Portrayed as a fraud. Painted as a failed genius by others, there is more to Unai Emery’s tenure with Arsenal than meets the eye. Charged with the titanic assignment of returning Arsenal to Champions League ascension, Arsène Wenger’s successor highlighted the arrival of a new era.
For the first time in over two decades, Arsenal appointed a new manager. Chosen from an extensive list of candidates, Unai Emery was fresh, new, and invigorating.
Communication and Background
For all his glory and success within Spain, Unai Emery has suffered in his time outside it.
An extraordinary three European triumphs with Sevilla, signified his status as an elite manager. Not only did he win an unprecedented three UEFA Europa Leagues in a row, but his Sevilla side finished as runners-up in the 2015/16 Copa Del Rey Final.
Up against a superior Barcelona, who fielded a deadly trio of Neymar, Messi and Luis Suárez, Sevilla lost in extra-time. On a lesser budget with an inferior side, Emery rattled the titans of La Liga.
However, his time spent outside Spain has proven to be anticlimactic. In between his years with Valencia and then Sevilla, he tried his hand at management in Russia. Sacked within a handful of months at Spartak Moscow, his gloomy departure was announced inside his own dressing room.
Unai Emery’s biggest flaw, his Achilles Heel, can be summarised in one word. Communication.
In Paris, he was ridiculed by the French media for his French. The former Valencia and Sevilla manager can attest to this himself, “When I was at PSG, I tried to communicate in French, but people were sarcastically mocking my efforts.”
In a 2019 interview with El Mundo, Emery mentioned: “Here at Arsenal, I speak broken English but all I hear is complementary words for putting the efforts in and trying to speak.”
Reports from behind the scenes indicate his own players at Paris Saint-Germain and at Arsenal openly mocked him with disrespectful impressions.
Players outside of Spain have found him difficult to fully understand. His messages are muddled and his instructions are uneasy to grasp. Difficulty getting messages across to the English press and in interviews for Arsenal was apparent during his stay in London.
Tormented with, “Good Ebening,” the Basque tactician’s greatest flaw has been his inability to command a foreign language.
Russia, France and England. Emery has faced adjustment pains with the language of each country. At Spartak Moscow he crashed and burned, in France and England he struggled to effectively communicate his ideas.
With Paris Saint-Germain he won a Ligue 1 title, two Coupe de France titles and two Coupe de la Ligue’s. Yet, the French giants were unsatisfied with his work and he was subsequently let go.
Appointed as Arsenal’s new manager, he initially breathed life into a resurgent Arsenal side. A few months after he joined, fans chanted: “We’ve got our Arsenal back,” after a 5-1 demolition of Fulham at Craven Cottage.
Throughout his eighteen-month rule of the club, his navigation of English would gradually improve. Despite this, he was unable to perfectly express his ideas and tactics with his players or the media, as his control in the dressing room eventually weakened…
Frequent substitutions were a key factor in Emery’s early success. Used to re-gain momentum in games, his blend of tactics received high praise, as Arsenal embarked on an unbeaten run which stretched to twenty-two games.
Fruit juice was banned, second half changes became common and a more intensive style was implemented.
A fiery comeback against Tottenham in the North London Derby, showcased remarkable progress. Like a madman on the sidelines, Emery commanded his players forwards, screamed instructions and masterminded a passionate and unforgettable victory in a rocking stadium.
Another monumental victory in a London Derby would soon follow. Against Chelsea, another challenger and Champions League contender, Arsenal would grab an important January victory.
Emery’s brilliant tactical adjustments made Chelsea appear directionless. A dogged display, combined with clinical finishing and the effective man-marking of Jorginho by Aaron Ramsey, earned Arsenal a 2-0 victory over a disjointed Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium.
On Matchday thirty-one, Arsenal sat in third place. On a six-match unbeaten run with five wins and an unfortunate draw against Tottenham, optimistic fans sang: “Unai Emery’s red and white army!”
Spearheaded by Aaron Ramsey, Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Arsenal crushed Newcastle United on April Fool’s Day. The Champions League promised land drew ever nearer.
Away from home two games earlier, Aubameyang missed a crucial last-minute penalty against rivals Tottenham. Despite the dropped points and missed opportunity to claim a league double against Tottenham, Arsenal still found themselves in a strong position with seven league games left.
Arsenal also began to excel in the UEFA Europa League. Successive quarter final victories over Napoli, presented fans with hope they could win the famous trophy.
Next up, Arsenal faced Emery’s former side Valencia. Held at the hostile Mestalla stadium, Arsenal’s first leg lead of 3-1, was cut down to 3-2. Within minutes Arsenal had conceded a scrappy goal.
Under immense pressure, trailing away from home in an intimidating atmosphere, this was the quintessential game Arsenal would so often capitulate in. Except, Emery’s side reversed the tide. Valencia were instead outgunned in a topsy-turvy semi-final.
One of Emery’s greatest victories in his North London tenure, took Arsenal to their first European Final since 2006.
Sokrastis Papastathopoulos, a rock in defence brought in by Unai Emery praised his manager ahead of the Europa League final. Managed by both Thomas Tuchel and Jürgen Klopp in his five seasons at Borussia Dortmund, the veteran said for him, Unai Emery is the best manager in his career.
In a 2019 interview with The Guardian, Sokratis said, “He’s the best coach I had in my career,” before he explained, “That’s because I have improved a lot under him. I play faster than one, two or three years ago. I think more and I make better decisions and his coaches do a lot of individual work with us.”
A fair evaluation of his coach in a season filled with ups and downs for the Gunners.
First Signs of Bad.
Bruno, a former player under Unai Emery for Almeria and Valencia, previously revealed to BBC Sport, “He loves to analyse every single team-“. He described his former manager’s well documented dissection and obsession towards video analysis of games, as one of his, “Best strengths.”
One of Emery’s greatest strengths, slowly grew to become one of the biggest reasons for his demise. Initially he had success with his analysis of opponents and frequent chop and change of tactics.
A little over a year would pass since he joined Arsenal, and concerns began to leak out around Arsenal’s identity and undefined style. Former Arsenal striker Alan Smith wrote for the Evening Standard, “I have heard whispers, after all, that some of the players find their manager’s instructions confusing”.
Emery’s tendency to overthink and restrict his team, would result in struggles to break opposition defences down. Toothless displays, such as against West Ham at the London Stadium in a goalless loss, hinted at tactical difficulties.
After the January setback against West Ham United, Arsenal would go on to beat Chelsea and Cardiff City, lose against a superior Manchester City side and earn a nervy away victory against Huddersfield Town.
Between the victory over Huddersfield Town on the ninth of February and their scheduled match against Southampton on the twenty-fourth of February, Arsenal had two uninterrupted fixtures in the Europa League against BATE Borisov.
With five days to rest before their clash in Belarus, the inconsistences of Emery’s side emerged when they slumped to an embarrassing 1-0 defeat; against a team they had beaten 4-2 and 6-0 respectively only a year before.
Despite fielding nine players who had started their previous Premier League match, Unai Emery’s side were unable to penetrate a vastly inferior opponent.
Doubts began to set in. Arsenal’s sloppy performance was worsened, by the fact BATE Borisov’s last competitive game, came only two months prior to the match.
Arsenal’s Jekyll and Hyde performances under Emery grew out of control. Dominant home displays, would be reversed as Arsenal were suffocated away from home.
Noticed by Arsenal legend Robert Pires, he perfectly depicted Arsenal’s woes as: “Faces.”
“One face when we play at home, we play very good, we played sometimes well, we can beat Man United. And the second face is when you play away and it’s not the same team. That’s why I say it’s strange.”
In the month of April alone, Arsenal were outplayed for large stretches of an away game by a ten-man Watford side, yet would three days later put in an organised performance to grab a deserved victory against Carlo Ancelotti’s Napoli in Naples.
While Emery struggled to explain the abnormal nature behind Arsenal’s inconsistent performances, his puzzled squad appeared equally as confused.
Robert Pires revealed in a March interview, “I spoke with Laurent Koscielny and even the players didn’t know why we play so good at home and, not bad, but not very good when we play away.”
Known for being a cup specialist, Emery watched as his team were alarmingly knocked out of both domestic cups, on two different occasions to bitter rivals Tottenham and Manchester United.
Failure to truly implement a style and his focus on opponent’s strengths lead to Emery becoming predictable. Teams adjusted to Arsenal’s devotion to cutbacks and overloads, which lead to dreadful away losses to Everton, Southampton, Rennes, Leicester City and Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Were Arsenal Unfortunate?
Infamous for suffering the most embarrassing of defeats as Paris Saint-Germain manager, La Remontada, the 6-1 defeat at the hands of Barcelona, Emery has claimed the outcome of the match would have changed, had VAR been implemented.
In an interview with France Football he commented: “In the second leg, we were eliminated because VAR did not yet exist. We were clearly eliminated by refereeing decisions.”
Likewise, Unai Emery must wish the technology existed for one particular game in his Arsenal reign.
In March of 2019, Arsenal headed to Wembley Stadium. Beneath rivals Tottenham Hotspur in fourth place, they sat four points adrift of their archrivals. Scheduled to play each other, the game was billed as an early Champions League decider between both sides.
Instead, a degree of wretched luck tormented Arsenal that day.
Often so reliable, Aaron Ramsey put Arsenal 1-0 in front with an excellent finish. Yet, a number of controversial referee decisions would cost Arsenal an all-important victory.
Danny Rose managed to escape a red card, with a mistimed studs up tackle on Bernd Leno’s chest. In addition to this, Tottenham were awarded a debatable penalty, from an offside position.
Aubameyang missed a last-minute penalty to redeem any wrongs made by the referee’s decisions, as both sides drew.
A sense of injustice surrounded the match. Dismayed, Unai Emery politely stated: “I think it’s positive that VAR is coming in next year because it can help the referees make less mistakes.”
Afterwards, he opened up about what might have been, had the video assistant referee been around to alter important decisions. “VAR is for them and, with it, maybe the match is different.”
The dropped points would prove a significant loss, as Arsenal would miss out on the Champions League places. Season ending injuries to key players, also plagued Unai Emery’s squad.
Aaron Ramsey, a massive presence in midfield who had scored vital goals against Tottenham and Napoli, was ruled out for the season, as was the explosive Héctor Bellerín.
Rob Holding, a defender who had put in many impressive performances in the first half of the season, picked up a knee injury and his season was also cut short.
In the build up to the Europa League Final, the absence of Henrikh Mkhitaryan was also a considerable loss. Held in Azerbaijan, Mkhitaryan declined to enter the country for his own safety amidst political tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
A forward with thirteen goal contributions, the mental and tactical effects of his exclusion for the European Final, were another unfortunate circumstance Emery was forced to accept.
“The club continues to work on that. It’s difficult, you know, but I am working with our players and I think we need – and we can – sign some players to help after our injuries like Rob Holding, like Welbeck, like Héctor Bellerín.”
Those were the words of the former Valencia and Sevilla manager ahead of Arsenal’s business in the January transfer window.
Once Bellerín suffered a season ending injury in Emery’s first season, the options to fall back on were unconvincing. A crucial player for the manager’s system, an ideal fullback replacement was unavailable to Emery.
Carl Jenkinson was likeable but entirely ordinary, an aged Stephan Lichtsteiner lacked energy and pace and the inexperienced Ainsley Maitland Niles was more suited to playing as a wingback.
Danny Welbeck’s presence was also missed. On an earlier occasion in the season, Emery had heaped praise on the English striker. “Danny Welbeck is one of the players who has a multi-position possibility.”
“Right winger, left winger, striker, and also yesterday he worked with us at left-back – his performance was good! I like this spirit. To help positions across the team with positive spirit.”
Experienced and versatile, a long-term injury ruled Welbeck out for the remainder of the season.
Arsenal’s new manager was dealt a major blow with his injury in the Europa League. “This injury is very big for him, for us and for everyone.”
Were Emery’s hands tied behind his back? David Seaman, an Arsenal legend, seemed to think so when he spoke to Sky Sports.
“I know Emery has had his hands tied behind his back in the transfer window. He must be pulling his hair out. He will want to make his mark. Defensively they are really suspect.”
Arsenal’s hierarchy provided little assistance to strengthen an injury ravaged squad. Despite weakness in certain areas of the squad, notably at right back, centre back and on the wing, no funds were made available for the January transfer window. Only loan deals were permitted.
Using his prior experience in La Liga, Emery made a personal suggestion. Denis Suarez was loaned in from the fringes of FC Barcelona as per Emery’s request.
Both Arsenal’s only January arrival and their manager had previously worked together in a fruitful spell at Sevilla. On paper the deal made sense. Emery knew the player and his qualities and was convinced Denis Suarez could make a positive impact. On the pitch however, the attacker faltered.
Reduced to six games in total, a sustained groin injury resulted in a failed loan spell. Unfit and injured, Suarez’s disastrous loan highlighted a waste of a transfer window.
Limited budget from Arsenal’s hierarchy, meant a missed opportunity to fully back the manager or strengthen the squad. Failure to do so, would impact Arsenal. As did Emery’s personal recommendation of Denis Suarez.
Furthermore, his decision to field a weakened team against Crystal Palace backfired and had serious ramifications as it contributed to Arsenal’s end of season capitulation.
Forced to rotate following Europa League quarterfinal commitments, out of favour fringe players on the outskirts of Emery’s squad were played in a crucial Champions League decider.
Konstantinos Mavropanos, Carl Jenkinson and Mohamed Elneny all played in an April loss against Crystal Palace. Arsenal’s rotated side lost in lacklustre fashion as they threw away vital points.
Arsenal would lose their next two games with a combined six goals conceded and one goal scored, and were all but denied access to the Champions League by seventeenth place Brighton & Hove Albion in a stalemate at the Emirates Stadium.
Arsenal’s January transfer window and the failure to replace injured players or strengthen the squad with quality additions, were perilous mistakes. These key decisions shaped and impacted the final months of Emery’s first season, in a busy period packed with regular matches.
An awkward juggle between both the Premier League and the Europa League, resulted in fatigue. The troublesome Thursday to Sunday schedule, packaged alongside Europe’s second tier competition, caused an imbalance in Arsenal’s squad.
Fitness related issues, forced rotations and a problematic fixture schedule came as a consequence.
Towards the end of Emery’s first season, one of Arsenal’s goalkeepers spoke about the difficult schedule he and his teammates faced throughout the campaign.
In a pre-Europa League Final interview, Bernd Leno stated: “The Thursday-Sunday rhythm is also not so good because you always suffer in the league. If we lose the final, our season, which was actually good, would be disappointing.”
Efforts to succeed in both competitions, resulted in grim failure.
Arsenal’s head coach and his squad ended up empty-handed, as neither competition delivered Champions League football…
Europa League Final Fallout.
Azerbaijan. The Land of Fire.
Inside the Baku Olympic Stadium, one final match would make or break Arsenal’s season. Heralded as King of the Europa League, Unai Emery had guided Arsenal to their first European final in thirteen years.
Yet, Arsenal had failed to reach their primary target in the Premier League. They had narrowly missed out on a place in European football’s elite competition, by one single point.
Another pathway into the Champions League still existed, the Europa League’s reward of instant Champions League qualification to it’s victor. Unai Emery could carve a legacy at Arsenal for himself, with success in the final.
Much needed European silverware, the joy of a trophy lift, the financial benefits of Champions League football and glory awaited Arsenal. Plans for a parade and celebration in North London had been laid two months prior to the momentous occasion.
The outcome of the 2019 UEFA Europa League Final would decide Arsenal’s season.
Far away from London, old rivals Chelsea squared off with Arsenal. In a tense tactical battle, the first half was a quiet affair. Emery’s side had been marginally better, but had wasted the few half-chances they created in a half of nearly moments.
Arsenal were made to pay in the second half.
Within a matter of moments, Giroud had put Chelsea ahead. Heads instantly dropped, as Arsenal feebly surrendered once the first goal went in. The devastation was far from over…
Worryingly the Basque manager prepared two substitutions as his side conceded a second goal on the hour mark. Before his introductions could come on, Chelsea were awarded a penalty five minutes after their second goal.
Eden Hazard netted his sides third, the contest all but over.
Three goals down, Arsenal were thrown a lifeline by one of Emery’s changes. Alex Iwobi scored with an incredible strike from outside the box, but an impossible comeback could not be sustained. Three minutes later, Chelsea scored their fourth goal to strip Arsenal of any hope which remained.
Dejected, a glum look crossed Emery’s face as he stared at the ground. Fingers touched his forehead in a gesture of miserable defeat.
A disastrous second half to a game which in the build-up, was labelled by some as Arsenal’s biggest and most important game of the decade.
Twenty painful minutes played out, as a frustrated Mesut Özil swore, “You are not a coach.” Taken off on the seventy-seventh minute mark, Özil’s accusations signalled Emery’s eventual undoing.
The loss in the final became a turning point as players and fans seemed to lose faith and hope in Emery’s reign immediately afterwards.
Once as Valencia manager, Emery had said, “What I want most,” following an embarrassing 6-3 home defeat against Real Madrid, “is to hide and disappear for three days, for nobody to see me, for them to forget me.”
As he picked up his runners up medal, Emery must have wished the ground would swallow him whole. Both opportunities to qualify for the Champions League, through a European Final and a spot in the Premier League’s top four were squandered.
To conclude his first season, in the shadow of the final’s aftermath, Emery held a meeting with each player. Back in London, every player as reported by The Guardian, attended except Mesut Özil. A nightmarish night in Baku tarnished Emery’s first season in charge. Now, his second season began.
Hard to Replace any Legendary Manager – First Season Evaluation.
Arsène Wenger’s successor would always be in a problematic position.
Arsenal’s squad needed a reshuffle. From a decision on Aaron Ramsey’s contract extension to the dead wood which needed to be uprooted, a lot was required from Emery.
Whether or not to re-sign the talented but injury prone Jack Wilshere was one of his first decisions. Emery opted against re-signing Wilshere as the midfielder did not suit his plans.
Lucas Perez, Chuba Akpom, David Ospina, Jack Wilshere, Jeff Reine-Adélaïde, Krystian Bielik and Joel Campbell all departed among others.
Wilshere revealed, “He said to me: ‘If I was you I would leave, you’re not in my starting XI’.” Chuba Akpom said, “I spoke to Unai Emery,” before a similar notice was issued. “He just said that there’s a lot of strikers and it would be hard for him to give me game time, which I respected.”
Joel Campbell received a similar message, “Emery had other plans for me. He had his team, his players and he told me in the most respectful way that he did not count on me, that it was best to find a new team. and I made the decision to join Frosinone.”
Allegedly Emery was keen to sell Shkodran Mustafi, in addition to allowing Reiss Nelson and Calum Chambers to be loaned out.
Numerous senior players would later leave in between the end of Emery’s first season and his second season.
Club Captain Laurent Koscielny, Nacho Monreal who was a leader in the squad, the experienced and versatile Danny Welbeck, veteran and leader Petr Čech, Aaron Ramsey who was one of the best players in the squad and Alex Iwobi who had played an astonishing fifty-one games in Emery’s first season.
With a limited budget and aging players, Unai Emery led Arsenal through a season filled with ups and downs. Defeat in the Europa League Final did not dent the Arsenal board’s faith in their manager.
Raul Sanllehi, the Head of Football at Arsenal even contemplated offering Emery a renewed contract before his second season in charge.
Former Arsenal manager and legend George Graham said post Europa League final, “For me, I think it’s been a good season,” before he stated, “If they’d have won the Europa League it would have been very good. The top six was a possibility, and they got that, but to be in the top four would have been an excellent season.”
It would always be hard to replace a legendary manager and George Graham touched on the matter, “When Arsene left, whoever was going to take over, they had a big job.”
“And it’s still a big job. There’s a lot to be done at the club.”
Unai Emery had done for the most part, a commendable job in his first season. Months later, he would reflect on his first season.
“Last year we had a good season, reaching the final of the Europa League and getting to the final weeks of the season with a chance of finishing in the top four – which is the objective, to get into the Champions League.”
Transfer Window – Failed Targets and Leaders
Arsenal’s Champions League aspirations went up in flames. Torched by Wilfred Zaha, the dynamic forward brushed by Shkodran Mustafi with ease. As Zaha speed by, he scored his side’s second goal.
On a sunny April afternoon in 2019, Crystal Palace stubbornly dented Arsenal’s Champions League dreams. Zaha’s imperious display that day, convinced Unai Emery to pursue the high-flying star.
Zaha formed a triumvirate of talented targets eyed by the Spaniard. Alongside Harry Maguire and Atlético Madrid’s Thomas Partey, Emery intentions were to reinforce Arsenal’s spine with three high quality acquisitions.
In May of 2019, he visited the Estadi Ciutat de València. In attendance for a match between Atlético Madrid and Levante, he personally scouted his primary midfield target. Thomas Partey.
Convinced of the Ghanaian midfielder’s quality, Emery was eager to sign him. Likewise, he hoped to sign Leicester City’s Harry Maguire. An English defender with a high reputation, Maguire was sought after by both Manchester City and Manchester United at the time.
Arsenal’s funds proved tight however. By a cruel twist of fate, Emery was denied each of his targets.
Forced to settle for a cut price David Luiz, the former Paris Saint Germain coach watched as Arsenal were unable to afford both Thomas Partey and Wilfred Zaha.
Emery has since revealed, “I favoured someone who knew the league and wouldn’t need to adapt. Zaha won games on his own: Tottenham, Manchester City, us. Incredible performances.”
Emery communicated his desire to sign Zaha to the Arsenal board, “I told them: ‘This is the player I know and want.’ I met Zaha and he wanted to come.”
Arsenal’s board and their manager shared different views on the matter, which resulted in Arsenal signing another Ivory Coast international instead. “The club decided Pépé was one for the future. I said: ‘Yes, but we need to win now and this lad wins games.’ He beat us on his own.”
Crystal Palace demanded a king’s ransom for Zaha. Which Emery acknowledged. “It’s also true he was expensive and Palace didn’t want to sell,” Overruled by the Arsenal board, Emery had one final comment to make on the Zaha saga.
“There were a series of decisions that had repercussions.”
A disturbing reflection of Arsenal’s transfer window for the 2019/20 season. Club Captain Laurent Koscielny left, Petr Čech retired, Nacho Monreal would leave later in the window and Aaron Ramsey had already joined Juventus.
Four experienced players and leaders were let go, and none were replaced. As the club lost a significant number of their Captain’s group, the squad was left devoid of leadership.
Since the devastation of his departure, Emery recalled the loss of his four dressing room leaders, in an interview with The Guardian.
“Ramsey had decided he was going. It would have been better for the team if he had continued, and for me. Petr Cech was retiring; fine. But I wanted Laurent Koscielny to stay, Nacho Monreal to stay. All those leaders went, which makes the dressing room something else.”
A magician on the pitch, Özil was an insanely talented Arsenal player but often inconsistent. A world cup winner, the attacking midfielder possessed a tendency to alternate between incredible performances to then being known for, “going missing in games.”
When Unai Emery was first appointed, former Arsenal striker Alan Smith told the Express: “There have been times in recent years when Ozil seems to have switched off and lost the ball, and the team have lost the ball and the team have suffered.”
“It’s going to be fascinating how Emery deals with that. Ozil is a player who signed for fortunes and he is expected to play. That is going to be one of the most interesting things to watch. How is Ozil going to fit in with the new regime?”
If Emery was to succeed at Arsenal, clearly, he would have to bring the best out of Arsenal’s star player. “Emery has to get hold of Ozil, try to get the best out of him, get him on board.”
Emery’s methods to install discipline in Özil, did not have the desired effects. The pair could never see eye to eye, as their strained relationship formed an albatross around the Spaniard’s neck during his stint in North London.
From his physicality and controversial work rate, to tactical reasons, Özil would be mysteriously benched or left out of matchday squads.
Failure to connect with one of his biggest stars, lead to frequent clashes. Substituted in an away game, Özil rejected his coach’s handshake as he threw his gloves on the pitch side turf in frustration.
After the playmaker was dropped for another away fixture against West Ham, Emery made it clear he would not afford Özil any star treatment. Despite being fully fit and training throughout the week in preparation for the match, he was not included in Arsenal’s matchday squad.
“For me he is like another player,” Emery said afterwards, “It’s one decision, when one player is coming or not coming. Sometimes he is helping us, at other moments he is not helping us because of his injury or because maybe the match is not for him. But he is a good player.”
Further fallout between the pair, resulted in a January incident where Emery communicated to Arsenal’s attacking midfielder, he was free to leave.
David Ornstein of the BBC said at the time, “They’re not just rumours. Unai Emery has suggested to Mesut Ozil that it would be best for him to leave the club. And the hierarchy of the club feels that they would like him to move on.”
At odds, Özil stayed and won back his place in Emery’s team. Their relationship had been repaired but more problems soon arose.
In the end of season Europa League Final, an angered and disappointed Özil accused Emery of not being a coach after being substituted off in a one-sided match.
A good preseason was shared between the two, however Özil’s season was delayed by a carjacking attempt. Once resolved, the playmaker struggled for game time in the early stages of Emery’s second season.
Absent from the Europa League squad against Standard Liege, Emery revealed the reasons behind Özil’s matchday exile.
“I am thinking every time to decide the best players for each match and the best players in the squad to play and to help us,” Emery stated. “When I decided he shouldn’t be in the squad it’s because I think other players deserved it more.”
Towards the end of Emery’s reign, Özil was filmed in a training disagreement with Emery. Within hours, he posted a picture of himself, mouth wide open in laughter accompanied with the cryptic caption, “You make me laugh…”
At the time, Özil had only played twice all season. Days prior, in an exclusive interview with The Athletic, he had admitted to not seeing eye to eye with his manager.
“I’ve worked under some of the biggest coaches in the world — Arsene, Jose Mourinho, Joachim Low — and always I show respect. It’s the same for Unai. We might not see eye-to-eye on everything but that’s normal, it’s life and it’s the same with my family and friends. You have to accept it and go forward.”
Shortly after, Özil was returned to the Arsenal starting line-up. But it was too little too late, as Emery parted ways with the club. “I spoke a lot with Özil,” were Emery’s words, months after his Arsenal departure.
“He has to be self‑critical too, analyse his attitude and commitment. I tried with all my might to help Özil. Throughout my career, talented players have reached their best level with me. I was always positive, wanting him to play, be involved.”
“In pre-season I told him I wanted to help recover the best Özil. I wanted a high level of participation and commitment in the dressing room. I respected him and thought he could help.”
Emery’s downfall partially stemmed from his treatment of Özil. Some players were afraid to speak up and choose to remain silent, while others stood up for Özil…
Weakness and Confusion Amongst the Dressing Room.
Players in the squad were unhappy with Emery’s treatment of Özil, and of Emery’s repetitive videos. Chiefly comprised of opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, players grew to despise their video sessions as they rebelled against their coach.
Tactical switches from a back three to four defenders, a midfield diamond and an eventual return to three at the back lead to confusion. Emery’s mixed messages, through his navigation of English and constant tactical shifts, resulted in a slide down the league table.
Despite starting Emery’s second campaign with initial victories over Newcastle and Burnley, Arsenal went through a difficult spell.
Points were dropped in four of Arsenal’s next five Premier League games, against Liverpool, Tottenham, Watford, Aston Villa and Manchester United.
Former Captain Laurent Koscielny may have left, but Emery stalled on appointing his replacement. Granit Xhaka was eventually awarded with captaincy, on the 27th of September. Already six matches into the Premier League season, the decision came too late.
As did Emery’s lengthy decision to strip Xhaka of captaincy.
Jeered off the pitch against Crystal Palace by the Emirates faithful, an outraged Granit Xhaka lashed back. He swore, threw the armband on the ground and marched down the tunnel.
The atmosphere around the club grew more volatile with the Xhaka incident. Emery needed to impose his authority, if he was to turn around Arsenal’s season. Again, he delayed his decision. An unpopular figure with the fans, Xhaka was stripped of captaincy more than a week afterwards.
Mesut Özil’s erratic exile, draining video sessions, frequent formation changes, and stalling on naming and then stripping Xhaka of captaincy lead to his authority crumbling.
Arsenal’s players lost faith in their head coach. Emery eventually lost the dressing room, through failing to command it.
To borrow a quote from the intimidating Mike Tyson in Dark Trade, “The leader’s always by himself in a time of doom.” As was Unai Emery.
In his final match as Arsenal manager, fans held signs calling for change, “EMERY OUT – No Tactics. No Formation. Nowhere to hide.” Winless in his last seven games, where did Emery see it all go wrong?
Interviewed by Spanish football journalist Guillem Balague, Emery disclosed everything. “The game against Sheffield United was a bit of a turning point,” he said on the journalist’s YouTube channel.
“In one month everything got broken and we were incapable of winning a game in seven. The tension – which was based on the question we were asking of ‘what’s happening to us?’ – was like a rolling ball that was just getting bigger and bigger.”
“The coach is the first person to come into the spotlight, I have lived this at other clubs but I have managed to conquer it by getting the team back on track.”
“But the truth is that month at Arsenal was terrible.”
In the Europa League group stage, Arsenal struggled immediately after the Sheffield United result. Vitória de Guimarães, their Portuguese opponents, spelled the beginning of the end.
Vitória scored two quickfire goals, as they raced to a surprising 2-1 halftime lead. Boos rang around the Emirates Stadium at halftime. Splashed in blue, a banner displaying “Emery Out”, was captured by the cameras.
Nicolas Pépé was substituted on, and scored two freekicks within the final ten minutes of the match in a dramatic turn around. A late comeback meant Arsenal won 3-2. Nevertheless, it felt an underserved victory. Emery’s job had been saved, no one more aware of this than himself.
Bailed out, his lack of celebration for either of Pépé’s goals was apparent.
Pressure began to build on Emery, as José Mourinho was spotted in attendance for the match. Rumours spread like wildfire, speculating he had dined with Arsenal’s hierarchy, and it was only a matter of time before Emery was sacked.
His future became a big discussion. Like Wenger before him, fans were divided on Emery. Many had already turned on him, as his Arsenal had become a chaotic mess.
“I know I can do better,” were his words after a stalemate against Southampton. A series of losses and draws after the Sheffield United defeat, left Arsenal without a win in six matches.
Lacazette had scored an added time equaliser against Southampton, but his lack of smile or joy, summed up the mood around the club. Muted celebrations signalled how Emery had lost the team. Boos rained down on the Emirates, the fanbase’s support also absent.
Emery’s final game arrived against Eintracht Frankfurt. Two-thirds of the deserted Emirates stadium were empty on the night, a sour end indeed.
Charles Watts, an Arsenal correspondent for Football News site Goal, tweeted, “Yep, no doubt about it. This is the lowest crowd that has ever been in this place for a first-team game. It is empty. 20,000 max.”
Even the away section was abandoned, courtesy of a UEFA ban placed upon Eintracht Frankfurt supporters.
Midway through the match, Emery was instructed to change his jacket in order to comply with UEFA regulations. An incident which summarised how everything had turned ugly for him. Uglier still, was Arsenal’s complete lack of desire or fight.
Emery appeared a defeated figure on the touchline, incapable of turning the tide. Martin Keown, a pundit for the match, had a great deal to say. “Maybe he has taken the team as far as he can,” Keown appropriately suggested.
“We just witnessed an absolute shambles of a performance. The team motivation, the team selection, the performance, the subs, it was dreadful.”
“He seems to have lost the players. The desire has ebbed away. The subs he made – you’ve got Pepe and Lacazette sitting on the bench when you’re trying to get back into the game. Emery might even feel he needs to step aside now. Change was needed under Wenger but now it looks like the club need to go in another direction again. This is relegation form.”
Unai Emery was sacked in late November.
Unaware his eighteen-month spell at the club would draw to a close, Emery arrived for training, as he was accustomed to. His preparation for Arsenal’s next match, did not get underway. Instead, he was called into a meeting, and informed of Arsenal’s decision.
The official club announcement stated, “The decision has been taken due to results and performances not being at the level required.”
Emery said goodbye to each player, not as a collective, but individually. Prominent football journalist Guillem Balague, discussed the finer details with Emery, who mentioned, “And they all came, apart from Lucas Torreira. He couldn’t make it but left us a message.”
“He was receiving a massage at that moment but all the players came. I also got messages from Koscielny and from Welbeck and I thank them all. But now is the time to go home.”
David Luiz admitted in a public tweet, the players had let Emery down, as did Emiliano Martínez. “I’m sorry we let you down, it’s our fault for not performing the right way,” Martínez tweeted.
Bernd Leno was later quoted as saying, “The mentality out on the pitch, I don’t want to say it was a mess, but it was a bit confusing. Everyone was doing different things. We were not a team. Not in the dressing room, not on the pitch and you could see that.”
Hammered by the media and fans who screamed for his sacking, Emery has regrets over the way his time in London ended.
One line in his letter of thanks to Arsenal, reads: “I would have liked nothing more than to have achieved better results for you.”
Arsenal had deteriorated in and around Arsène Wenger’s final years at the club, which Emery recognised. Spanish publication Marca, held an interview with Emery midway through his first season.
In regards to Wenger, Emery mentioned, “I met once with him, and little else. I respect him a lot but no matter how much info he gave me, I had to change things. I told the players: ‘We started at kilometre zero.’ Even now, four months later, I still say it: ‘We are in the beginning!’”
Arsenal’s decline towards the end of Wenger’s previous reign was also discussed, “But over time, only technical quality and offensive freedom were taken care of, and the team lost the defensive structure. What I want is to unite both essences and be more competitive.”
“The Arsenal was in decline. We had to stop it and start climbing.”
Emery did improve Arsenal’s performance, for instance through an improved record against the big six teams in his first season compared to Wenger’s final season. However, he also ultimately oversaw their capitulation.
Emery had taken Arsenal to third in the Premier League and in a strong position to qualify for the Champions League, with only seven matches to go. A home victory over Newcastle United, meant his side sat above Tottenham, Manchester United and Chelsea with two months of football to play.
Yet, after the Newcastle game, Arsenal would lose four out of their next five games, all in the space of one month.
Combined with a draw against Brighton & Hove Albion on the fifth of May, Arsenal’s season which had promised so much under Emery, crumbled to pieces. Pandemonium in the Europa League Final, spelled a disastrous last two months of the season for Emery, tarnishing all Arsenal’s good work beforehand.
His second season at the club would spiral into chaos once more, as he was eventually fired.
“Arsenal was a club on the downward slope for two years when I arrived,” Emery informed France Football. “We stopped this fall and even started to straighten the club with a Europa League final and a fifth place in the championship, only one place behind Tottenham.”
“We had the qualification for the Champions League in hand and it went wrong in the (Europa League) final. But it was a good season and we had the idea to continue this progression.”
Sacked before the New Year, progression did not continue in his second season at the club. “We lost our four captains: Koscielny, Cech, Ramsey and Monreal,” Emery recalled.
“We have missed personalities this season to stay on track. And some stars did not have the right attitude and asked for more than they gave.”
“Given all that, it would have taken more time to successfully transition to the new Arsenal that I wanted.”
Despite his catastrophic end, a final long-term positive of his time with Arsenal, was how he blooded in the youth.
Matteo Guendouzi, Joe Willock, Gabriel Martinelli, Emile Smith Rowe and Eddie Nketiah all received game time and Emery further handed Bukayo Saka, Julio Pleguezuelo, Charlie Gilmour and Zech Medley their debuts.
I am a young writer, focused on producing high quality content. With a love for both journalism and writing, I have a growth mindset, where I strive for continuous improvement. I am also an: Occasional freelancer. Unai Emery Enthusiast. A person of many plans.
Also interested in the psyche, mentality and mental health of players – their motivation, the harmful effects of social media, and how the football world affects them.