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  • Unai Emery has experience faring well facing bigger-spending clubs, and while his PSG tenure had mixed results, he could fit what Arsenal is looking for–which could say more about the club's ambition than the manager himself.
By Jonathan Wilson
May 22, 2018

If you’re in the Europa League, perhaps it makes sense to appoint a Europa League specialist. Arsenal’s pivot away from Mikel Arteta to name Unai Emery as the successor to Arsene Wenger has come as a surprise, but the 46-year-old did win Europe’s secondary tournament three seasons in a row at Sevilla before his uneven spell at Paris Saint-Germain. That will be taken by many as an indication of Arsenal settling for second-best, but a more generous interpretation is that Emery remains one of Europe’s brightest emerging managers, and that to write him off on the basis of what happened in Paris is to ignore the unique difficulties of handling that club.

Certainly hiring Emery seems less of a gamble than Arteta, who, while he was a very fine player and comes highly recommended by Pep Guardiola after the pair worked together at Manchester City, has no front-line managerial experience. That difference in experience appears to have been the deciding factor between the two options, although at this stage the process of how the decision was made remains the most intriguing aspect of the whole affair.

Arteta spoke to the club last week and apparently believed he had the job. Wenger, too, seemed to think he would be replaced by the midfielder he had signed in 2011. Perhaps chief executive Ivan Gazidis, weighing his options, simply decided that a 36-year-old with no previous managerial experience was too much of a risk, but the bigger factor may be the comment from an Arsenal official that Emery is happy to work within the management structure at the club. He is, after all, somebody who thrived working on a budget under a sporting director at Sevilla. It may be that with Sven Mislintat and Raul Sanllehi installed as directors of recruitment and a stated budget for player acquisition of £50 million, the situation is not so different to that Emery faced there.

After all, in the present market £50 million represents no more than a decent fullback, and this is an Arsenal squad that requires significant reshaping. Perhaps that figure has been offered as subterfuge–nothing drives up process quite like the knowledge that the buying club has a fortune to shell out–but everything that has happened since Stan Kroenke became majority shareholder suggests that the main aim is merely to keep it ticking over, making a profit for the smallest possible outlay. Consistently finishing fourth and so qualifying for the Champions League has always seemed to matter more than gambling to try to close the gap at the top of the table.

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But that should not be taken to mean that Emery is in anyway second rate. He significantly overachieved at Sevilla, and nobody doubts his drive or ambition. He is flexible and pragmatic, but what will certainly change at Arsenal is the relaxed attitude to positioning that existed under Wenger. That was the sadness of those repeated Champions League exits to Barcelona. It often felt that Arsenal was not so much technically outclassed as just it was not as organized. Emery will work relentlessly on that. He uses videos so much that winger Joaquin, whom Emery coached at Valencia, once observed that he’d run out of popcorn. If you don’t have the resources, discipline and shape are a way of making up the shortfall.

Emery was born into football. His father and grandfather were both goalkeepers who played professionally. Like his uncle, Emery was a midfielder. He came through at Real Sociedad but managed only five starts in the first team before being sold to Toledo in the second division. He never got back into the top flight, and he was in the third division with Real Lorca when he suffered a knee injury that ended his career at 32. He was offered the vacant coaching position there and immediately led the club to promotion.

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He left for Almeria before getting his big break with Valencia in 2008. Los Che had severe financial problems, but Emery led them to sixth and three third-place finishes before joining Spartak Moscow in 2012. He barely lasted half a season in Russia, though, and was soon back in Spain with Sevilla where he finished fifth, fifth and seventh but, more impressively, won the Europa League each season. His level of consistency there and at Valencia is remarkable.

PSG was a different story. To fail to win the league in 2016-17 given its resources is a striking failure, and the squandering of a 4-0 first-leg lead against Barcelona in the Champions League will haunt him. Although the league title followed this season, PSG was convincingly beaten by Real Madrid in the last 16 of the Champions League–and there that qualifies as a sub-par season. But PSG is a club like no other, a platoon of egos unchallenged at home and so unable to challenge abroad.

At Arsenal, the tests will be far more regular. Emery knows what it is to look up and see above you clubs with far greater spending power. And that perhaps is the worry for Arsenal fans: for all Emery’s talent and dedication, has he been appointed to get good results in the Europa League?

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