Neal Thurman

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A Reasonable Appointment

Tuesday, May 22, 2018


It is a sensible decision.  I can't claim to know how successful Mikal Arteta will eventually be as a manager or how successful he could have been at Arsenal if he'd been the choice this coming season.  None of us know.  What I do know is that Arsenal are an attractive enough proposition as a club that they don't have to take that risk unless they're 100% certain that Arteta is the right choice.  Apparently, they weren't convinced. 

 

This is a massively important time at Arsenal.  For the first time in the big money era of the Premier League, there is change at the Emirates (well, other than the Emirates BEING the change a decade or so ago).  Asking a first-time manager with only limited experience as an assistant is begging for the disappointment of Wenger's latter years turning into a sustained dip in fortunes on the level of Manchester United's fall post-Ferguson.  There will be plenty of time to appoint Arteta in a few seasons after Emery has had a chance to stabilize the post-Wenger era.

 

Now, there's no guarantee that Emery will, in fact, stabilize Arsenal but there are a few reasons to be optimistic that he could succeed at the Emirates where Arsene Wenger struggled in recent seasons.  Let's take a look: 

 

Used to Shared Responsibility

Unai Emery has always worked in an environment where there is a team approach to running the football and football-related operation.  Where Arsene Wenger ruled every aspect of the club with a reported iron fist, Emery is used to working with a Technical Director.  His biggest successes came at Sevilla where he was famously partnered with Monchi who was in charge of uncovering the talent while Emery was limited to managing it once it was in place.  With Arsenal having hired a man with a similar reputation to Monchi in Sven Mislintat from Borussia Dortmund, the ability to thrive and share credit in such an arrangement is critical.

 

Used to Limited Resources

Yes, Emery's most recent experience has been at one of world football's homes of unlimited resourcees in Paris St. Germain.  Don't let recent history fool you, Emery's history is working within a tight budget as the club he was leading worked its way out of financial difficulties and competed against clubs with superior resources.  His managerial beginnings were in the lower levels in Spain where he oversaw promotion campaigns for both Lorca Deportivo and Almeria.  Moving up to La Liga, Emery found success at debt-ridden Valencia where he finished 3rd to the riches of Barcelona and Real Madrid on three consecutive occasions while losing top players to bigger clubs at the end of each season.  After a rough stint in Russia, Emery returned to Spain at Sevilla where he won three consecutive Europa League titles as the club climbed out of financial struggles while, again losing key players over his successful tenure.  

 

While it may not be the profile that Arsenal supporters want to embrace, it is a realistic view of their current lot in life.  Arsenal can't compete financially with Manchester City, Chelsea, and Manchester United.  They aren't in dire financial straights in the same way that Valencia or Sevilla were when Emery arrived but this isn't a manager who, like Pep or Jose or Carlo, is used to having all of the expensive toys he wants.  His history suggests he won't be grandstanding for more money in the way that Mourinho has been since his arrival at Manchester United.  If Mislintat can find some bargains in the Bundesliga and some talented kids from his scouting network then it is reasonable to expect that Emery can fashion such resources into a successful side.  Not a dominant side but one that gives Arsenal supporters hope that has been absent for a decade. 

 

Should Mislintat and company discover a true diamond in the rough, Emery also won't consider it a huge tragedy when that player eventually departs for Barcelona or Manchester City or Bayern Munich or anyone else with financial punching power that Arsenal just can't match.  

 

Tactical Flexibility

One of the huge frustrations that Arsenal supporters have had with Arsene Wenger has been his unwavering approach to the game.  Yes, it was a joy to watch the Gunners attack when they were on song but when Plan A wasn't working, Wenger just never seemed to have a Plan B let alone implementing a different Plan A based on situation and opponent.  When you had superior talent like Henry, Bergkamp, Pires, Ljunjberg, Vieira, et al you could afford that luxury.  We're going to do what we're going to do and you just try to stop us.  As Arsenal's talent was surpassed by more and more clubs both domestically and in Europe, Wenger's tactical inflexibility became more and more pronounced. 

 

The nice thing about appointing a manager who came up with limited resources is that he learned how to make the best with what he had available to him.  It's hard to draw too many conclusions about what he'll likely do at Arsenal from his time at PSG because if he needed something at PSG he just said so and it was acquired for him (sometimes whether he wanted it or not).  Looking back to his time at Sevilla, he tended to play a 4-2-3-1 formation but wasn't completely wedded to it.  Most importantly, he had a plan that seemed based on the players available to him and the opponent he was facing.  Arsenal supporters will always long for the days when they were the bullies that dictated terms but with those days in the past and Stan Kroenke running the club as a business employing a manager who has been successful changing tactics based on the situation seems like a wise choice. 

 

Broad Combined Network

One interesting aspect of Arsenal's new management team - Emery, Mislintat, and Head of Football Operations Raul Sanlllehi, recently of Barcelona - the Gunners have a pretty broad base of up-to-date experience with potential transfer targets that might allow them to get the most out of a limited transfer budget.  Emery should have a strong sense of names beyond the obvious ones to look out for coming out of France where he has been managing PSG.  Mislintat, in addition to his huge scouting network, has joined from the Bundesliga where bargains like Pascal Gross and Christian Fuchs have gone under the radar.  Finally, Sanllehi and Emery surely combine to have a strong sense of the Spanish market for players that might represent bargain purchases.  This isn't necessarily a sustainable advantage as all three will start losing first-hand experience with other leagues as their tenures at Arsenal extend.  In this time of transition that doesn't include Champions League football though, having a broad view of likely sources of talent is a big advantage.  

 

The One Downside

The big downside here is really related to ego.  The nice thing about a prospective Arteta hire is that supporters could dream about him being the next Pep Guardiola.  Without any managerial track record there is no concrete downside that can be pointed to.  With Emery comes a distinct sense that Arsenal have finally recognized that they are second class citizens in the Premier League pecking order.  While that is an entirely reasonable realization to have arrived at, that doesn't make it any easier to handle psychologically.  Hiring a manager with a history of punching above his weight means admitting that you're no longer a heavyweight but rather a scrappy middle weight.  The club's image of itself over the past 20 or so years has been as just a half step below the Barcelonas and Real Madrids of the world.  This hire, as well as that of Mislintat, is definitely a hint that they've admitted that they're more Sevilla than Barcelona, more Dortmund than Bayern.  

 

None of the above is meant to suggest that Unai Emery will definitely be a success at Arsenal.  What it is meant to suggest is that Arsenal are making decisions that are internally consistent and contextually logical.  They have a team of leaders who appear at least to be well-suited to work together for a common goal.  The path to making that happen in the short and medium term - presumably using an exceptional scouting network to uncover up-and-coming (read "less expensive") talent and a manager used to nurturing a conveyor belt of such talent - is logical given the reality of the club's finanical situation and business philosophy.  

 

Is the appointment of Unai Emery sexy? No, not really.  Does it look like there's a plan in place that has a reasonable chance of success? The answer to that one is a pretty strong "yes" and after years of frustration that's more than enough for me to be excited that a good choice has been (or is about to be) made. 



Neal Thurman manages the Rotoworld's Premier League coverage and contributes to Never Manage Alone which he co-founded. He is also a diehard Arsenal supporter. You can find him on Twitter @NealJThurman.
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