How Arsenal (and Man United) are paying the price for approaches that once drew them praise
At the time of this writing, Unai Emery is still the manager of Arsenal.
By the time you read this, he will probably still be the manager of Arsenal. And chances are he survives this international window, usually a professionally perilous time for club managers – never mind that his record in his first 50 games in charge of the Gunners was worse than Arsene Wenger’s last 50, before the Frenchman’s 22-year reign finally ended, to the relief of many of the club’s fans.
Arsenal hasn’t exactly had a quick trigger with its managers. In the estimation of many, Wenger should have been pushed out a full decade earlier than he ultimately was. But the club was built around him, and so going on without the three-time Premier League and seven-time FA Cup-winning manager was a daunting prospect.
A third of the way into Emery’s second season in charge, an underwhelming Arsenal incarnation – in spite of another round of solid transfer investment – sits in sixth place, but an enormous eight points out of fourth place and the all-important Champions League berths. They have taken just two wins from their last 10 games in the league, opposite four losses.
After Saturday’s hapless 2-0 defeat at Leicester City, the home fans sang the often prescient “You’re getting sacked in the morning” ditty at Emery, a three-time Europa League winner with Sevilla and conqueror of France’s domestic treble with Paris Saint-Germain just two seasons ago.
Worse still, Emery has been getting the dreaded vote of confidence from various people at his own club, suggesting his position is sufficiently shaky to require such reassurances. “We firmly believe Unai is the right man for the job,” Arsenal maintains.
“He has been brilliant,” defender Kieran Tierney told FourFourTwo.
The Telegraph reports that Arsenal isn’t yet considering Emery’s position and that the club is sensitive to several odd incidents that have further complicated a difficult season: captain Granit Xhaka’s high-profile falling out with the fans; the attempted robbery and subsequent threats to Mesut Ozil and Sead Kolasinac.
Yet no matter what’s said publicly, or indeed privately, Emery evidently feels the pressure as rumors of Jose Mourinho or Luis Enrique imminently replacing him roar on around him. “I am the coach,” he actually felt compelled to point out a recent press conference, after a draw with little Vitória S.C. And, well, if you have to say it …
You might argue that Emery, in a strange way, is a victim of how long the club allowed Wenger to hang around, even though he owes his job to Wenger’s quasi-retirement. Because for those two decades and change, Wenger was Arsenal, making the decisions and clinging onto near-total control. This strongman model doesn’t suit the modern game, when handling the Byzantine transfer market alone has become the purview of an entire team of people, rather than a side gig for a field coach. That’s how it’s done now. But at Arsenal, such a setup is still new and has been through several false starts, like the ballyhooed arrival of highly touted head of recruitment Sven Mislintat from Borussia Dortmund, only for him to leave within two years.
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It all echoes strangely from Manchester United’s situation, where the club’s performances similarly fell off a cliff after Sir Alex Ferguson’s 27-year reign ended. No United manager has succeeded since his retirement in 2013 as the club has backslid into an outfit glad just to make the Champions League. There, too, the departure of a do-it-all manager created an existential crisis where the club wasn’t entirely sure what it was anymore when that man left.
Emery is clearly a good manager. He won Almeria its first-ever promotion to La Liga. He placed third with a cash-strapped Valencia three times. And then there were the aforementioned trophies with Sevilla and PSG. He didn’t just stop being a good manager when he arrived in North London.
Just as David Moyes and Luis van Gaal and Mourinho didn’t stop being good managers at United, even as things went sour on them.
It’s just that fundamentally changing a club’s structure isn’t the manager’s job. And when the front office above him doesn’t quite work, or doesn’t really exist in any meaningful way, it’s hard to succeed on a consistent basis. Soccer is more complicated now. The money is bigger, the margins smaller. Recruitment is very much a science now, not just your manager watching a few tapes and then scouting some games before signing a player. Arsenal didn’t hire Edu as its first-ever technical director until this past summer. Head of football Raul Sanllehi has been in his current position for all of a year.
And it is now almost universally true, at Arsenal and United and everywhere else, that if a club’s organizational structure isn’t right, it really doesn’t much matter who your manager is.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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