When Arsene Wenger finally decided to leave Arsenal, pushed into it in the end by consistent and vile abuse from the north London faithful, the immediate question on everyone’s lips was ‘Who’s going to replace him?’
It had to be someone that clearly understood the Gunners’ identity and added a ring of steel to the back four. During Wenger’s latter years, the main complaint from Arsenal fans was that their team had a soft core. With many of them being brought up on a defence of Bould, Adams, Dixon, Keown and Winterburn et al, that wasn’t acceptable.
In general terms, the free-flowing nature of their football still made Arsenal a joy to watch but, by leaving the back door open week in and week out, it was always going to be a problem.
Once Unai Emery was announced, initial opinions were divided. The knowledge that he was coming from Paris Saint-Germain afforded the Spaniard a certain amount of kudos, although the French side had faded towards the end of his tenure, and the 6-1 hammering at FC Barcelona’s hands was always going to haunt him.
However, he also had a hugely successful spell at Sevilla under his belt, and wasn’t even close to being the worst appointment in the world.
Two losses in his first two Premier League games at the helm, given they were against Manchester City and Chelsea, were probably to be expected but already the fan channels were jumping on the bandwagon concerning the club bringing in another foreign coach.
Those points of view quickly changed once Emery took the Gunners on an 11 game winning streak, their best run since 2007. When they eventually lost 3-2 at Southampton in December 2018, they’d gone 22 games unbeaten in all competitions.
Not only that, the sharpness was back. Crisp, clean passing. Players always on the front foot. There was a vibrancy about the way in which Arsenal were knocking the ball about that harked back to Wenger’s glory years.
A fifth-placed finish in the Premier League wasn’t a disaster and, had they won just one more match, they’d have ended the season in third. There was no catching Man City or Liverpool either because they were, frankly, in a class of their own.
A Europa League final awaited and, with it being Emery’s favoured competition for all intents and purposes, in a one-off game against Chelsea many fancied Arsenal to bring home the trophy.
Their preparations were dealt a blow when Henrikh Mkhitaryan was advised not to travel to Azerbaijan for the final but, with the likes of Alex Lacazette, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Granit Xhaka in situ, there was quality all over the pitch. Certainly enough quality to make a game of it against the Blues. A 4-1 defeat, however, hinted at the first signs that Emery wasn’t getting the best out of his expensively assembled squad.
Across the summer, Nicolas Pepe was added to the ranks for a club record £72 million but he’s done little at this stage to justify such a huge outlay.
In any event, expectations were high at the start of the 2019/20 campaign that Emery would come good again, and lead the Gunners back to the promised land.
Prior to Saturday’s defeat at Leicester, they were on a run of four games in which they took the the lead but before either drawing or losing.
A 5-5 draw in the Carabao Cup at Anfield, which Arsenal lost on penalties, was a game in which they led three times (3-1, 4-2 and 5-4). But they never went in for the kill, to put the game beyond doubt.
It brought back into sharper focus an accusation that followed Emery throughout his time in Spain, which was that he wasn’t brave enough in the big moments, preferring to be conservative, but often with negative consequences.
As if to emphasise the point, against Vitoria in the Europa League, Arsenal only had one pass into the box that was completed successfully in the entire 90 minutes and that was the pass to Mustafi to score their only goal of the game.
Issues with Mesut Ozil and Granit Xhaka, as well as Arsenal already finding themselves well out of the title picture, has only intensified the scrutiny on Emery.
It’s alleged that the players have begun to question his tactics too and, with that in mind, it can’t be too long before he loses the dressing room entirely.
Once that happens, he’s toast.