against Barcelona one season and then meekly rolled over for Real Madrid the next. Sure, winning three in a row with Sevilla was impressive, but two years, and two Champions League failures on, maybe that was a reflection of Sevilla’s squad, more than Emery’s magic.
Put it all together and it adds up to a fine, if overly conservative, manager, a man who was in the right place at the right time to steward Monchi’s collection of talent to a unique achievement, but nothing more. A boring, slightly better than average manager is not exactly a ringing recommendation for Arsene Wenger’s successor.
The problem with evaluating Arsenal’s Emery hire is that both of those narratives are equally accurate from the outside. They are simply differently constructed versions of the same set of facts. Is Emery a practical manager who can manage a variety of different styles depending on the talented he’s presented with? Maybe. He also might be a fundamentally conservative manager who only attacks when his talent deck is so stacked he has absolutely no other option, a man whose conservative tendencies just happened to make him the perfect steward for the undervalued talent Monchi assembled at Sevilla.
There’s no way to definitively answer the question now. Instead the two possibilities provide a useful framework for evaluating Emery’s early days at Arsenal. What kind of players is Arsenal management getting for Emery? What sorts of tactical choices is he making during an abbreviated post World Cup preseason? Is he playing formations that look like they might accommodate both Lacazette and Aubameyang, even if they aren’t necessarily on the field? Or, is he playing more rigid one striker looks? Does the team seem to be preparing for a future with one forward and a single creative midfielder behind them? There are the kinds of issues that will define Emery’s early days at the club.
Hiring managers is a messy business. There’s lots of uncertainty. It’s exceedingly difficult to isolate what exactly is important and necessary for a new manager, even a manager with a substantial track record, to succeed with a new club. It’s impossible to answer the question of whether Emery will turn out to be a good hire ahead of time. All we can do is start the evaluation process by asking the right questions.
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