Project Youth Meets Project Freddie

The elephant in the room has finally been acknowledged and Unai Emery has been euthanised.

The decision feels like a bit of a smack in the face so soon after the grievances of the entire Arsenal fanbase were labelled as “noise” and is perhaps a bit embarrassing that said powers took so long to come to their decision. I’m not suggesting for a second that they should be indulging the fans’ every beck and call but this was a very easy and obvious decision to make and it raises questions going forward. At the very least, there is absolutely no margin for error, nor are there excuses in selecting Emery’s successor. Ultimately, Unai was a hellspawn of Ivan Gazidis so the prospect of a completely fresh start, on their own terms, should be enticing.

While the final nails in his coffin had been in place quite a few weeks ago, the powers that be and their prevaricating have now left us in a position where Freddie has had 3 days to prepare rather than an international break. I’m sure he’s over the moon with that. Freddie is no fool though, and I’m sure has conjured up plenty of alternative ideas in his time spent powerlessly trapped on the sidelines.

Unai Emery

I can’t go further without acknowledging what Emery has done for the club. At the very least, he demonstrated why change was needed in the first place, as we showed marked improvements in matches with the rest of the “Big 6”. The biggest conundrum is why he was able to improve us here but take such massive strides backwards against the remaining 14 teams.

In the past few weeks as the end drew closer, I postulated as to what Emery’s legacy would be in his tumultuous 18-month stint at the club. The capitulation in Baku and abject failure in throwing away a place in the “Top Four” last season will perhaps be remembered longest, rather than the spate of worrying statistics we’ve been subjected to this season. Ultimately, winless in all competitions for 7 games proved to be his undoing, a feat not seen since 1992. Given the standard of opposition we’ve faced lately, there really is nowhere to hide when it’s laid out like that.

The breakdown of relationships with several key individuals will also be pointed to as defining tenets of his time here. Aaron Ramsey was the first to raise alarm bells, made all the more perturbing by Emery’s obvious dependency on him to get results last season.

Laurent Koscielny was the next to make way, and although initially castigated in the press with sensationalist reports about our captain “going on strike”, I feel that was the last card he could play. A loyal servant for nearly a decade who played through pain for years without complaint finally cracked. The crushing disappointment of Koscielny’s missed World Cup also took their toll, by his own admission. He wasn’t treated with the kind of respect he deserved and his departure spilled over into this season as Emery seemingly begrudgingly made Granit Xhaka captain once the season was already well underway.

It was the breakdown of this relationship and the explosive, public nature of it that really felt like the beginning of the end for Emery. As much as many would have liked this to be the convenient answer to our problems, Xhaka’s absence failing to turn around performances pointed to a Medusa-complex and the slump gained momentum.

Emery’s handling of Mesut Özil also did him no favours. No one knows whose toes the German stepped on but suggestions that he wasn’t applying himself in training were clearly unfounded and the dearth of creativity that began to define Emery’s Arsenal owed much to this relationship. Time will tell just how much of a mistake this was.


That’s not to say it was all doom and gloom, though.

My personal highlight of his time here, as I’m sure many will also agree, was the traditional yearly home demolition of Spurs. It wasn’t just the result, or the efficacy of his substitutions, or even the manner in which we tore them apart. For me, it was the first time I really felt a sense of hope and good things to come again as an Arsenal fan. It turned out to be a bit of a pipe dream but hey ho, that’s football. At the very least, I’ll miss Emery’s maniacal mannerisms, flagrant disregard for the bounds of his technical area and exuberant celebrations.

Whatever his reasoning, his proclivity for giving opportunities to youth players was also commendable. We’ve got a really great crop of players at the moment and although raw, the baptism of fire they’ve been thrust into in these 18 months will be a good part of their development. The question now is whether they can press on under a man many of whom seem to really look up to. The foundations are there and as far as I’m concerned, this season is another write-off already. I’d like to see them play without fear and go hell for leather. We certainly need some good, cathartic payback against the smaller opposition who Emery was so reluctant to dispose of.

Aside from that, I really do struggle to harbour any kind of positive sentimentality to his time here. We’ve been incredibly boring to watch for over a year, we’ve invited pressure like there’s no tomorrow – regardless of who we’re playing – we’ve been infuriatingly error-prone and we’ve squandered an array of attacking talent at our disposal. I suspect Nicolas Pépé will be the most relieved. Over to you, Freddie.


Freddie

So, the Premier League now has Ole Gunnar Solskjær, Frank Lampard and Freddie Ljungberg managing United, Chelsea and Arsenal. Born ‘93 and becoming embedded in football in the 2000s, it really is a bizarre time we’re in. You might’ve tipped one of them to go into management but for them to have aligned to where they find themselves now really is something.

By all accounts, Freddie has been quietly going about his business in the right manner, slowly working his way through the ranks and not cutting corners. I’m not too well read on the nuances of his on-field successes in the youth leagues but the consensus seems to be that he’s well respected among the youth setup and several that now find themselves in the first team.

Wenger always spoke highly of Freddie, an intelligent player on and off the field, with an uncanny ability to pop up in the box at the right time. We could do with him imparting a bit of that wisdom to the current crop. It’s also been reported that Per Mertesacker will be “supporting” Ljungberg in the dugout tomorrow, perhaps the start of an unlikely but blossoming relationship. That’d be something.

He might not have got the kind of preparation he wanted but Norwich shouldn’t prove too stern a test and the squad should be relishing the opportunity to play with the shackles off. I’m intrigued to see how we setup and approach the game, the players have nowhere to hide now either. As much as I’ve been critical of Emery, there have been plenty of players who have been well below their potential this season. I hope at the very least Freddie is ruthless enough to drop people that deserve to be dropped. He’s a fighter and a winner and I’m sure he won’t let that kind of behaviour fly.

Down the line, I don’t know what he could do to secure the job full-time. It would be quite an achievement to secure top four from where we find ourselves now but is rewarding him with a contract at the end of it the right decision for the long term?

Freddie has that highly-coveted “Arsenal DNA” and I certainly wouldn’t be against rewarding him for a successful season (all things considered). Finding our “Mr. Right” was never going to happen at the first try and maybe it’s where we least expect it. All I can say is, I’m excited about football again.


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