Unai Emery Has the Feel of a Dead Man Walking at Arsenal

Unai Emery

Unai Emery had started life in England rather well. He was a charming and polite man who had Arsenal fighting for fourth spot and a UEFA Europa League trophy. The season unravelled quite poorly for the Gunners but many would have praised Emery for steadying the ship after Arsene Wenger’s departure. This season, however, the progress has stalled and the Spaniard faces some serious questions about his future.

Unai Emery a Dead Man Walking at Arsenal

Ego Problems

Emery always struggled to handle the bigger egos. At Paris Saint-Germain, the players were running the asylum. Their influence was so great that they managed to change out of Emery’s preferred 4-2-3-1 to play 4-3-3. He is a coach who is limited on self-confidence and that can be a problem in the top jobs. If something goes wrong, a manager has to be able to convince his players to keep with him.

Perhaps that is why he adopts a conservative approach to matches. Arsenal have the ability to be hitting three goals a game with the likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, Nicolas Pepe and Mesut Ozil at their disposal. Unfortunately, Emery rarely plays the quartet and often prefers to play just two of these attacking marvels. The Gunners have one of the league’s best-attacking forces and a rather mediocre defence; it surely makes sense to play to those attacking strengths, even if it is in detriment to their defensive play. This is why many fans are frustrated with Ozil’s absences.


The Mesut Ozil conundrum is a fault of the board and has put Emery in a tough position. The German is on a contract that is worth £350,000-per-week which limits what Arsenal can offer incoming players. Aaron Ramsey left on a free transfer because the Gunners could not afford to sanction his wage demands. For that kind of money, Emery will feel that Ozil should be putting in seven out of ten performances, as a minimum, every single week. Otherwise, the manager would probably like to free up some funds to strengthen his squad in other areas.

Unfortunately, Arsenal are lacking in midfield creativity and Emery has set his team up with three defensive-midfield players. This has left the front players desperately short of quality and has had the fans calling for Ozil to return. Soon enough, Ozil was back in the fold for the 1-1 draw against Wolverhampton Wanderers. This demonstrates that Ozil has the power over his manager because Emery has reluctantly turned to the 31-year-old German in his hour of need. Just like the Granit Xhaka situation, it seems that Emery’s handling has been misguided.

Xhaka Troubles

Granit Xhaka was exiled from the match-day squad against Wolves. The Swiss international was clearly furious with the Arsenal fans who booed him off the pitch against Crystal Palace and later took to social media to explain that reaction. That explanation seemed to help build a bridge between himself and many of the Arsenal fans so his exclusion from the squad seemed strange. Now there is an extension to the narrative. How long will Xhaka be away from the squad? What does this do to build bridges between the player and the fans? Will he remain club captain? What does this do to his relationship with Emery? Emery hasn’t answered any questions, he’s only making more of them. A strong manager would take a firm stance.

Tactical Blurring

Tactically, it’s very difficult to see beyond the surface. Fundamentally, Unai Emery wants to play out from the back at every available opportunity but he also wants to maintain a rigid shape when his team are defending. This is a little paradoxical in itself because playing out from the back is choosing risk over reward but the caution is there for all to see. It is as though he wants to play in the style of a Pep Guardiola team but has these inner anxieties that prevent him from fully releasing the shackles.

If it goes wrong, his team could lose by three or four and Emery simply never wants to take that chance. It leaves the Gunners at a crossroads. They pretend to play like an elite team but lack the conviction to fully do it. If Emery cannot find peace in his own mind then he cannot take this team forward.

Past Success

Emery did relatively well when the pressure wasn’t there. At Lorca and Almeria, he overachieved. He took Lorca to the Spanish second division for the first time in their history; they finished fifth in the second tier but were relegated after Emery left to join Almeria. He guided Almeria to La Liga for the first time in their history and managed to take them to eighth in that season. This is before his more notorious successes with Valencia and Sevilla.

It seems that there is a barometer with Emery. He is a very capable coach with a humble squad that want to learn. His style of play will require 100% commitment because he doesn’t necessarily have the authority to be able to convince the doubters. At smaller clubs, there is less ego and less room for doubt. Sevilla and Valencia are big clubs, of course, but perhaps they lack the financially driven egotism that much of Europe’s elite are drowned in.

Realities Aren’t Positive

Unai Emery began his Arsenal reign in a promising manner. He had a few shaky initial results but soon went on a long unbeaten run and his players were demonstrating a lot of promise. Good football, lots of energy and the potential for more was obvious. This season has been very different. He has received some serious financial backing in the summer but the team appears to be going backwards. There are small fires that are getting bigger and the bleak result of Emery’s future just seems to be getting more and more inevitable.

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