Unai Emery looked like he knew what was coming, that the dismal Europa League home defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt would be his last match as Arsenal manager. Of course, the Spaniard’s expression was very rarely one to inspire belief, but there was a little bit more to his trademark grimace as the Emirates Stadium, already pretty empty before kick-off, emptied even further up to full time.
He was right to be worried, with Emery sacked on Friday morning. Freddie Ljungberg will take charge of the Gunners on an interim basis while they start the search for a new manager. A number of names have already been mentioned. Carlo Ancelotti, for instance. Nuno Espirito Santo is also reported to be on Arsenal’s radar.
Then there’s Mikel Arteta. The Spaniard was considered among the frontrunners for the Gunners gig before Emery was ultimately appointed and he is once again a candidate now that Emery is gone. As Pep Guardiola’s assistant at Manchester City, Arteta has become English football’s next great manager-in waiting.
Of course, there would be inherent risk in the appointment of Arteta. While he has earned himself a reputation as an exceptional coach within the game, the former midfielder has yet to prove that he can cut it as a manager in his own right. Coaching is a very different discipline to management, particularly at the top level of the game.
But Arsenal need a coaching manager. They need a training ground operator, someone who can organise them and educate each and every member of the squad on their responsibility within it. For all that Emery painted himself as a football thinker, this was his biggest failing – Arsenal under his charge never truly looked like they knew what they were being asked to do.
Having worked under Guardiola for the past three-and-a-half seasons, Arteta is surely ready to branch out on his own. He could hardly have enjoyed a better coaching education and at Arsenal he would have plenty to work with in moulding a team in his own image. A lack of talent is not the Gunners’ problem.
Arsenal should go down one of two routes in moving on from Emery – they should either opt for a figure who will make the North London club their own, use them as a blank canvas for their ideas, or a figure who will replicate tried and tested methods at the Emirates Stadium. That choice is perhaps embodied best by the candidacy of both Arteta and Ancelotti. They are the embodiment of this crossroads.
Nuno fits into that equation somewhere in the middle, just like Emery did. There is no doubting the good work he has done at Wolves, leading the West Midlands club from the Championship to the Europa League in the space of just two seasons, but does such success really qualify him to take over at Arsenal? What would his appointment symbolise? What are his principles and values as a coach? In a sense, there are just as many, maybe even more, unknowns about Nuno as there are about Arteta when it comes to their respective candidacies for the Arsenal job.
The Gunners should look at what Frank Lampard has achieved at Chelsea this season and aim to replicate it.
They need someone to re-establish the connection between the team on the pitch and the fans in the stands, which even going back to the final years of Arsene Wenger’s tenure has been almost severed entirely at the Emirates Stadium.
As a former Arsenal player, Arteta would be welcomed in a way Emery never was. For a fanbase that looks at the current Arsenal board with disdain, the Spaniard would be seen as one of them. More than that, though, his appointment would represent some much-needed bigger thinking from Arsenal. And if Arteta can call Guardiola for advice from time to time, even better.