The 49 Steps
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The 49 Steps

Possible Unai Emery Reunion Stirs Up Needless Arsenal Resentment

Unai Emery was a disappointment as Arsenal manager, but why all the hate? El Maestro is potentially looming in the UEFA Europa League after Arsenal were drawn against Slavia Prague in the last eight on Friday.

Mikel Arteta’s team won’t find the first tie easy, just like Emery’s Villarreal won’t get a cushy ride from Tottenham’s conquerors Dinamo Zagreb (you little beauties!). You’d still fancy both Arsenal and the Yellow Submarine to progress though, and there’s no doubt a reunion with Emery for a place in the final, possibly against Manchester United, is a tantalising prospect.

What it shouldn’t be is encouragement for Arsenal fans to vent needless and baseless resentment against a manager who scarcely deserves it. Don’t get me wrong, Emery’s tenure was far from enjoyable, and saw the club dragged to some painful lows.

Yet all it came down to was a poor fit between manager, sorry head coach, and team, between man and the language barrier. Let’s not pretend as though Emery was on some sort of deliberate sabotage mission to bring down the house that Arsene Wenger built.

You have to admit, there would be no sweeter way to win a trophy than beating Emery in the semi-final and Man Utd in the final.

- Lewis (@LGAmbrose) March 19, 2021

Beating Emery en route to the final would only be “sweet” if he was an enemy of some kind. Please. Do me a flavour. Unai was not to my tastes philosophically. Going from Wengerball, even the dying embers of it, to Emeryball was the classic journey from the big house to the out horse.

Sure, there were moments of footballing pyrotechnics on Emery’s watch. The 5–1 drubbing of Fulham at Craven Cottage. Mesut Ozil’s masterclass to help beat Leicester 3–1 at the Emirates. Liquid football poured onto the pitch directly from a heavenly spout.

Those were outliers though. In fact, I defy anybody to convince me those weren’t the last holdovers from the Wenger era. Many of his players, including Ozil, Aaron Ramsey, and Hector Bellerin, inspired those performances, and the slick one-and-two-touch stuff was vintage Wengerball.

Emery’s version was something else altogether. The classic Emery-esque performances of the 2018/19 season were 2–0 wins over Chelsea and Napoli on home soil.

Arsenal pressed high up the pitch in a way the team rarely had during over two decades of Wenger’s stewardship. There was relentless running in every area, particularly out wide, where full-backs were repetitively set free on the overlap. The latter is a trait of the Emery era Arsenal have been happy to keep under Arteta. See the reliance on Kieran Tierney’s raiding runs.

Add in some more precision-based set-piece routines, and you have the essence of Emeryball. Pressure in every area without possession and maximum efficiency when taking chances. A colder, more rote way of playing than Wenger’s free-form jazz, but just effective when done right.

Arsenal got it right against Chelsea and particularly vs. Napoli. The latter were brushed aside 3–0 on aggregate in the Europa League quarter-final. It looked like a sticky draw given Napoli’s talent. Dries Mertens, Lorenzo Insigne, Kalidou Koulibaly. Carlo Ancelotti in the dugout. Arsenal played things brilliantly on Emery’s watch, though, perfectly managing a difficult European two-legger in a way rarely seen under Wenger.

Perhaps Emery’s preternatural grip on the Europa League is why so many Arsenal fans are getting chippy at the prospect of seeing him again. Fear often promotes some strange responses.

Unai Emery has managed in 20 two-legged knockout ties in the Europa League since 2012, across three different clubs. He has won all 20 of those knockout ties.

- Colin Millar (@Millar_Colin) March 19, 2021

Arteta isn’t likely to have much fear. Sunday’s 2–1 win over Spurs in the derby continued a decent (no more) run of results against the so-called bigger sides during his tenure.

Mikel Arteta has now defeated every team in the Premier league ‘Big 6.’

✅Liverpool x3
✅Manchester United x2
✅Chelsea x2
✅Manchester City x1
✅Tottenham x1

Youngest manager in the league.

- The Arsenal Review (@thearsreview) March 14, 2021

Of course, context is king here. It’s important to note two of the wins over Liverpool came out of the Premier League environment, while Arteta’s lone victory over Manchester City was in last season’s FA Cup semi-final. Never a bad place to get a win, but league form and talent disparity count for naught in a knockout format.

It’s also worth remembering how a lot of the so-called big six sides have struggled during his time in charge. Arsenal certainly played United, Chelsea, and Spurs at the right times this season.

There’s still no denying Arteta has improved Arsenal’s dire run in games of this sort. Where his problems have occurred is against the apparent lesser lights. Take Thursday’s 1–0 defeat at home to Olympiacos as a prime example.

It wasn’t enough to send Arsenal packing from the Europa League, but the tie became fraught with way more peril than it should have been. An inability to take chances made life more difficult, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang worryingly profligate.

Auba’s struggles were symptomatic of a growing concern for Arsenal. Namely, inefficiency in the final third. It’s the antithesis of how things were under Emery, who managed to get both Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette firing in a working partnership.

Coaxing prolific form from his strikers has been a staple of Emery’s managerial career, something he’s continued at Villarreal:

FT: 💛Villarreal 2–0 Dynamo Kyiv (4–0 aggregate)

Villarreal make light work of reaching the quarter-finals, courtesy of a fantastic Gerard Moreno brace (his 3rd in his last 10 games!) 🔥

Are Unai Emery’s men now favourites to win the competition? 🏆#LLL

- La Liga Lowdown 🧡🇪🇸⚽️ (@LaLigaLowdown) March 18, 2021

Arteta will count on diffusing Emery’s high-intensity game and rendering it into something Arsenal fans became painfully familiar with during the Autumn and early winter of 2019. Emeryball is ponderous and unimaginative when its basic tenets fail to work.

He ultimately failed to get those things to work often enough, even if circumstances hardly helped. Emery arrived at Arsenal as Wenger’s immediate successor, an unenviable task made harder by the convoluted power structure erected above him.

Ivan Gazidis gave authority over recruitment to Sven Mislintat and Raul Sanllehi. It didn’t seem to matter to Gazidis, who soon fucked off to count a lot of dollars at AC Milan, that both had polar opposite views on how to do the job.

No matter whether Mislintat’s data-driven scouting or Sanllehi’s contacts pipeline held sway, Emery was the loser. He wanted Wilfried Zaha but was given Nicolas Pepe. He didn’t want Denis Suarez on loan but was given him anyway. Emery had scouted Djene Dakonam and Pau Torres, the latter of whom he now coaches, to solve Arsenal’s centre-back problem. He was given David Luiz.

This is not an attempt to absolve Emery of blame, but he was put in a position where his job depended on players he didn’t necessarily want. His authority was undermined from the jump when he was named “head coach” (shite) instead of manager.

Contrast that with Arteta, who has enjoyed the restoration of the manager title, as well as the power and influence that go with it. He has a strong say in all matters related to recruitment, alongside technical director Edu (I AM INVINCIBLE!). So you know who to blame for Willian, but also who to credit for Martin Odegaard.

Emery enjoyed no such luxury. He was also on a hiding to nothing because he never mastered the lingo. Emery’s English wasn’t of the pigeon variety. It was more straight from the Joey Tribbiani School of Languages. You’d have better luck asking the pigeon for an answer.

Crisp communication is perhaps the most important weapon in a manager’s armoury. How can he expect players to go along with his ideas if they can’t understand them? There’s no way to justify difficult decisions to a dressing room full of questioning glances if the explanations keep getting lost in translation.

Emery was doomed to fail and he duly did, although it’s even worth applying some context to those failings. He finished 5th his first season, not too shabby when compared with Arteta’s 8th placed finish last season or his team sitting 10th over two-thirds of the way through this campaign.

Unai also earned some credit by taking Arsenal to the Europa League final, the club’s first showpiece European occasion since 2006. Losing 4–1 to Chelsea pissed on a lot of that credit, but there was still reason to believe Emery’s position was relatively secure.

He was sacked by the end of November the following season. Arsenal were winless in seven games across all competitions and eight points adrift of the top four in the league. A drab run, no doubt, but consider Arsenal’s form under Arteta this season before Boxing Day’s 3–1 win over Chelsea: P28, W12, D5, L11 37 scored, 29 allowed.

There’s no way Arteta survives a run like that during a season when fans were allowed in stadiums. No way, no how. Emery’s fate had likely already been sealed even before the ax fell, but it still surprises me how he’s disdained by many Arsenal fans as public enemy №1, yet Arteta’s reputation goes from strength to strength even while his team stays in mid-table.

The best reason to go sour on Emery will be if he ends Arsenal’s Europa campaign. For that to happen, both managers must first negotiate tricky ties in the quarter-final.

Slavia Prague have already proved they are no mugs by seeing off Steven Gerrard’s SPL champions Rangers. Slavia’s 2–0 win in Glasgow has been marred by accusations of racial abuse directed at Rangers’ midfielder Glen Kamara, accusations Slavia deny, but the Ibrox club insists demand UEFA action.

Arteta can’t focus on the outcome of this standoff. He’ll have to concern himself with breaking down a rugged team that’s committed the most fouls, 165, in the tournament. Odegaard, Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe beware.

Emery will be moving counters around trying to design a plan to stymie a Dinamo side that thoroughly outclassed Spurs. Villarreal will be more resilient after seeing off RB Salzburg and Dynamo Kyiv.

If Arsenal see Emery again, the motivation should be solely to reach the final and put what happened against Chelsea right. There’s isn’t some stored-up conflict that exists between Arsenal and Emery. It just isn’t there.

Originally published at on March 19, 2021.



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James Dudko

James Dudko

Films, Footie and Gridiron, with the emphasis on Arsenal, NFL history and analysis of cinema from years past.