In a column last year, I spoke about how Unai Emery had solved the problems at Arsenal, at a time of great optimism and renewed vigour surrounding the Spaniard's time at the club so far.
Now, nearly one year on, he's gone. The club released a statement a few days ago stating that it was down to poor results and form, which seems perfectly plausible. Both the club and the fans got sick and tired of the stale style of play and the lack of wins that characterised Arsenal's worst run of form since 1992. Being an Arsenal fan myself, I'd usually back managers 100% through thick and thin; I did for Arsene Wenger for a long time, even through those dark days of a trophy drought, but for all those dodgy defensive signings of Andre Santos or Sebastian Squllaci, there were superstars like Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski. Indeed, Wenger's consistency to finish in the Champions League places is what made people back him, despite some losses and poor runs of form. Although Emery was only here for a fraction of Wenger's time, it just felt like history repeating itself, albeit at an accelerated pace.
There's been some problems with some of Emery's signings first of all. I'll address the elephant in the room of Nicolas Pepe. What the hell was Emery thinking? £72 million, a record signing no less, for a winger that we don't need. Sure, he can dribble, but that's about it. He can't finish, there's a lack of passing ability, but most of all, we don't actually need him. With the likes of Reiss Nelson and Bukayo Saka having come through the academy, they need to be played, or their growth will be stunted as players. Nelson especially hasn't really been given a chance this season, in favour of the Ivorian Pepe. Pepe is a bit of a reminder of another Ivorian winger Arsenal have had, who also came from LOSC Lille if I recall correctly - Gervinho. Indeed, he became a bit of a meme player at Arsenal, before moving to Roma and then China on a ludicrous £160,000 a week.
I just can't fathom out why Emery bought Pepe, when we're in dire need of a defender. Yes, we bought David Luiz in the summer for around £7 million, which seemed like some great business at the time, but he's done nothing to prove himself in the run of games he's had in the side since joining. Luiz has to be one of the most error-prone centre halves Arsenal have had since the times of Squillaci, or Cygan, and it wouldn't surprise me if he leaves in the summer. The signing of Kieran Tierney was at least a bit more optimistic and has kind of worked out to be honest. I'm a great fan of the Scottish left back and he can pick out a cross from miles away, which is absolutely marvellous, and should be playing week-in week-out. Dani Ceballos, despite being only on loan, has been a bit of a revelation since joining, and should be bought permanently. For me though, signing of the season has been Gabriel Martinelli, who should be starting a lot more games. He can dribble, is good in the air, and has a lethal right foot on him.
The brand of football being played wasn't the best either. Emery was, at first, a pressing merchant, with the ability to unleash fast forwards like Aubameyang and mobile midfielders like Aaron Ramsey onto defenders to win the ball back and launch a vicious counter attack. However, with the departure of the latter, that all changed. Whilst Ramsey had the know-how and the ability to dictate play from the midfield, and in part act as a late-running Enganche, the midfield now doesn't have an active playmaker. This has the detrimental effect of causing play to slow down and become a lot more passive and stale. In watching a lot of Arsenal games this season, it's easy to see why Emery was sacked. Players weren't willing enough to go for the ball and get stuck in. Instead, they'd be running back and forth up the pitch like madmen, giving the opposition space and time to play a neatly-placed ball either on the floor or over the top, splitting the defence open like a knife through butter.
This leads us nicely to the defensive problems that fans have had to endure not just under Emery, but also during the latter years of Arsene Wenger's reign too. The mentality of employing ball-playing defenders isn't something I'd usually frown upon, but when they're Mustafi and David Luiz, then you've got a problem. Indeed, my main concern as a fan was the haphazard defending, where centre-halves weren't as tight on the forwards as they perhaps could have been, or the full-backs had pushed on too far, so everyone ends up running back to goal to try their best to defend. Emery's insistence to play the ball out from the back only ended up causing more problems than having a possession-based system. Giving the ball to either centre-back allowed them time to dawdle on the ball, whilst the high-pressing forwards from the opposing team only pressed the defenders hard and, more often than not, would win the ball from them. Now, after Freddie Ljungberg's first game, the brand of football has changed, but the defensive fragility remains. This has got to be sorted in January, along with the appointment of a proper coach.
In his eighteen months as manager, Unai Emery went from hero to villain, back to hero and then ultimately ended up as a villain again. Despite initially playing some attractive football, with quick passing and free-form positioning, it would lead to the Spaniard's demise, with the winless run of seven games characterising a loss of faith in the manager from both the club and players. All that remains to be said is that I hope we can appoint somebody with managerial nouse like Julian Nagelsmann, who'll get the players working properly. Until then though, we'll have to see what Freddie Ljungberg brings to the table.