Unai Emery v Mikel Arteta: An Argument With Few Winners

Emery v Mikel Arteta

If you are a football fan with any sort of access to the internet, it is likely that you will have seen the Unai Emery v Mikel Arteta debate come up on a number of occasions. This could have included anything from arbitrary statistics, tangential talk of ‘philosophy’, or using either of these facets to prove some kind of ‘hypocrisy’ against either manager from the press; a favourite tactic of the social media masses.

It is not groundbreaking to point out the asininity of the coverage which surrounds Arsenal, but the point still stands that to examine their performances requires some level of context and balance. If one does want to go into detail, however, neither party emerges in a particularly favourable light.

Unai Emery v Mikel Arteta: An Argument With Very Few Winners

Unai Emery v Mikel Arteta: A Case for Unai Emery

Arsenal’s 3-0 win at Sheffield United on Sunday was Mikel Arteta’s 51st Premier League game in charge; the same number of league matches that Emery managed with the club. Arteta’s record reads 22 wins, 12 draws, and 17 defeats, compared to Emery’s 25 wins, 13 draws, and 13 defeats. On its own, this statistic does not mean very much. Any number of variables can affect a manager’s win percentage at a new club, not least the state the team is in when he takes over. It is unfair, therefore, to compare them solely on results.

Unai Emery took over a team that had just had a pretty disastrous league campaign. At the time, finishing sixth on just 63 points was far below expectations, but it is worth mentioning that the 17/18 team were not as bad as their league position suggested. One cannot excuse their end points tally (even their xG and expected points performances were not much better), but with the right changes, the team had plenty of potential.

A team that manages 47 points out of a possible 57 at home and reaches a European semi-final is not beyond help. To Emery’s credit, the team did tangibly improve on the previous season. They finished one place higher and with an extra seven points, and made a European final to boot.

Despite this, there were already warning signs. Expected goals and especially expected points metrics will never be perfect, but they are very good at indicating unsustainable levels of performance across a season. Arsenal greatly outperformed both of these metrics in 2018-19. This means that the team were possibly even lucky to finish fifth on 70 points, despite having one of the league’s best strikers in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

Further, there were plenty of performances that did not ‘pass the eye test’. The club’s 22-match unbeaten run in all competitions, stretching from August 201 to December 2018, was often held up as an example of progress being made. One could point to several poor quality oppositions whom Arsenal faced in that time, but to borrow a favourite cliché of English football’s chattering classes: “you can only beat what’s in front of you” (preferably said with an all-knowing expression of unearned smugness).

Regardless, there were some worrying performances along the way. Perhaps the most notable of these was an unconvincing 1-0 win over a poor Huddersfield side, where Arsenal fielded one of the most uninspiring starting XIs of the last 20 years.

Later in the season, there were multiple performances that were totally unacceptable. When the team was looking to secure a top-four spot, the consecutive capitulations against Crystal Palace, Wolves, Leicester, and Brighton were embarrassing, and these were followed by a frankly disgraceful 4-1 loss to Chelsea in the Europa League final.

In short, then, one could either argue that Emery was able to get the best out of what was destined to be a mediocre season, or that the mediocrity itself was flattering, which was hardly promising for his future. This argument was rendered irrelevant, as the following season started shambolically and the Spaniard was sacked.

A Case for Mikel Arteta

Mikel Arteta took over in very difficult circumstances to begin the Mikel Arteta v Unai Emery debate. The team were bereft of confidence, motivation, and seemingly any ability to string two passes together. If it hadn’t been for the form of Aubameyang, it is not an exaggeration to say that Arsenal may have been in a relegation fight by December. The team improved under the new manager, but it would’ve been hard not to. Although the season ended with a fine FA Cup win and the team safely treading water in the league, there was one match that was an early indication of how sour things would turn in Arteta’s first full season.

Last season’s Europa League exit to Olympiacos was the first truly unacceptable performance of Mikel Arteta’s reign. The lack of discipline and concentration which allowed for Youssef El-Arabi’s 120th-minute winner has unfortunately become a trademark this season.

Since the FA Cup win last August, these ‘truly unacceptable’ performances have spiralled out of control. These include losses against Aston Villa (twice), Wolves (twice), Tottenham, Liverpool, Burnley and many more in the league, not forgetting the 4-1 embarrassment against Manchester City in the League Cup, and the recent braindead error which brought Slavia Prague back into the ongoing Europa League quarter-final tie.

Such a constant barrage of moments of indiscipline, be they defensive errors, stupid red cards, or simply slips in concentration, cannot be blamed on the players, as it is up to the coach to enforce a level of authority over the players which stops this from happening.

The Verdict

Under Arsène Wenger, it was well-known that Arsenal were prone to moments of ill-discipline too often, but in return, the fans got a brand of exciting football and the real possibility of title challenges, cup runs, and regular Champions League football. With Arteta in charge, all they have had to look forward to is aimless passing, bad results, and a PR machine from sections of the media which would make Saparmurat Niyazov green with envy.

The reality is that neither party comes over well in this discussion. Unai Emery came to Arsenal as an established coach who had already won eight major trophies and left in a cloud of bad results and rumours of not being taken seriously by his players.

Mikel Arteta came to Arsenal as an unproven entity and has emerged with his first major trophy as a coach, but this season has been so poor that his future in football management could be under threat. The fact that Emery, an established, successful coach is being compared to a rookie who can’t keep Arsenal in the top half is embarrassing, but the fact that Arteta is in the same conversation as a manager whose reign ended in disaster should warrant the same feelings of chagrin. There are no winners in the Unai Emery v Mikel Arteta debate.

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