Unai Emery poses Arsenal question with Villarreal’s Champions League exploits – Tom Hopkinson

Unai Emery replaced Arsene Wenger at Arsenal but only lasted 78 matches before he was sacked, but has gone on to win the Europa League and reach the Champions LEague semi-finals with Villarreal

Unai Emery has led Villarreal to the Champions League semi-finals

The longer Arsenal’s week-long pre-season trip to Singapore wore on in 2018, the worse Unai Emery’s English got.

It was fine the day he delivered one of his first public utterances as the Gunners’ new manager at Singapore American School. But, five days later, so garbled were his words as he previewed the game against Paris Saint-Germain that the Daily Mirror’s sports desk were told the words they’d soon be seeing were ‘s***’.

The consensus when the article landed back in London was that they ‘weren’t that good’, so limited was the content. And what we didn’t know then but would soon learn was that Emery’s inability to communicate very well in English would become one of the defining aspects of his stay in north London.

To be fair to him, it did improve, thanks largely to him binge-watching Peaky Blinders. But, by his own admission, he didn’t ever have the depth needed to address certain situations after defeats and it would be a stick with which to beat him both from within his squad and further afield when things weren’t going well.

Emery’s regular press conference greeting of ‘Good ebening’ has several mocking compilations on YouTube. Although few who have laughed at them over the years will have been laughing quite so hard on Tuesday when his Villarreal completed a 2-1 aggregate win over Bayern Munich to set up a Champions League semi-final with Liverpool on what for him and his club was a very, very good ebening.

What seems harsh now is that Emery could so easily have used a translator at Arsenal, as Mauricio Pochettino did at Southampton and Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds. But he was determined to respect the fact he was in England and that unfortunately played a part in his downfall 18 months later.

Unai Emery was not a success at Arsenal but is a European mastermind at Villarreal


Manuel Queimadelos/Getty Images)

What didn’t help Emery was the fact the man he replaced, Arsene Wenger, had a statesmanlike aura and an ability to switch effortlessly between near-perfect English and Japanese, and of course his native French, when the times had called for it. And the fact Wenger had ruled the club for 22 years was another issue, meaning his shadow loomed large over everything Emery wanted to do.

Not that following Wenger was like following Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. Fergie was, after all, still winning the biggest competitions when he called time on his career. But Wenger’s longevity didn’t make things easy for Emery and nor did the fact the man who hired him, Ivan Gazidis, departed soon after his arrival.

The squad he inherited, too, was fractured. As Emery and his players flew to Singapore, news broke of Ozil quitting the German national team. It overshadowed the early days of that trip and the player would prove a thorn in his manager’s side throughout the Spaniard’s 18-month stay. There were big decisions to make over Jack Wilshere, whose pay-as-you-play offer was rescinded under Emery, and Aaron Ramsey, who was allowed to join Juventus in 2019.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, of course, and early on Emery was serenaded with chants of ‘We’ve got our Arsenal back’. But it wasn’t long before the frustrations which had come to the fore in the latter years of Wenger’s rein soon re-emerged among the Gunners’ fanbase and Emery was sacked on the back of a run of seven games without a win in November 2019, with Arsenal turning to Mikel Arteta.

Soon after, Emery took over at Villarreal and there was some sort of revenge over his old side in the semi-finals of the Europa League on the way to winning the competition. That triumph — Emery’s fourth after his three with Sevilla — qualified Villarreal for the Champions League and their march to the last four this season has, unsurprisingly, prompted questions about whether Emery was the right man for Arsenal at the wrong time. It coincides, after all, with Arsenal’s bid to reach the Premier League top four faltering.

The simple answer, however, is ‘no’, because while Emery is undoubtedly a good manager, it’s one thing to win or go deep in cup competitions, even with scalps as big as Juventus and Bayern, and another to make a club contenders again over the 38 games of a league season, which is what Arsenal need.

The fact Villarreal sit seventh in LaLiga, the same place they finished last year, conflicts with the success they have enjoyed in Europe. And while Arsenal fans would love to win the Europa League and progress to the semis of the Champions League, they must walk again before they can run at the top of the table and that means having a manager who can get them back into the top four regularly — something, for now at least, Emery is showing no signs of delivering in Spain.

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