Unai Emery has been out of work since he was sacked by Arsenal on the 29th November last year. He has been relatively quiet since his unceremonious departure from North London, and to his credit he conducted himself with class upon leaving and in any brief media correspondence since. But, like most managers, I knew he would eventually reappear and begin puckering up for a new managerial gig. This is the way of football. And sure enough, he has just done an extensive interview with the Guardian, giving his own version of his ill-fated Arsenal tenure.
Firstly, it is a great interview by Sid Lowe, regardless of our own views it is always insightful to hear a managers perspectives as to why things haven’t worked out. Especially when it is as well put together as this piece.
I struggled with Spanish at school and I regret not taking it more seriously, so when Unai introduced me to the word “Autocritica” in the interview, I was intrigued. Not just because I now know how to say “self-critical” in Spanish, but also because the ability to self-criticise after being sacked is exceedingly rare for football managers. Perhaps Emery was not going to attempt to revise our altogether too vivid memories of his last few months in charge. He’s simply being “autocritica”. What is the problem then? Why did I bother staying up on a Friday night writing this piece?
Well – the problem is I just didn’t see an awful lot of self-criticism in the interview. Instead, Unai seemed to rattle off a barrage of excuses, and by the time he was done he had pretty much been critical of everyone at Arsenal apart from himself.
For me, Cup Finals are always 50/50 games, so despite getting utterly embarrassed by Chelsea in Baku, I can’t be overly critical there. It was the period before that final that was Emery’s biggest failure as Arsenal boss. Three defeats in seven days – against Crystal Palace, Wolves and Leicester – then a draw with Brighton saw us tank a top 4 place at the end of last season in quite spectacular fashion. Unai describes these results as “incomprehensible”, and his explanation? Aaron Ramsey’s injury and a lack of commitment from the players. No mention of his decision-making at all. For instance, the fact he started Jenkinson, Mustafi, Mavropanos and Elneny, in a home game against Crystal Palace, that would have clinched qualification to the Champions League, and we lost 3-2.
The fact he highlights the importance of Ramsey’s loss is an interesting point in itself. His analysis on why he didn’t sign a new contract seems particularly revisionist to me:
“He (Ramsey) needed to negotiate a new contract and they didn’t reach an agreement. The club had doubts about renewing for a certain sum. Ramsey wanted to feel valued. It was a financial matter; I can’t get involved. And I still didn’t know him well when I arrived. He’s important but I can’t say what they should pay him.” ~ Uni Emery
At the beginning of Emery’s tenure, it seemed as though Ramsey was going to be a key cog in his system, and thus he had a contract offer on the table. However, by late October Emery had stopped starting Ramsey in the league choosing instead to start Ozil, Mkhitaryan or Iwobi more regularly. Contrary to Emery’s version of events, David Ornstein reliably reported at the time that Ramsey’s contract offer was withdrawn by the club as he no longer seemed to warrant that kind of expenditure. Of course, later in the season Emery’s Arsenal became heavily reliant on Ramsey’s drive from midfield but by that stage it was too late, and the Welshman had signed a pre-contract agreement with Juventus. Emery pinning the end of season collapse on an injury to a player he previously deemed surplus to requirements does not sit well with me.
Mesut Ozil receives his fair share of criticism throughout the interview, with Emery questioning his attitude and commitment. The loss of leaders in the dressing room such as Laurent Koscielny, Nacho Monreal, and Petr Cech is lamented. A subtle jibe at club-record signing Nicholas Pepe is thrown, with Emery claiming to have emphatically campaigned for the club to instead purchase his man, Wilfried Zaha. Even Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang isn’t immune from Unai’s blame-game, as his old boss refers to his penalty miss at Spurs.
In many ways the lack of self-awareness Emery shows in this interview speaks volumes as to the reasons why he failed at Arsenal. His lack of strong, coherent leadership exacerbated existing cultural issues at the club and created new ones, which he could later use as excuses. When Lowe asks why he allowed the captaincy question to become so drawn out, and so contaminated that it led to Xhaka being booed off the pitch by his own fans. Emery points to the fact that the players voted for him. Similarly, he says that the squad didn’t want Ozil to be captain. But what sort of leadership is this? What sort of example does it set when your manager won’t even make a decision on the club captain? Again, it’s simply deflecting the blame. (To Xhaka’s credit he has responded in exemplary fashion since and that is a testament to his professionalism.)
“The club left me alone, and there was no solution. They’d say: ‘We’re with you’ but in front of fans and the dressing room they couldn’t protect me. Truth is, I felt alone. And the results dictated I had to go.” ~ Granit Xhaka
For the record, I completely agree that the life of a football manager is ruthless, cut-throat, and unforgiving. But save me the pity-party. Raul Sanllehi wanted to give him a new contract last summer! They then went and spent £130 million on his squad. And finally, they gave him far more opportunity to turn the ship around than he deserved, as he was presiding over Arsenal’s worst run in a league season for 30 years.
Every sacked manager has a right to put themselves in the shop window again and begin a new chapter of their career elsewhere. But Emery’s sense of injustice has little basis in fact. He lost his job because of meek leadership and diabolical performances and results on the pitch. There are always mitigating circumstances in every managerial sacking. Managers can either choose to be “autocritica” and learn from these experiences, or they can convince themselves they were treated unfairly. Unfortunately, it seems as though Unai Emery is trying to save face, but for Arsenal fans the excuses don’t wash.