After showing plenty of promise along the way, Arsenal’s first season under Unai Emery ultimately fizzled out.
The man appointed to usher in the post-Arsene Wenger era was always going to have plenty of pressure on his shoulders – the French mastermind won three Premier League titles and seven FA Cups with the north London giants, as well as playing a massive role in changing the levels of professionalism around both Arsenal and English football in general.
Ultimately, the pressure of that looming shadow proved a little too much for Emery, with the Gunners allowing Champions League qualification to slip through their fingers at the final hurdle, both with their fifth-placed Premier League finish and Europa League final embarrassment to Chelsea.
Under normal circumstances at a club of Arsenal’s stature, the pitchforks would be out and the mob lining up for Emery’s head – a quick look at the relationship between Maurizio Sarri and Chelsea supporters is evidence of that. He won a trophy and, yet, still seems to be frantically searching for flights to Turin.
But these aren’t normal circumstances. Manchester United are yet to recover from losing Sir Alex Ferguson after a 27-year reign so it’s only natural to expect some teething problems following Wenger’s exit from a 22-year tenure.
Despite some sub-par performances in the Premier League during his final years at the Emirates, some still see Wenger as a miracle worker. This is a man who managed to guide a side containing Manuel Almunia, Denilson and Nicklas Bendtner to regular top-four finishes and presided over an unbeaten league campaign with Pascal Cygan making 18 appearances at the heart of his defence.
That said, his final two seasons saw Arsenal finish fifth and sixth, slipping out of the Premier League’s top four for the first time since 1995/96 and even a third FA Cup win in four years wasn’t enough to stop the increasing voices of dissent among the club’s fans.
In the cold light of day, Emery was appointed to return Arsenal to the Champions League and secure more much-needed silverware. In both regards, he failed to meet his targets. So, with that in mind, just how much does the Spaniard deserve to be judged?
Sure, he inherited a strike force of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, enough to strike fear into most Premier League and European defences. But on the other hand, he has Granit Xhaka running his midfield, a player who crosses the line between absolutely brilliant and utterly hopeless on a minute-by-minute basis.
And in defence, Laurent Koscielny has been world-class defender over the years but time and injuries are quickly catching up with him. He’s not the defensive bastion he once was. Given their lofty aims, you’d think the powers that be at Arsenal would have given Emery a ‘war chest’ to strengthen these critical areas, but no.
Instead, they failed to spend over £30m on a single player and jury-rigged Sokratis Papastathopoulos into the heart of their defence, as well as completing the bizarre signing of Swiss veteran, Stephan Lichtsteiner. The Greece international has performed admirably but has so far failed to adapt to Emery’s expansive style of football.
“It does need some change, but he will need time. He might even need all next season as well. We shouldn’t really be rushing Unai Emery and Arsenal in respect of what he’s trying to achieve at the club.”
All the while, Chelsea were spending £72m on a goalkeeper, Liverpool £54m on a midfield engine and Man City £61.02m on a back-up winger. The former thrashed Arsenal 4-1 in the Europa League final and pipped them to a top-four spot, while the other two finished 27 and 28 points clear of the Gunners respectively. Tottenham spent absolutely nothing and finished fourth but, apart from that, money well and truly spoke in the Premier League last season.
But if Emery hopes to achieve his aims next time around, he will have to tap into that well of Wenger-esque miracles to do so. Reports suggest the former Sevilla boss is to be handed a mere £40m transfer budget this summer – notwithstanding any player sales. For context, that’s less than Everton spent on Richarlison alone last summer, once add-ons are taken into consideration.
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We at Squawka have already attempted to suggest how Emery could be creative with that shoestring budget – a task which involved extensive use of a calculator and a lot of head scratching – but no matter how many square pegs he forces into round holes, his employers have already left him at a massive disadvantage to his rivals.
Petr Cech has retired and Bernd Leno made the third-highest number of errors leading to shots (6) of any Premier League player last season. The goalkeeping situation could come back to haunt them.
Arsenal’s shortcomings in defence are clear – only Man Utd (54) conceded more than Arsenal’s 51 Premier League goals among the division’s supposed ‘big six’ last season – and their aforementioned centre-backs need upgrading if they wish to match the teams above them. The less said about Shkodran Mustafi, the better.
Somehow, Aaron Ramsey has been allowed to leave for Juventus on a free, leaving a huge creative hole in Emery’s midfield that will certainly need plugging if they have serious designs on a return to the Champions League.
And, finally, there is the lack of options out wide. Alex Iwobi scored a wonderful goal in the Europa League final but the enigmatic Nigeria international is their only natural winger and is unreliable at best.
Even with the return of English youngster Reiss Nelson from his Hoffenheim loan, Arsenal are desperately short in this department. The potential sale of Mesut Ozil could help raise funds here but still, it will be a juggling act for Emery to get the targets he desires.
It’s hard to seriously blame Emery for Arsenal’s failures in 2018/19, given the lack of support he has been given so far. Furthermore, to expect them to simply waltz back into the Premier League’s top four next season would be unfair. The Spanish tactician must be given time if he is to banish the ghost of Wenger and deliver that long-desired era of change in north London.