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Unai Emery at Arsenal: a failure or a victim of circumstance?

Unai Emery is enjoying so much success as Aston Villa manager -- most recently with Wednesday's 1-0 win over Manchester City -- that some people are beginning to re-evaluate his previous spell in England at Arsenal, where he was given the difficult task of following Arsene Wenger.

In the summer of 2018, the Spanish coach was hired to replace the departing Wenger, who had fallen from legend to lamented in a tenure spanning almost 22 years. What followed was a mixed bag.

Emery recorded what stands today as the third-highest win percentage in the club's history (55%) and reached a Europa League final but he left in November 2019 with his reputation in tatters, mocked for his imperfect English and derided as incompatible with the demands of Premier League football.

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Yet since succeeding Steven Gerrard at Villa Park in October last year, Emery has transformed Aston Villa to a jaw-dropping extent, rehabilitating his reputation and earmarking him as one of the division's top coaches.

Only Manchester City (83) and Arsenal (77) have taken more points than Villa's 75 in the calendar year of 2023. Some shrewd transfer business combined with a clear tactical plan and triggering an improvement in several existing players -- most obviously striker Ollie Watkins -- has catapulted Villa into the Champions League places ahead of the visit of Emery's former side to the Midlands on Saturday.

Emery facing his successor at Arsenal, Mikel Arteta, in this revived state has led some to speculate whether the 52-year-old was harshly treated at the Emirates. So, was the job too big for him, or did the club let him down in difficult circumstances?

Despite winning Europa League titles at Sevilla, Unai Emery was unable to reach the same level of success at Arsenal. (Photo by Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images)

Sources have told ESPN that Emery impressed the Arsenal hierarchy in his interview to succeed Wenger with an in-depth knowledge of the club's academy players, laying out specific paths to the first team for certain individuals. The level of detail in his presentation was a key factor in getting the job ahead of Arteta, in addition to a track record of Europa League success with Sevilla -- winning the competition in three successive seasons between 2014 and 2016 -- and so it came as something of a surprise in the weeks and months that followed just how poor his communication skills were.

Emery conducted his media interviews with a translator who sat alongside him but insisted on trying to speak English to his new squad at all times, often in lengthy video analysis meetings which were a rare occurrence during Wenger's tenure.

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Initially, the message got through. After starting with two defeats against Manchester City and Chelsea, Emery embarked upon a 22-game unbeaten run. Gunners fans sang "We've got our Arsenal back" during an away win at Fulham as the flowing football returned.

There was a momentum that would sustain them until the final five games of the season, where they picked up just four points to miss out on a top-four finish to local rivals Tottenham Hotspur -- a collapse from which Emery ultimately never recovered. A Europa League final clash with Chelsea offered salvation -- and the chance of silverware -- but Arsenal were soundly beaten 4-1.

Despite breaking their club record to sign Nicolas Pépé from Lille for £72 million in the summer of 2019, the positive effect Emery had initially created continued to dissipate at an alarming rate, and by November, after no wins in seven games -- their worst run since 1992 -- Emery was dismissed.

The atmosphere by the end was toxic. Wenger famously abhorred conflict but that allowed cliques to form in his latter seasons and Emery had to tackle it. Yet they gradually stopped listening. The pitchside gym he had installed to give players the chance to increase the intensity of training sessions was barely used.

Sources have told ESPN that Emery's English-language skills were mocked by some players around the training ground. Others believed those video analysis sessions were now bordering on tortuous.

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Inadvertently, Bukayo Saka had revealed Emery's inability to articulate effectively. After making his second senior start against Eintracht Frankfurt in September 2019, Saka revealed coach Freddie Ljungberg had been more influential because "sometimes when I don't understand when the coach is trying to communicate with me, I have a better communication with Freddie sometimes, he speaks better English."

Emery spent much of that second season with an English teacher sitting in on his press conferences but to seemingly little effect. And multiple sources suggest he did not make the effort to ingratiate himself to staff. Sources told ESPN that six months into the job, he ended a session thanking a colleague by calling him the wrong name. When the fixture list allowed, frequently he would return to his hometown of Hondarribia rather than stay local to the club.

The gradual erosion of Emery's authority led him to make endless team selection changes. During his final season at Arsenal, he used more players (35) and made more half-time substitutions (32) than any other Premier League manager as formations and personnel changed alarmingly. It appeared he was scrambling to find the answers as dressing-room power consumed him, much as had been the case in his previous role at Paris Saint-Germain.

And yet, subsequent history suggests that the dressing room may well have been part of the problem. Arteta succeeded Emery in December 2019, won the FA Cup final nine months later, and proceeded to ruthlessly dismantle the squad with the club paying up the contracts of multiple players early including Mesut Özil, Willian, and Shkodran Mustafi to rid the team of difficult characters.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was stripped of the captaincy and allowed to join Barcelona while Arteta was "promoted" from head coach to manager to give him greater influence over the club's future direction. How Emery must wish he had received the same support. Perhaps had he won the Europa League or secured a top-four finish, he would have done. Arteta had the FA Cup as tangible proof he could deliver success.

Arsenal fans had enough with Unai Emery as they showed their frustration in Emery's final game against Frankfurt in 2019. (Photo by Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images)

But Emery also suffered from circumstances beyond his control, chiefly the power struggle that existed in the post-Wenger era. Wenger's autonomy had quietly been stripped from him as then-chief executive Ivan Gazidis sought to restructure a club too reliant on one man to a more modern setup, appointing nine department heads to report to a new hierarchy.

The number of football operations staff trebled in three years. And then, in September 2018 with Emery barely a month into competitive football at Arsenal, Gazidis announced he was leaving to join AC Milan.

With owners the Kroenke family still largely absent, those in newly appointed roles tested the parameters to the limit. Recruitment became an issue with internal tension between those wanting to use data analytics to drive signings and others preferring to lean on longstanding relationships with particular agents.

The transfer policy became confused and Emery undermined his influence by pushing for the disastrous January 2019 loan signing of Denis Suárez. By the time he pushed for Wilfried Zaha over Pépé the following summer, his judgment was being questioned.

Raul Sanllehi joined as head of football relations in February 2018, became head of football following Gazidis' departure, and left suddenly in August 2020. Sven Mislintat joined as head of recruitment in December 2017 and left in February 2019 amid rows over transfer planning. Arsenal's former midfielder, Edu Gaspar, became technical director in Jul. 2019 and the club quietly returned to a leaner decision-making model with Josh Kroenke now regularly engaged, based in London, and former club captain Per Mertesacker heading up the academy. But it all came too late for Emery, who became a casualty of the instability above and below him.

"With Arsenal, you first had to knock down the walls, which is hard work, then start to build again," Emery would later tell The Athletic.

He arrived at Arsenal as the "King of the Europa League" but left after a 2-1 group-stage defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt. The following season, he won the Europa League for a fourth time, with Villarreal, before returning to England as a better manager for his experiences.

Newcastle United wanted to appoint Emery but he said no. Instead, he accepted Villa's call and will stand on the touchline this weekend aiming to dent his former club's title ambitions. At Villa Park, he seems to fit. At Arsenal, he was probably the wrong man at the wrong time.

    

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