On the face of it there is not a great deal that separates the early months of Unai Emery and Mikel Arteta at Arsenal. Both were handed hellish early fixtures in which flashes of encouragement were interwoven with brutal reality checks handed to them by superior opponents.
Both made an immediate impact on the training ground with their new methods and both emerged from their arrival press conference having comfortably exceeded expectations, though in Emery’s case much of that came down to his surprising ability to present himself in English.
Following all that came lengthy unbeaten runs, far greater in Emery’s case, where Arsenal at times seemed to be living on the edge but somehow pulled something out of the bag.
Yet even as Emery’s unbeaten run ran into the 20s there were murmurs of doubt over the Spaniard and his side. Make no mistake there were many who saw the former Sevilla and Paris Saint-Germain boss as their saviour – those chants of “we’ve got our Arsenal back” suggest as much – but there were numerous doubters who never fully bought into their new boss.
As is inevitable at a club as big as Arsenal not everyone is entirely enamoured with Arteta but inside and outside of the Emirates Stadium there is far greater confidence in the new man than there ever was in Emery.
The overriding explanation for that is simple. There is evidence of a plan forming. Arteta’s Arsenal have a style and an identity.
Both were in short supply under Emery, whose greatest success came when he was able to swing games in his favour with a shrewd substitution or two. That undeniably reflects well on the 48-year-old but even at the time there were those questioning why he so often had to turn to Plans B and C. A club like Arsenal should have a Plan A, with players such as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil, that works more often than not.
The early evidence of Arteta’s reign suggests there is a Plan A that may be malleable but does not break for anyone. One of the countless disappointments of the Premier League being postponed when it was is that Arsenal’s head coach was robbed of a chance to return to Manchester City and show his former boss Pep Guardiola how far he had come. It may be some time yet before we know how Arteta would have cut his cloth for a trip to the Etihad Stadium but you suspect his side would not have compromised their core principles of expansive, possession-first football.
Looking back now it is still hard to find evidence of any underlying approach from Emery. He spoke of a desire to press and even put players in positions to do so, most notably and unsuccessfully Lucas Torreira, but his side never implemented those ideas. He chopped and changed formations continually, settling on a back three for the run-in of the 2018/19 campaign seemingly because it was the only way to leverage Alexandre Lacazette and Aubameyang into their preferred positions.
For a while a more improvisational approach can work but chopping and changing on such a consistent basis ultimately cost Emery the respect of his squad. Not that he did much to build those ties with the squad.
Sources at Arsenal spoke (that being the operative word, no-one particularly enjoys a walk down memory lane over the 18 months post-Wenger’s departure) of Emery as a distant coach, one whose focus would be on watching endless clips of his upcoming opponents rather than engaging with his squad. He never had the time to focus on all things off-field that Arteta has had during the lockdown but it is notable that he has determined that going over scouting tape should be part of a more holistic approach to management.
These conversations tend to veer beyond just football. Pablo Mari spoke of how his conversations with Arteta were not just clip shows but about “how we can improve as a team and individuals” whilst with David Luiz the head coach talks about future coaching paths beyond his time at Arsenal.
“When I joined here, you know, we were playing every three days,” Arteta said yesterday in a video interview with Ian Wright. “I haven’t had any time, really, to train or reflect on what we’ve been doing and, as well, to try to implement a lot of things that I want.
“The things that we change, whether they are working or not, and how much understanding the players, as well, are taking from everything that I want to bring to the club.
“These one v one talks, you know, we have time. We can spend an hour, an hour and a half. It’s been very valuable for me to understand them better. You know, who they are.
“Most of them are kids still and I want to really get to know them. Because, we are not competing. So, they can open up to me a little bit more and I have the time now to spend with them to try to generate that chemistry between us.”
Contrast this approach with Emery, who when handed a talented group of youngsters in his second season effectively subcontracted management of them to Freddie Ljungberg, the newly-promoted assistant head coach who acted as a node for the academy graduates.
No wonder that they were publicly prepared to admit that they turned to Ljungberg, not Emery, for guidance in their fledgling careers.
That instance is all too typical of Emery’s Arsenal, one where the head coach’s focus was solely on matters on the pitch. Raul Sanllehi and Ivan Gazidis may have wanted a more collegiate approach to running a football club than they had under Arsene Wenger but his successor veered too far away.
Having worked under the likes of Monchi at Sevilla and a vocal group of football executives at PSG, Emery was used to others defining the narrative at a football club. Even if England has seen a proliferation of technical directors they do not take on the same public facing role that they do in other countries. Edu remains rarely seen and even more infrequently heard in north London.
As such it is down to the head coach to set the culture of the team, particularly that which it projects to the outside world. Inevitably this was more of a challenge for Emery than Arteta. For the former this was a great opportunity but ultimately another job. The latter has a deep understanding of Arsenal ingrained in his final years as a footballer.
Arteta, a fulcrum of the revival of the Gunners as a cup-winning team in Wenger’s final years. knows what Arsenal is supposed to feel like. Therefore he knew when he arrived that something was the matter.
On his first day at the club he arranged to speak with every member of staff and would tour departments to get a bigger picture of the club he had joined. The contrast could not be sharper with Emery and even Gazidis, both of whom used to frustrate colleagues at Highbury House with how infrequently they were visible to them.
“Coming into the club in that moment wasn’t easy,” Arteta said yesterday. “You [Wright] mentioned a keyword, which is energy.
“I felt that the energy at the training ground and the stadium wasn’t right for this magnificent.
“There was a lot of disconnection and I wanted to bring everyone together.
“Firstly, for everyone to understand how lucky we are to be here, and then a very clear direction of where we want to be.”
Emery could never quite appreciate that in the same way, particularly because he arrived at an Arsenal desperate to move on from his predecessor. They were not yet at the stage where they knew what they wanted to create just that they knew a change was required.
Perhaps it helped that Gazidis, who himself felt so inhibited by Wenger, departed before Arteta arrived. Under Sanllehi, Vinai Venkatesham and Edu the club is more at ease with the Frenchman’s legacy.
In his football and his demeanour Arteta is a clear melding of Arsenal’s past with the best of the modern game. He arrived with a clear understanding of the value of building roots, defining his culture and engaging with staff who had been left isolated by his predecessor.
By all accounts the club as a whole have bought into Arteta’s vision for Arsenal. Will that hold when the first sustained downturn in fortunes arrive? It is impossible to know for sure but it at least appears these head coach has gone about laying deeper roots than Emery attempted to.
It is that, as much as his on-field tactical acumen, that will serve him well in the years to come.