Football Features

Who will replace Unai Emery? Contenders & odds as search for the next permanent Arsenal manager begins

By Mohamed Moallim

How Arsenal could line up under Nuno Espirito Santo

Published: 10:00, 29 November 2019

Unai Emery has overseen his last game in charge of Arsenal.

His appointment, following the resignation of long-serving manager Arsene Wenger in May 2018, was lauded by club owner Stan Kroenke as the capture of a “proven winner”.

With far more experience than Manchester City assistant coach Mikel Arteta – his chief rival candidate for the job at the time – Emery’s background and CV suggested the Gunners’ post-Wenger period would be a lot smoother than what rivals Manchester United experienced after their own legendary manager stepped down.

It was suggested in the latest Squawka Youtube channel video (which you can watch in full above) that Arsenal’s Europa League form might keep the Spanish coach safe. Then they went and lost at home to Eintracht Frankfurt.

After seven games without a win, Emery is gone and Arsenal must find a new permanent manager to relieve interim coach Freddie Ljungberg at some point in the near future.

Pickings can be quite slim at this time of year when it comes to elite managers, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t viable candidates to replace him, each of whom offers a distinct take on one question Emery seems unequipped to answer: what is Arsenal’s best XI?

1. Portuguese panache (Nuno Espirito Santo)

Odds of becoming next permanent Arsenal manager? 4/6, according to BetVictor

If Emery has been criticised for his indecisiveness and sheer lack of understanding when it comes to his preferred formation – and personnel – then the same certainly cannot be said of Nuno Espirito Santo, who is reportedly a contender to replace the Spaniard if he’s sacked, according to BBC Sport.

The current Wolves boss has forged a reputation for his consistency, with his three-man defence the hallmark of his tactical blueprint. He has experimented with some iteration of the system, but by and large, Wolves usually take to the pitch in a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-3.

Emery, on the other hand, seems to flicker between a four-man defence and a three-man backline, utilising each system in very bizarre scenarios. The Spaniard’s cautious 3-4-1-2 against strugglers Southampton on the weekend seemed almost counterproductive.

What Arsenal fans will get with Espirito Santo, though, is clarity. The Portuguese tactician has a distinct identity and direction. If there’s certainty in the dugout, then that will transmit to the players, and hence, a more cohesive side.

He will likely opt for the 3-5-2 with Arsenal, rather than a 3-4-3, simply to try and replicate the Diogo Jota-Raul Jimenez partnership which flourished last season. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette could operate in a similar, almost telepathic role here.

His three-man central midfield will see Matteo Guendouzi take on the Ruben Neves role, tempo-setting and dictating the play, while the Frenchman will likely function alongside Dani Ceballos in a deeper playmaker role, and Lucas Torreira will bring the bite, a la Leander Dendoncker.

As for the floated full-backs, Adama Traore has shone recently on the right flank so there’s no reason Nicolas Pepe cannot adapt his game. Failing that, Hector Bellerin can come in, while Kieran Tierney will occupy the left.

Finally, the three-man defence will most probably consist of Sokratis, David Luiz and Calum Chambers, with Bernd Leno habitually taking his place between the sticks.

2. The Magic Number (Max Allegri)

Odds of becoming next permanent Arsenal manager? 5/1

Emery wasn’t a fixed preference for Arsenal when it came to replacing Wenger. Rather, he was one of eight different coaches interviewed, and among those candidates was Massimiliano Allegri.

The Italian’s reluctance to leave Juventus, where he won a championship every season he managed at the club, and reached two European Cup finals, saw him swiftly ruled out. He’s currently available, though, following a parting of ways earlier this year.

Allegri no doubt is an interesting choice. He has not coached outside Italy, but his previous two jobs with regional powerhouses Juve and AC Milan suggest he can most certainly handle the heat.

But what could he bring? Allegri, rightly or wrongly, is seen as a reactive coach concerned with results over aesthetics. This may not go down well regarding certain sections of the Arsenal fanbase, but he is at least a ‘soft’ Jose Mourinho in this sense.

Tactically, you can’t accuse him of being rigid. During an illustrious five seasons with the Old Lady, the Livorno-born tactician has fielded various formations ranging from 4-4-2 to 3-5-2. It is with the latter Allegri may focus, given the Gunners’ deficiencies at the back.

Towards the end of his tenure in Turin, Allegri yielded major success with his famed three-at-the-back system, which saw Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini form a titanic centre-back trident, culminating in a 2017 Champions League final appearance.

The 3-5-2 formation made Juve one of the hardest defences to break down across Europe, so he will likely apply this same treatment to Arsenal, hoping to resolve their defensive frailties. Sokratis, David Luiz and Rob Holding are perfect candidates for the central defensive roles, with Hector Bellerin and Kieran Tierney operating as wing-backs.

Lucas Torreira, Matteo Guendouzi and Dani Ceballos can cover the centre of the park, with Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang running riot up-front. The France international, a more back-to-goal striker, would link play for his Gabonese counterpart, a la the Dybala-Ronaldo partnership Allegri never managed to perfect with the Old Lady.

This more pragmatic approach will obviously be designed to make Arsenal hard to crack, which they need to become, or they will be in serious danger of falling further away from their fellow top-four chasers.

3. The old enemy (Mauricio Pochettino)

Odds of becoming next permanent Arsenal manager? 6/1

As little as a month ago, absolutely nobody would have predicted this even being remotely possible. Man might walk on Mars and pigs might fly, but Mauricio Pochettino had absolutely no chance of becoming Arsenal manager, right?

Well, the Argentine was brutally sacked by Tottenham recently and immediately replaced by Jose Mourinho, throwing another world-class manager into the talent pool.

Mauricio Pochettino Arsenal

Should he be appointed, Pochettino would make Arsenal tactically flexible and given how much he got out of Son Heung-min at Spurs, would likely get a tune out of club-record signing Nicolas Pepe.

Tottenham conceded the third-lowest number of goals in the Premier League during the last two seasons, while 2016/17 saw them concede a division-low 26 goals in 38 games. You’d have to think that, even with some of the questionable personnel operating along the Gunners’ backline, those defensive woes would be quickly addressed.

Twitter polls are no exact science but a recent vote on Squawka’s Twitter page which, at the time of writing, had been voted on over 11,000 times showed 72% of Arsenal fans would indeed take Pochettino as their next manager.

What do you think, Gooners?

4. Ushering in the ‘Barcajax’ school (Mikel Arteta)

Odds of becoming next permanent Arsenal manager? 10/1

One serious option bandied about during the search for Wenger’s successor was Arteta. The former Gunners captain can today be found as Pep Guardiola’s right-hand man at Manchester City, where he’s no doubt soaking up every lesson from arguably Europe’s premier coach this decade.

Both are two peas from the same pod having graduated from the ‘Barcajax’ school, which Rinus Michels first brought to Barcelona from Amsterdam in the 1970s, before Johan Cruyff took it to another level. This pleasing-to-the-eye approach, when switched on, is largely dependent on the creation of passing triangles and spatial awareness.

For all the flak they’ve been receiving, Arsenal aren’t exactly bereft of technically competent footballers, so they could very well thrive in this system.

Put them in an orthodox (Dutch-esque) 4-3-3 and let us see. Hypothetically speaking, Torreira sits in front of the back-four, with Guendouzi playing alongside Ceballos further up as a No. 6 and No. 8 in tandem. We’d see Aubameyang in the No. 9 role, due to his versatility, and speedy wingers Pepe and Bukayo Saka on the flanks.

Guardiola utilises a near-identical system at City, so Arteta will likely follow suit here. He has previously rejected a move to Arsenal, and does not seem to be in a hurry to reach the limelight, but having gained vital knowledge from Guardiola in the North West, he may feel the time is now right to start his own managerial venture.

5. Return of the King (Patrick Vieira)

Odds of becoming next permanent Arsenal manager? 20/1

With almost 400 appearances, three league titles and three FA Cups under his belt as a player with Arsenal, few players could make as triumphant a return as Patrick Vieira.

The domineering Frenchman has been cutting his managerial teeth over the past few years first in MLS with New York City FC, and now in his homeland with Nice. He has a career win percentage of 41.78% as a manager so far and although he initially expressed a desire to play attacking football when arriving at Nice, he’s shown that he’s far more adaptable than just throwing bodies forward.

His NYCFC side scored 151 goals in 90 games but that was in a league known for its high-scoring games, with transfer rules which make it hard to build elite defences, with many clubs choosing to focus their star talent further up the pitch. As a result, NYCFC conceded 137 goals during that time. Vieira’s Nice team have scored only 53 goals in his 56 games so far, conceding 65.

It’s probably safe to say Vieira still has much to prove if he’s to be considered a future Arsenal manager, but the Gunners do already have some very strong attacking pieces in place. If their former club captain can transfer that defensive solidity from Nice to north London, this could be a dream move.

6. Pragmatism (Rafael Benitez)

Odds of becoming next permanent Arsenal manager? 16/1

Whether it’s winning league titles with Valencia, the Champions League with Liverpool, or simply making Newcastle United competitive on a shoestring budget, Rafael Benitez has shown he’s capable of success in every aspect of top-level football.

Like previous entries in this list, the Spaniard’s brand of pragmatic football and defensive solidity would quickly sort out that leaky Arsenal backline. From there, it’s all down to how much the 59-year-old can get out of the likes of Aubameyang, Lacazette and Pepe without sacrificing that shape at the back.

Given his Liverpool and Chelsea links, Benitez would certainly be a controversial appointment, while his contract in China with Dalian Yifang would make him rather expensive. Still, he offers solutions to Arsenal’s biggest problems and few can question his pedigree.