The 21st century has seen some brilliant tacticians, philosophers and managers. Total football was revived at Barcelona by Pep Guardiola. Sir Alex Ferguson has his name written in gold in Manchester United’s history. The recently fired Jose Mourinho won the Champions League with Porto and a treble with Inter. The Portuguese’s knack of winning major titles with the underdogs fetches him a spot with the elite.
Then there are managers like Jurgen Klopp, Maurizio Sarri, Quique Setien and Pablo Machin who have only a few or no trophies to show for, but have an identity associated with their football that has stuck with them even after they changed clubs.
Unai Emery does not belong to either category. The Spaniard has begotten enough laurels to separate him from the crowd of average managers but not enough to place him up with the elite. Also, the 47-year-old does not carry an identity with him and employs a system according to the strength of the players at his disposal.
At Sevilla, Emery’s system was all about slow and patient build-up and striking when most opportune. At Paris Saint-Germain, the Hondarribia man centred the team around his frontline and often had individual brilliance to fetch him wins.
At Arsenal, it has been a combination of patient build-up and individual brilliance at the top and a great use of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s versatility. Clearly, there is no fixed identity that Emery can lay claim on as his own.
Emery became the first manager to win three consecutive Europa League titles between 2013 and 2016. A synergy of quality football and consistency enabled Sevilla to achieve this and he deserves all the credit here.
An unimaginable consistency over three years in one of the biggest club competitions in Europe is an appreciable achievement, but Emery failed to replicate any of this in the league, given Sevilla never popped up as title contenders during his reign, despite the European success.
The clubs he had to face in Europe are those which finished between fifth and eighth in their respective leagues. Sevilla established themselves as the best club among mid-table clubs in this period but failed to compete with the best in the Champions League.
As an extension of this statement, one can say that Emery is the best manager among those who can not be considered as the best.
Subsequently, the Spaniard shifted to PSG and decided to test his wits in Ligue 1. He took over a side that won five consecutive leagues and at that point, a league win came to be known as an expectation rather than achievement. He was hired to lead Les Parisiens to European glory and he failed miserably at it.
It was under Emery’s tenure that PSG’s monotony in Ligue 1 was broken by Monaco and the Spaniard had to make do with just the domestic cup in his debut season. The 2016/17 season was also marred by a humiliating 6-1 defeat against Barcelona at the Camp Nou which ended PSG’s European season despite a 4-0 win in the first leg.
Equipped with Kylian Mbappe and Neymar, the expectations from Emery were higher in the second season. To his credit, he did well to win the league without breaking sweat. But a defeat to an underwhelming Real Madrid in the Champions League created yet another black spot on his PSG career.
The three-time Europa League winner was then tasked to build the Arsenal squad after Arsene Wenger’s departure. Emery did not go easy in the transfer window and consequently assembled the warriors who would fight for the title. Again, to the Spaniard’s credit, he has brought order to the system at the North London club and provided results with an attractive brand of football.
The club also went on a 14-game unbeaten run in the Premier League, often looking like a dangerous side you would not want to face. The Gunners are now fifth in the table and had no problems dispatching mid-table clubs this term.
However, Arsenal have won just one game out of five against the other teams which are collectively known as the “Big Six”. Emery’s men have collected just five points out of a possible 15 with a goal-difference of -6.
Again, this is a case of Emery finding it easy to deal with mid-table clubs but going cold shoulders against the top teams.
In his defence, this is his first season at a new club and he was tasked with having to deal with Manchester City and Chelsea in his first two games. But it’s also true that the standards are set high for him and he needs to deliver a major title in the next three years or so to transition into the tier which is occupied by the likes of Guardiola, Mourinho and Ferguson.
The Sevilla job was not as serviced as the Arsenal job when the transfer window is taken into consideration. The PSG job came with unreal expectations and the Spaniard failed to live up to it. The Arsenal job can serve as the perfect litmus test for Emery.
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