I have lived through two papal transitions, in 2005 and in 2013. On both occasions, like all the other Catholic faithful I have waited with sheer anticipation for the white smoke to appear atop the Sistine Chapel. It’s usually a period of uncertainty, you just don’t know who’ll emerge on the balcony at St. Peter’s Square after the iconic words – Habemus Papam – are spoken. That’s kind of how I have felt during this post Arsene Wenger transition at Arsenal. White smoke has finally been sighted bellowing above the Emirates. We have a new boss.
By the way, my self-imposed sabbatical from penning of any Arsenal related stories is over. The protest (against Wenger) has outlived its usefulness. Indeed, the Frenchman has managed his last match in charge of The Arsenal and cleared his desk at the club’s London Colney training ground. It’s been a long and difficult road, thank heavens it’s done.
Unai Emery is indeed the new man. The ex-Paris St. Germain head coach apparently was the most impressive of the prospective coaches interviewed by (presumably) a panel of club honchos; Chief Executive Officer Ivan Gazidis, Head of Football Relations Raul Sanllehi and Head of Recruitment Sven Mislintat. Emery is just fresh from leading the Parisian outfit to a domestic treble, on the back of a domestic double last season. That aside, his greatest achievement remains a historic three peat Europa League success with Sevilla (2014-2016). It therefore is fair to say that the 46-year old Spaniard comes to North London with a genuine degree of winning pedigree. That can’t be a bad thing, right?
I’ll be honest. When it became apparent that the main front runners for the job were Luis Enrique, Massimiliano Allegri and Mikel Arteta, I did not imagine there would be a late favourite from outside of the trio. Then again, who really is sure those were indeed the men in the frame for the gong given how guarded Arsenal has been with this piece of recruitment? I thought Arteta would get it, and even more, I was rooting for him. Why? Does it really matter now?
When the club announced Wenger’s departure in April, in the subsequent press conference Gazidis said a lot of things, but what struck me was his talk of the club being bold and brave in replacing the outgoing boss. I loved that. Finally, I reckoned, Arsenal was behaving like the big club it imagines itself to be. But, Ivan Gazidis is one big fat liar, that’s why he’s kept his job for so long. I can never forget how in 2013 he dared to say that Arsenal had seen an ‘escalation in financial power’ that would enable the club compete with the likes of Bayern Munich. That went well, didn’t it? He also has referred himself to as the ‘catalyst for change’ at the club. Spoiler: he’s not, and has never been whatever that is. He’ll need to purchase a new set of pants because Liar Liar, Pants on Fire syndrome, has well and truly caught up with him.
Emery is a ‘safe’ appointment, one that a club like Arsenal would be expected to make. With our current standing in the game as a bona fide Europa League club, it is logical to hire probably the best coach in the competition to lead us in it. That’s exactly what Arsenal has done, which even though is a tad underwhelming, is prudent. Because let’s face it, with rumours of a transfer funds ceiling for this summer being set at £50 million (the sort of amount that the Premier League champions would spend on a left back) the target for next season is at most winning the Europa League and a top four finish. That is the job. Is Emery right for that job? Yes.
For quite a while now we have been accustomed to a very passive bench during games and with literally no tactical preparations whatsoever. It has been agonizing stuff. Emery is the exact opposite. He is obsessed with video analysis and is particularly a stickler for going into fine details, a tendency described in some quarters as ‘Guardiola-like’. For a Guardiolista like me, that’s music to my ears. During games, Emery hardly sits down. He is always pacing up and down, barking instructions, reacting to the game – showing exactly what you want to be seeing from your coach. And yes, it does make a difference. High level football is all about fine margins.
A major area of concern obviously is on Emery’s man-management. His time at PSG proved that he can be a meek general who can at times be overrun by his charges. There were instances when senior members of the squad openly defied him and forced him to abandon his fast transition game for the more possession-obsessive approach that they were used to. At Arsenal it’s often been said that Wenger gave his players too much leeway and this obviously impacted performance. Any new appointment therefore would have its work cut out to get the players disciplined and in check. Who knows how they will take to the new boss?
This was a chance for Arsenal to break with the past, to chart a new bold and brave path and to take great risks with the potential for even greater reward. Apart from a few backroom exits, the club management has pretty much reverted to type in this Emery decision. It is a shame, really. When Pope Saint John Paul II died in 2005 after quite a long time at the helm, the church pretty much decided to play it safe and the College of Cardinals settled on Pope Benedict VI (then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) who had been one of the senior most Vatican officials and in charge of doctrine. It seemed the right thing to do, but as it would turn out, it wasn’t a very inspired idea. He quit in 2013 and was replaced by the much loved and progressive Pope Francis, very much a maverick pick. I’m not insinuating that this will be relived at Arsenal, but it’s a feeling I can’t seem to shake off.
Whatever the concerns though, it is the dawn of a new era, an era we have craved for throughout the better part of the last decade. Welcome to Arsenal, Unai Emery. May the ride be thrilling and exhilarating. Above all, may it glisten with much gold and silverware.