London: Unai Emery faces a daunting task to lift Arsenal out of the doldrums as the Gunners head into a new Premier League season without Arsene Wenger as their manager for the first time in 22 years.
Emery was hired to replace Wenger following the Frenchman’s exit at the end of a dismal campaign which saw Arsenal labour to a sixth-place finish in the Premier League.
Arsenal’s Premier League opener against champions Manchester City on Sunday will provide an early look at how Emery is faring in cleaning up the mess left by Wenger at the Emirates Stadium.
Arsenal had been stuck in a downward spiral for years and with Wenger unable to reverse the decline, owner Stan Kroenke finally dispensed with the most successful manager in his club’s history despite the Frenchman’s desire to stay.
Finishing 37 points behind City was a fitting ending for the dispiriting final season of the Wenger era — a torrid campaign laid out to a soundtrack of angry protests against the manager from frustrated fans.
Wenger’s remarkable feats in the first half of his reign will stand the test of time, but few Arsenal supporters lamented his departure after 14 years without a league title.
Arsenal have fallen so far behind their top-four rivals that, at present, it is unthinkable Emery could ever match his predecessor’s haul of three Premier League titles and seven FA Cups.
Yet despite Arsenal’s reduced status, Emery, who parted ways with Paris Saint-Germain at the end of last season, jumped at the chance to follow in Wenger’s footsteps in north London.
The 46-year-old Spaniard arrives with an intriguing pedigree, having enjoyed success with PSG, only to pay the price for failing to fulfil the club’s desire to win the Champions League.
A cynic might suggest Emery’s feat of winning the Europa League three years in a row with Sevilla was the most relevant achievement on his CV before his appointment at Arsenal — who will compete in Europe’s second tier competition for a second successive season.
Returning to the Champions League via a top four finish in the Premier League will be Emery’s main target, yet knocking one of City, Manchester United, Liverpool or Tottenham from those positions, and also overtaking Chelsea, is a tough proposition.
Regarded as a football savant cut from the same cloth as the obsessive Wenger, Emery has impressed Arsenal’s players with his detailed video analysis, spending up to 12 hours ahead of each game working on footage for his squad.
Emery has also pored over film of Arsenal’s woes last season and his pre-season transfer dealings suggest he has already identified the problems that Wenger struggled to resolve.
Swiss veteran Stephan Lichtsteiner and Greek international Sokratis Papastathopoulos were signed from Juventus and Borussia Dortmund respectively to bolster a creaky defence.
Bernd Leno joined from Bayer Leverkusen to offer an alternative to ageing goalkeeper Petr Cech, while Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi have been bought to add energy and steel in midfield.
But without Champions League action, Arsenal are no longer a big draw for Europe’s top stars.
Instead, Emery must focus on getting the best out of Gabon striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who made a fine start with Arsenal following his January move from Dortmund, while also finding a way to dovetail the creative talents of Mesut Ozil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
It might be a while before the Emery revolution bears fruit, but his attention to detail and desire for a high-tempo pressing game should make Arsenal a tougher unit than Wenger’s skilful but spineless group.
“In the past, Arsenal have won games on great football, individual brilliance and having great attacking players,” former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher said.
“What we’ll see Arsenal do more this season is win games tactically. You will look at games and say ‘That’s the manager, he has set up a certain way’.
“He makes it difficult for teams to play against them.”
Liverpool v West Ham United, 4.30pm
Southampton v Burnley, 4.30pm
Arsenal v Manchester City, 7pm
Olympique Lyonnais v Amiens SC, 5pm
Bordeaux v Strasbourg, 7pm
PSG v Caen, 11pm
Rangers v St Mirren, 6pm
St Johnstone v Hibernian, 6pm
Spanish Super Cup
Sevilla v Barcelona, midnight