Unai Emery broke Arsenal but is now proving why Aston Villa is the perfect fit

Unai Emery broke Arsenal but is now proving why Aston Villa is the perfect fit

Unai Emery has worked wonders at Aston Villa and unified the club - but Arsenal were broken by the end of the manager's time there.

The Spaniard was appointed ahead of Mikel Arteta in 2018 to be the man to replace Arsene Wenger. He lasted just 18 months and the feeling towards Emery from Arsenal supporters by that point was not so much anger, but apathy.

Fans showed their feelings with their feet and for the Spaniard’s final game in charge against Eintracht Frankfurt in November 2019, they stayed away. Officially 49,419 tickets were sold, but in truth it was probably the lowest attendance in the history of the Emirates Stadium.

Arsenal had actually decided to sack Emery before that game, with the club’s hierarchy already in the USA for a meeting with owners, the Kroenke family, that week. Emery was a dead man walking and the Emirates was lifeless.

Unai Emery failed at Arsenal but is making amends with Aston Villa (Arsenal FC via Getty Images)
Unai Emery failed at Arsenal but is making amends with Aston Villa (Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

The atmosphere that night against Frankfurt will be in stark contrast to what awaits Arsenal when they travel to Villa Park on Saturday.

Emery has transformed Villa to the extent that Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola labelled them title contenders after they beat his side 1-0 on Wednesday night.

Victory over Arsenal this weekend would put Villa just one point behind the Gunners and extend their winning run at home in the Premier League to 15 matches.

Perhaps it was always meant to be that Emery’s success in England would come in the Midlands after watching Peaky Blinders during his time Arsenal. The Spaniard did it as part of his attempts to learn English.

Language was certainly an issue for Emery at Arsenal and a factor in his downfall. He struggled to communicate with the players and media, and never connected with supporters. His English has clearly improved since then and he continued to have lessons even after he left Arsenal.

Cillian Murphy as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders (Handout)
Cillian Murphy as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders (Handout)

Emery’s success at Villa has caught some by surprise given his struggles at Arsenal, but many forget the environment he worked in at the Emirates.

Being the man to replace Wenger was never going to be easy and the tumultuous start to Arteta’s reign underlines how there were years of hard work ahead.

Emery had to cope with a revolving door of executives above him. Ivan Gazidis left as CEO just months into Emery’s reign, with Raul Sanllehi and Vinai Venkatesham charged with leading the club as head of football and managing director respectively.

By January, there was more upheaval as head of recruitment, Sven Mislintat, departed. That summer, director of high performance, Darren Burgess, headed for the exit, too.

Clearly, in the wake of Wenger going, Arsenal were struggling to find a new structure and they were a far cry from the well-oiled machine they are today.

The dressing room proved to be equally turbulent for Emery. He lost his captain Laurent Koscielny in the summer of 2019 and then stripped Granit Xhaka of the armband months later. By the end, he had lost the whole dressing room.

Arteta took years to revamp the squad and build it in the image he has today, which reinforces the challenge Emery had. The Spaniard was facing an uphill battle from the start.

He has found a home at Villa, though, and there is a sense from those within the game that this is where he operates best.

Emery is someone who has punched above his weight his whole career and he suits clubs who share that feeling. He worked wonders at Sevilla and Villarreal, for example, but struggled in the spotlights of Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain.

Villa are a big club with a huge history and Emery has stirred a sleeping giant, with his style of football captivating fans.

His side are all-action, with their pace and power meaning they can overrun teams. It is the result of endless planning, with extensive video sessions a trademark of Emery’s career.

“He is obsessed with football,” said Joaquin, an ex-player of his at Valencia. “It is practically an illness. He put on so many videos I ran out of popcorn.”

Villa players have relished the detail and their performances have allowed Emery to prove his doubters in England wrong. Beat Arsenal on Saturday, and there surely won’t be many left.