By the 20th of April 2018, it was clear there would be vacancies at three of London’s Premier League clubs during the summer. David Moyes was only ever a short-term fix at West Ham, Antonio Conte was stropping his way out of Chelsea, and Arsene Wenger had announced the end of an era.
Arsenal came calling for Unai Emery. Who knows if Chelsea made an offer too – who knows if West Ham audaciously put their name in the hat. But if east and west were as viable options as north, perhaps the Spaniard chose the wrong one, ending up in the wrong quadrant of the capital.
Whether by design or consequence, Chelsea’s greatest achievements of Roman Abramovich’s ownership have always stemmed from the utter-most pragmatism, from Jose Mourinho’s win-at-any-cost mentality to lifting the Champions League with the most make-shift team ever to grace the competition’s final few rounds. Carlo Ancelotti’s goal-laden 2009/10 campaign is the only real exception to the rule.
Which is why the decision to appoint Maurizio Sarri, not an idealist but a philosophical extremist, seems so bizarre, which – in turn – is why the decision to part company with the Italian before the start of next season, even if Chelsea do finish in the top four, feels largely inevitable.
Here’s a club that never give their manager anything close to full licence in the transfer market, that have an incredibly vast and varied cohort of players brought in by various different coaches and sporting directors, that have generated success through their unique ability to adapt and evolve, often around problems they’ve self-created, appointing a manager who insists on playing one formation and one style of football, refusing to compromise. It just doesn’t make sense.
In north London though, ironically at a club that in direct contrast has built its foundations on believing in one distinct way of playing to the point that it became Wenger’s ultimate undoing, Emery has consistently proved that he’s capable of thriving under the exact circumstances that make Sarri and Chelsea such a dangerous mismatch.
Emery has used seven different formations in the top flight this season, he’s called upon the services of 29 different players including one as young as 17, he’s made the most substitutions of any Premier League manager and Arsenal substitutes have scored the most goals and been involved in the most goals of any team throughout the division.
That is tactical pragmatism at its best; not in the defensive sense it has become synonymous with but in the true meaning of the word – approaching every situation in the matter-of-fact manner required. It’s why only Leicester City and Manchester United have won more Premier League points after going behind this season, and why Arsenal have gone on to seal victories deep into second halves, usually once Emery has made at least two changes from the bench. Yes, Emery wants his team to play positive football, but in terms of shape, structure and personnel, nothing is off limits.
Saturday’s North London derby was another prime example: Emery accepted the reality that Arsenal were visiting the home of a side they’ve been less consistent than this season, deployed a centre-back on the right of his defence and eked out a point at Wembley. Barring one timid penalty attempt from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, it would have been three – a massive result to bring Arsenal within two points of their bitter rivals.
And all of this while Emery’s involvement in transfer has been minimal, while his best-paid player Mesut Ozil has been pushed to the peripheries of the squad, while arguably his best midfielder Aaron Ramsey has agreed a move elsewhere, while club captain Laurent Koscielny has missed much of the season through injury and the club’s only convincing right-back Hector Bellerin has picked up a campaign-ending ailment, while he’s blooded in two young central midfielders who’ve never played in England before and tried to find ways of getting two top-class strikers into the same starting XI.
Check out the video below for pure scenes at the North London Derby on Sunday…
When put into that context, the fact Arsenal are anywhere near third place seems quite remarkable. But Emery’s suitability to Chelsea isn’t based purely on how good a job he’s done; it’s the constraints he’s managed to do it under, the way in which he’s adapted and changed his team almost game by game, how he’s managed to keep results ticking over despite the dark clouds created by the Ozil and Ramsey situations.
Chelsea have the width and resources of squad for him to do that even more effectively in west London. This is the only team in Premier League history to win the title playing three at the back just two years after lifting it with a four-man defence, and a club with one of the biggest loan armies in the world.
If pragmatism and tactical tinkering is Emery’s biggest strength as his debut Arsenal season strongly suggests, then Chelsea is the club to do it at – you might need to look under a few rocks and redefine the use of certain players, like how Conte did with Victor Moses, but the Blues have the personnel to make almost any system work. While that suggests there should be enough for Sarri to become a success in west London, it also implies the greatest quality of this Chelsea team is its flexibility.
A similar theory applies to Arsenal too. Perhaps the case for Sarri to don the dugout at the Emirates Stadium isn’t quite as compelling – after all, why boot out one stubborn footballing professor just to bring in another? But at the same time, if the club wanted a distinct way of playing to become Wenger’s legacy, Sarri was always going to be a better guardian of it than Emery, a manager who has chopped and changed ruthlessly throughout his first campaign. It would be updating what Wenger left behind, rather than trying to build something almost completely new.
As much as we talk about clubs choosing the wrong manager though, the reverse is true as well. Sarri must have known it would be almost impossible to implement a such a specific philosophy at a club that treats their managers with such alarming insincerity, just as Emery must have known he was inheriting a squad where almost every player had been purchased to thrive under one way of playing. Bending them around new ways of thinking, as has been the case with Ozil, has not be easy at times.
Of course, now it’s a case of what could have been. There’s no realistic scenario where Sarri and Emery end up trading places this summer, and Arsenal particularly won’t be interested in surrendering a manager who has done such a good job so far to a bitter London rival. But as we approach the ends of their inaugural campaigns, it certainly feels as though the right men have chosen the wrong clubs.