This article also appeared on GFFN, Guardian Online and May 22nd edition of the Guardian.
Neymar is not one for ‘homework’, but that didn’t stop Unai Emery. “We are analysing some videos with him to see how he can grow,” said Emery last year, “especially in his positioning and how to work with his colleagues.” While Emery’s quiet meticulousness may have proven crucial in the past, spending 12 hours looking over videos for every game, with hindsight his persistence with the Brazilian should be regarded as having been a little optimistic.
While Neymar may have balked at the idea of incessant videos, reportedly complaining to the Paris Saint-Germain board about the Basque technician’s demands, Emery might find his new audience in north London to be more receptive. He is a supremely detail-orientated and tactically astute coach, and although this style of management did not play out well in Paris, the Arsenal squad will experience a heightened level of structure in their preparation. “Emery put on so many videos I ran out of popcorn,” former player Joaquín quipped, “he’s obsessed by football, it’s practically an illness.”
Where Arsène Wenger’s teams may have descended into the painfully one-dimensional, Emery’s outlook is one of nuance and precision, which may well suit Arsenal’s developing team rather more than the entrenched, haughty collection of Parisian stars.
Crucially for Arsenal’s philosophy as a club, Emery, despite rampant short-termism in Paris, managed to maintain a degree of focus on youth. His development of Adrien Rabiot from an inconsistent, naive ball-playing midfielder to the physical, confident, box-to-box marauder he is at his best today should be applauded. While the introduction of 22-year-old French centre-back Presnel Kimpembe, now arguably PSG’s best defender, and Argentine international Giovani Lo Celso is also a credit to Emery’s faith in youth and his ability to evolve talent.
Despite the success he enjoyed with a more counter-attacking 4-2-3-1 set-up with Sevilla, Emery was reluctantly forced to switch to a more possession-based 4-3-3 at PSG after early attempts to move Marco Verratti into a No 10 role failed and the dressing room pressured him into reverting to the favoured formation which Laurent Blanc and Carlo Ancelotti had previously practised. The combination of detailed tactical insight and counter-attacking brought about a glorious, unprecedented hat-trick of Europa League titles at Sevilla, a record that appealed to PSG, a club obsessed with European success. His time with Valencia also proved fruitful, a trio of third-place finishes between 2010 and 2012 being highlights before their recent lean period.
Nevertheless, despite five trophies in two seasons in Paris, Emery’s stay in the French capital has been characterised by mishaps that fall somewhere between unfortunate circumstances and outright errors of judgment. Player power has long been an endemic issue, ingrained during the Zlatan Ibrahimovic era. Neymar’s arrival, and the club’s subsequent pandering to him, has only played into the idea that the PSG squad is particularly unruly. Emery, however, while willing, was unable to address this.
When Neymar and Edinson Cavani’s relationship exploded following a squabble over who should take responsibility for set-pieces at the beginning of season, with Thiago Silva reportedly having to separate the two strikers after the home game against Lyon in September, Emery said that they could “sort it out themselves” rather than decisively asserting his authority.
PSG’s squad in the Qatar Sports Investments era has proven prohibitively cliquey and, the Brazilian contingent became so strong over the summer, with the additions of Neymar and Dani Alves, that Emery was discouraged from removing a failing and noticeably aging Thiago Silva as captain. Another example of weak man-management was illustrated with the cases of both Rabiot and Ángel Di María, who over the last year have succeeded in forcing him to play them once again in their preferred positions, despite the Spaniard’s efforts to remove them from the deep-lying midfield role and right-wing respectively.
Understandably, Emery received severe criticism for the now infamous “remontada” defeat to Barcelona last year. Here however, it seems he was a victim of a lack of mental fortitude in a squad, which he admittedly failed to address himself. PSG under QSI have long lacked heart and the Qataris have struggled with, or even ignored, the significance of the club’s identity. PSG’s lack of gumption in potentially era-defining Champions’ League ties seems rooted in a sense that while winning is important for the squad, winning for PSG is not, and when put under pressure, they dramatically wilt.
The 6-1 defeat at the Camp Nou was not a product of an omnipotent Barcelona display but willed into existence by sheer determination, a drive Emery, Blanc and even Ancelotti have been unable to foster. The ferocious press and intensity of the 4-0 win in the first leg, Emery’s doing, evaporated, Thiago Silva’s leadership was non-existent and unfathomable mistakes were made, all largely beyond Emery’s control. He has also been forced to operate in something of a box at PSG, constrained not just by his unruly squad, but also by the club hierarchy, with little say in player recruitment policy, leading to a ludicrously top-heavy squad.
Whether Emery is the antidote to the furore that has surrounded Arsenal during Wenger’s final years in charge or the correct choice at such a crossroads is debatable, but Emery will certainly improve Arsenal’s players and mould the side into being far more tactically streetwise.
His stoic, measured demeanour is comparable to Wenger’s, particularly with the press. As a result, he too will be unable to act as a lightning rod to draw attention away from any negative coverage or stimulate supporters with a fiery personality. However, in contrast to the PSG dressing room, Emery is likely to discover a more malleable and open-minded audience in England, which will suit his style.
At Valencia, Emery’s video ‘homework’ was delivered via USB drive. When he suspected one player was not following his advice, Emery gave him a blank drive. “Did you watch it?” Emery asked. “Yes, don’t worry boss,” came the reply. Emery may not be charismatic, but his stint at PSG must largely be viewed as an anomaly in an otherwise successful managerial career, built upon tenacious hard work and strokes of occasional tactical genius.
“Arsène who?” was the famous headline when Arsenal last hired a new manager in 1996, and Emery’s appointment will ask more similar questions of the Frenchman’s successor than Arsenal fans might have hoped when this day came. But if the squad commits wholeheartedly to Emery’s modus operandi, then both club and manager have a genuine chance to disprove the doubters and show that they deserve to be mentioned amongst the bracket of Europe’s best.
by Adam White