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Arsenal’s Issues Won’t Be Fixed After Sacking Unai Emery

Replacing the Spaniard with club legend Freddie Ljungberg may appease Gooners in the short term, but the dysfunctions that sank the departing manager predate his short tenure and could persist well into the future

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Unai Emery was set up to fail.

Replacing a legend is difficult under the best of circumstances. When Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013, he handed a title-winning team to his handpicked successor, longtime Everton boss David Moyes, who didn’t even last a full season as the club tumbled from first in the table to seventh. Five years and three more full-time managers later, things have scarcely improved at Old Trafford.

Emery inherited nowhere near that level of infrastructure when he took over Arsenal in the summer of 2018. His predecessor, Arsène Wenger, was not so much bigger than the club as he was synonymous with it, earning enough clout in a stupendously successful first decade in north London that he was able to ride out a consistently disappointing second decade. The game had passed Wenger by, but the prestige he’d built up afforded him the opportunity to preside over the gradual decline of the empire he’d built. Eventually Arsenal dropped out of the Champions League, lagging so far behind England’s elite clubs that it was no longer impolite to force the revered Frenchman to move on.

Wenger left behind a sixth-place club that had only that season recruited a professional front office—director of football Raul Sanllehi and recruitment director Sven Mislintat—and was hemorrhaging players from its core. Arsenal’s best player, Alexis Sánchez, forced a move to Manchester United in January 2018, and longtime stalwarts Theo Walcott, Olivier Giroud, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain also left the club that season. The club held on to playmaker Mesut Ozil with a last-minute contract extension, but one so costly it heaped unbearable expectations onto the temperamental German’s shoulders.

Emery arrived at Arsenal after having won the treble with PSG the year before, and had won acclaim for his work in his native Spain; Emery turned Valencia into the best club outside La Liga’s Real Madrid–Barcelona duopoly, then managed Sevilla to three straight Europa League titles. There were some gaps in his résumé—his spectacular failure to deliver Champions League glory to PSG had been his undoing in France—but Emery seemed like a competent and modern manager, a tested and pragmatic leader capable of rescuing Arsenal from the directionless last days under Wenger. Emery just about met expectations in his first season, finishing fifth in the Premier League and reaching the final of the Europa League, though the road to both results was a vexing mixture of hot streaks and stumbles.

But not long into the 2019-20 campaign, Emery’s Arsenal stumbled into a slide from which it still hasn’t recovered. On Thanksgiving Day, Emery’s Arsenal took a 2-1 loss at home to underdogs Eintracht Frankfurt in a Europa League group-stage fixture, despite leading at halftime. That loss extended Arsenal’s winless streak to seven games, the club’s longest since 1992, and sealed Emery’s fate. Freddie Ljungberg, who spent 10 seasons playing under Wenger, was promoted to interim manager.

Many of the dysfunctions that sank Emery predate the Spaniard’s first days in Arsenal colors, and if Ljungberg’s debut (a 2-2 draw with bottom-feeders Norwich City) is any indication, many of those dysfunctions persist after his departure, and will continue to persist well into the future.

Arsenal didn’t fire Emery for one loss. The defeat to Frankfurt was just the latest in a string of listless and meandering performances plagued by defensive lapses, a trend that dates back to Emery’s first competitive games in charge and, indeed, to the final few seasons of Wenger’s tenure. A rampantly pessimistic fan base left Emirates Stadium half-empty for Emery’s last game, and calling the stands half-full would have been grossly misleading.

The Gunners’ current predicament was foretold in the beginnings of Emery’s tenure. Arsenal’s first two Premier League fixtures after Emery was hired came at home to defending champion Manchester City and away to rivals Chelsea—further evidence that the stars were aligned against Emery from the start. Arsenal lost both, which neither surprised nor bothered most observers, as the Gunners were clearly on a long-term rebuilding project that would reward patience.

But the manner in which they lost those games made headlines. Emery instructed Arsenal’s forwards to press up high and his goalkeeper and defenders to play the ball deliberately out of the back, even under pressure, as is now the expected standard for Europe’s top teams. None of the players involved looked comfortable doing so, drawing into stark relief the necessity that Emery needed to change either his tactics or his players.

The argument was best stated last August by Sky Sports pundits Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville. Carragher said that whatever the long-term goals, Emery needed to be pragmatic about his tactics in the short term until he could bring in players to suit his style. Neville’s counterargument was that if Emery deviated from his desired tactical setup so soon after taking over, it would be difficult to get players to buy in later.

Both of them turned out to be right. Arsenal has achieved its greatest success under managers with a strong sense of tactical identity. Wenger’s formations evolved over the years, but he was synonymous with free-flowing, proactive soccer. George Graham, who won two league titles and four other major trophies in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was as renowned for his stifling defenses as Wenger was for his urbane, creative offense.

Emery’s definitive tactical legacy at Arsenal will not be that his plan failed, it’s that nobody was really sure what his plan was in the first place. His formations changed from game to game, as did his personnel. Ozil shuttled back and forth from central creative fulcrum to forgotten cast-out repeatedly over Emery’s 18-month tenure. Ozil is a frequent scapegoat for fans and pundits because he has sad eyes, makes a ton of money, and isn’t very good defensively, but the yo-yo act Emery put him through turned out to be distressingly typical.

Emery instituted an inscrutable rotating captaincy system until settling on Granit Xhaka, a gifted ball-moving midfielder with a propensity for defensive lapses and rash tackling, on September 27, 2019. Thirty days later, the Emirates Stadium crowd, enraged at the club’s indifferent performance against Crystal Palace, booed Xhaka off the field as he was coming off as a substitute. Xhaka mouthed “Fuck off!” in response, removed his uniform top, and sulked off down the tunnel. Emery benched Xhaka and stripped him of the captaincy. Even in his last game in charge, against Frankfurt, Emery brought on defensive midfielder Lucas Torreira, rather than a forward, with 15 minutes left in a game Arsenal was trailing.

Wenger’s last days were marked by three major problems: a confused and incoherent transfer policy, a series of catastrophic defensive lapses, and a propensity to play down to the level of weaker opponents without playing up to the level of stronger ones. Emery solved none of those problems and in fact exacerbated the latter two.

There are a few bright spots to Emery’s tenure, such as the acquisition and emergence of midfielder Mattéo Guendouzi, hitherto an anonymous teenager playing in the French second division, as a real prospect. Goalkeeper Bernd Leno is another post-Wenger acquisition who’s played well under Emery, as have Torreira, teenage forward Gabriel Martinelli, and (at least in a small sample after returning from hernia surgery in October) young fullback Kieran Tierney.

But Mislintat, Arsenal’s transfer guru, quit the club in February after just 14 months. Much of Arsenal’s current roster construction issues can be traced back to Wenger’s failure to anticipate the end of Sánchez and Ozil’s contracts, leading to a last-minute panic transfer in Sánchez’s case and a last-minute panic extension in Ozil’s. Emery and the new Arsenal front office immediately repeated that mistake by letting marauding midfielder Aaron Ramsey leave for Juventus as a free agent this past summer. Laurent Koscielny, who’d been the defensive rock Wenger built his church on for almost a decade, left for Bordeaux under contentious circumstances.

Arsenal signed two center backs this summer: William Saliba, a teenager who won’t arrive at the club until the summer of 2020, and David Luiz, a decorated and skilled veteran whose history of high-profile defensive mistakes made him unsuited to solve Arsenal’s problems at the back. Arsenal did splash record-setting money on Ivorian forward Nicolas Pépé, who’d dominated Ligue 1 at Lille in 2018-19, but Emery was already struggling to find ways to fit forwards Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang into the same lineup, and with several teenagers breaking through into the first team in that position, Pépé has struggled to find playing time, making him another curious and frustrating tactical problem Emery was unable to solve.

The top four teams in the Premier League qualify for the UEFA Champions League, granting them not only the prestige to pursue top players but also substantial prize money with which to attract them. Emery looked set to qualify for the top four in his first season at Arsenal, but the Gunners lost four of their last seven games to finish one point out of fourth place. They had another chance to qualify by winning the Europa League, a second-tier European tournament, but sleepwalked to a 4-1 loss to Chelsea in the final.

After two wins to start the season, Arsenal has slipped right back into that habit. Arsenal managed only draws against Spurs and Manchester United, two clubs that were undergoing crises of their own. The Gunners blew 2-0 leads against Watford and Palace—the later precipitating Xhaka’s fall from grace—and most recently needed a stoppage-time equalizer to salvage a 2-2 draw at home to 18th-place Southampton, in a game Arsenal could easily have lost by two goals or more.

Really, Emery’s firing has been inevitable since a 2-0 loss to Leicester in early November. Leicester currently sit second in the table, enjoying a remarkable run of success under manager Brendan Rodgers, the former Liverpool and Celtic boss who was rumored to be a candidate to replace Wenger in 2018. The problem is not that Arsenal lost; it’s that Leicester, a club that until its miracle title run in 2016 was relegation fodder, is now so clearly a better team than Arsenal.

That’s not entirely Emery’s fault, and not all the criticism directed at the former Gunners boss is fair. For example, after 18 months in England, Emery never became as comfortable speaking English as some of his contemporaries. Some non-British managers—José Mourinho, Jürgen Klopp, and Roberto Martínez, among others—burnished their reputations while managing in the Premier League because of their easy command of the language and their relentless quotability.

But it’s unfair to expect that of everyone, particularly in a country that, like the United States, is dominated by proudly unilingual Anglophones. The language barrier creates an undeniable obstacle between manager and player, but by no means an insurmountable one. As things went south for Emery, stories emerged about Arsenal players mocking the manager’s accent, or English players receiving instructions through Ljungberg because they couldn’t understand Emery. But no such stories emerged after the sacking of Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino, who achieved much more than his Arsenal counterpart despite taking quite some time to get comfortable working in English. If Emery had managed to exert enough tactical consistency to coax a top-four finish out of his charges, nobody would care that he had to lean on an interpreter or lacked Mourinho’s penchant for incisive one-liners.

But he hasn’t. In the short term, Arsenal has turned to Ljungberg, who’s spent several years coaching in Arsenal’s youth setup. While the former Sweden winger brings substantial physical beauty to the role—he moonlighted as a Calvin Klein model during his playing days—Ljungberg has never managed at the professional level. Joining Ljungberg in the dugout, at least for the time being, is former Arsenal captain Per Mertesacker, who also moved into a youth coaching role at the club after his retirement.

Being as inexperienced as he is, Ljungberg is unlikely to manage the club in anything other than a caretaker capacity. One of the people charged with choosing a permanent manager is technical director Edu, who played alongside Ljungberg on the undefeated Arsenal team of 2003-04. Rodgers and—hilariously—recently deposed Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino are among the list of rumored replacements, as are two other former Arsenal captains: Nice manager Patrick Vieira and Manchester City assistant Mikel Arteta. Arsenal nearly hired Arteta in the summer of 2018 before then–managing director Ivan Gazidis decided on Emery.

It’s become fashionable for high-profile English clubs to hire a beloved former player to manage in a time of crisis. Chelsea’s Frank Lampard took over this summer with the club under a transfer ban and in his first Premier League season has overhauled the club’s roster to prioritize playing time for young prospects; nevertheless, Chelsea is in line to qualify for the Champions League. Contrast that with Manchester United’s Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who after an initial run of success as caretaker manager last season has come crashing back down to earth and is on the verge of being fired himself.

That’s not to say an outsider is a better choice than a beloved ex-player. It’s more evidence that Arsenal’s next permanent manager, whether that’s Ljungberg or whoever else, must have a coherent and consistent strategy for rebuilding the team, and must be in agreement with Sanllehi, Edu, and Gazidis’s successor, Vinai Venkatesham, on how to implement it.

If not, the consequences are clear. With Ljungberg in charge against Norwich, Arsenal conceded two goals thanks to more sloppy transition defense, and needed two goals from Aubameyang to salvage a come-from-behind draw against a weaker opponent. Arsenal fired Emery during a historic winless streak. That streak has since grown even longer, and no plan for salvation has as yet been revealed.