For the first time in a generation, Arsenal are entering the uncharted territory of managerial change going into a season. Following the end of Arsene Wenger’s epic 22-year reign at the club – the second half of which was tainted with a distinct sense of underachievement despite scooping three FA Cups – there’s a new sheriff in town in the shape of Unai Emery.
The Spaniard takes charge of the Gunners following a successful two-year spell at Paris Saint-Germain. There he won the French cup double in his first campaign and the domestic treble in his second and final year. Once you couple that with a 76% win percentage in France – Emery lost just 12 of his 114 games at the club – we’re sure you’ll agree it’s a pretty handsome record.
Of course, it helps when you’re leading one of the richest clubs in world football and taking part in a relatively uncompetitive league. But, shy of the Champions League trophy the ultra-demanding PSG board so desperately crave, it was mission accomplished in the French capital for Emery.
However, what awaits him at the Emirates could very well make or break his reputation in Europe.
It has long been said Arsenal are a perfect project for a new manager to take what is undoubtedly a talented squad with amazing facilities behind them to the next level, something Wenger patently failed to do.
With the club staying loyal to their self-sufficient financial model, there’ll be no multi-hundred-million-pound cash splurge to help climb the table. Instead, progress must be made on the training ground, with a renewed focus on tactical prowess and expertise. The responsibility for this lies at the feet of the new head coach, and his protective halo of novelty will not last long should improvements in this area fail to materialise.
But what are the key challenges that’ll make or break Unai Emery in 2018/19?
First and foremost, he simply must find a way for the Gunners to rejoin the Europe’s top table come May 2019. Following 19 straight years of Champions League qualification under Wenger, this will be the team’s second consecutive year in the Europa League. For a club with Arsenal’s supposed ambition, that’s just not good enough.
This could be achieved with Europa League glory. Emery’s track record in the Europe’s second tier competition – he won three on the spin with Sevilla between 2014 and 2016 – is partly the reason he got the Arsenal gig, so the pressure is on to make that experience count on the continent this season.
Domestically, the Gunners board will also be seeking to crowbar themselves back into what is now a ludicrously competitive top four – something made all the tougher with Jurgen Klopp going full hypocrite and spending money like it’s going out of fashion. In contrast, Emery has helped oversee a more modest £70m spend to augment his new side – though unlocking the potential of what’s already available to him should be his real focus. In short, progress must come directly from how Emery and his coaching team tangibly improve a team that’s finished 5th and 6th in the last two Premier League tables.
Key to this will be whether the Spaniard can get the best out of Mesut Özil. The Gunners’ mercurial playmaker endured a torrid World Cup and is currently embroiled in a serious row with the German Football Association, and it seems inevitable this will weigh on his shoulders through the opening weeks of the season. If Emery can get through to him while simultaneously kick-starting the development of talent such as Hector Bellerin, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Rob Holding, Calum Chambers and Alex Iwobi, his challenges on the pitch will become a little easier.
Laugh as you might, the omnipresence of ArsenalFanTV also dictates that the Emery will need to hit the ground running.
Even though it’s just a bloke with a camera standing outside the stadium for hours after a game (seriously, have these people never heard of just having a beer in the pub?), there’s no denying the influence their “pundits” have on the media narrative around the club and global fanbase.
With the Gunners’ opening games coming against champions Manchester City and a tough trip to Chelsea, many supporters will be quick to judge the new coach as early as mid-August. Imagine if they fall to defeat in both games? It’d be nothing but bad news for Emery, with the intensity of the spotlight on him turned up even brighter. Indeed, the only real winner would be ArsenalFanTV’s revenue streams.
Ultimately, the challenges facing Unai Emery in 2018/19 are stark, daunting, and directly on him. Can he successfully impart his tactical expertise on his new charges? Will hard work on the training pitch be enough to flip the club’s recent underachievement on its head within a season?
To add an extra layer into the fascinating mix, Emery will need to reinvigorate a discontented and disillusioned fanbase at the Emirates – the very stadium his predecessor built through careful, some would say overly cautious, management of club finances. The spectre of Wenger will loom large over the club throughout the new campaign, and it’ll take all of the Emery’s experience and famed work ethic to ensure he delivers the goods.
And deliver the goods he must. His reputation depends on it.