LONDON — Arsenal sacked Unai Emery because they feared he was sending them into the wilderness. As it turns out, it didn’t stop him.
Emery’s Villarreal side advanced to the Europa League final with a 0-0 draw at Emirates Stadium, earning a 2-1 aggregate win they deserved for being the better organised, more purposeful outfit in both legs of this semifinal.
As Villarreal’s substitutes and staff streamed onto the pitch at full-time, Emery allowed himself a double-fisted shake of his arms before walking in a different direction to the rest, across the touchline to Mikel Arteta for a commiserate handshake. He may not admit it publicly, but this will be the sweetest of moments for Emery, much maligned in these parts after losing his job in November 2019 with sources telling ESPN he had become a figure of fun among the Arsenal players.
Former Gunner Mesut Ozil underlined this antipathy before kickoff, tweeting “good ebening” in reference to Emery’s English language skills, which some squad members mimicked behind his back at the training ground.
Dropping into the Europa League and standing on the periphery of the top four was viewed as Arsenal’s nadir, ultimately accounting for Emery and his predecessor Arsene Wenger, after two decades of Champions League football. But this is a new, devastating low. Barring a highly improbable sequence of Premier League results, the Gunners will not play in Europe next season for the first time since 1996.
In the space of 19 days, they have gone from European Super League to no European football at all.
The squad is in need of an overhaul, fans are protesting furiously at the owners and although Kroenke Sports Enterprises have vowed to invest this summer, an absence of European football hits Arsenal hard in pockets already emptied by the financial impact of COVID-19. The rebuilding job now is colossal. It almost feels too big for a manager with just 18 months’ experience in the dugout, but the Gunners promoted Arteta from head coach to manager at the start of the season to reflect both the faith they had in him and the shift towards a more professional culture he was seemingly making strides to instill.
Where is it now? This was an abject performance for a team with their season on the line in a European semifinal. UEFA stats recorded one shot on target, Opta gave them two — the disagreement probably centering on whether Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang‘s 79th-minute header was on target before hitting the post. Either way, it wasn’t good enough. Aubamayeng hit the woodwork twice, but make no mistake: Arsenal weren’t unlucky.
A terse exchange between Arteta and reporters followed afterwards.
Does he accept his job is under threat? “I think everybody’s job is under scrutiny,” he replied. Does he still have faith in his own ability to do job? “Yes.” Does he understand why there will be focus on him now? A nod.
He needs better answers, and soon. Arteta’s experiment with a false-nine shape in the first game backfired and an atypical 4-1-4-1 formation in the second game failed to illicit any meaningful improvement. It is the sort of tactical tinkering Emery was pilloried for.
But more than that, there was precious little fight, an alarming absence of intensity given the stakes. Arteta claimed his players were missing the backing of supporters — and there is probably some truth to that given how fragile they have proved in the past — but he can consider himself fortunate there were no supporters inside to pass judgement on this.
The Gunners have always insisted they are determined to stand by Arteta. Kroenke Sports Enterprises have enough concerns staving off fan unrest and the possibility of an imminent takeover bid from a consortium led by Spotify co-founder Daniel Ek without undergoing a fresh managerial search.
But Arsenal are on course to finish lower in the Premier League than last season while missing out on Europe. There is no FA Cup final to provide a positive coda to the campaign, instead a drift towards an ignominious conclusion with 10,000 fans due for the final home game, which will likely double as a referendum gauging support for Arteta and anger towards the Kroenkes.
Difficult and painful times lie ahead. Emery spent far longer than usual conducting his post-match interviews, waving to members of Villarreal’s entourage and clearly revelling in the moment. He has regrouped and moved on. Arsenal are still waiting to do the same.