Arsenal need Unai Emery's pragmatism more than Wenger's idealism
There's an old cliche that says when clubs change managers, they go for the opposite of what they had. You swap your long ball merchant for the tiki-taka enthusiast, exchange your folksy, arm-around-shoulder guy for some dour, unsmiling drill sergeant.
On the surface, this is the road Arsenal have gone down in appointing Unai Emery.
Arsene Wenger was the omnipotent, omniscient ("Arsene knows") visionary with a clear idea of how he wanted to play and, sometimes, especially in latter years, a somewhat fuzzy execution.
Emery is the pragmatist, the guy who makes do with what he has (and he's had both very little and plenty of riches during his career), who genuinely wants you to like him and builds support that way. Systems, formations and philosophies are a means to an end, not a goal unto themselves. If he has an ego, it's buried deep, somewhere next to his vanity.
In these situations, spin reigns supreme. Arsenal pushed the idea that Emery was a "unanimous choice" after a "thorough search." Maybe so. Then again, what were they going to say?
"Well, we sorta liked Unai, but we were kinda divided on him because there were other guys we liked too, so at the end, we put it to a vote ... oh, and by the way, our search wasn't quite that thorough, we kinda stopped at the letter E ... Allegri, Arteta, Luis Enrique, Emery..."
What we do know is that Mikel Arteta was in the running -- to the point that some papers expected him to be appointed this week. Sky Sports reported that Arteta withdrew from the process and that he "wanted assurances over the role he [would] play in Arsenal's transfer policy before agreeing to join the club as a head coach."
Did Emery get the job because Arteta withdrew? Did Arteta withdraw because he wasn't convinced by Arsenal's transfer architecture with Raul Sanllehi and Sven Mislinstat calling the shots? Or was Emery the "unanimous choice" all along?
We probably won't know for some time. What we do know is that enough people care about how this is perceived that they're leaking stuff, stuff that might or might not be accurate. Or, like Rashomon, might be accurate only based on your perception.
What's obvious is that if it was a binary decision between Arteta and Emery, then the latter is the safe pair of hands for what Arsenal have become. No longer an autocracy but an oligarchy in which creative tension is encouraged and decisions are, ideally, made by consensus (with chief executive Ivan Gazidis, you presume, the ultimate tiebreaker -- at least for anything not worth bothering the Kroenkes over.)
Emery is a guy who came up the hard way. An unremarkable lower-division footballer, he was pressed into managerial service at 34 at Lorca, while he was recovering from a serious knee injury. He immediately won promotion to the second flight and followed that by nearly winning another promotion the following season.
Off he went to little Almeria, immediately engineering promotion and finishing eighth the following season. That, in turn, won him a move to Valencia, and he helped them from 10th to sixth in his first campaign, which he followed with three straight third-place finishes.
He opted for a big contract at Spartak Moscow and hit the first tailspin of his career, as he was sacked with the team in seventh place, 11 points back. But he picked himself up, dusted himself off and returned to La Liga less than two months later, in January 2013, to take over Sevilla with the club 13th and five points from relegation. He ended the campaign in ninth, and the next three campaigns saw him finish fifth, fifth and seventh, along the way winning three straight Europa League titles.
Here it's worth pausing for a minute because, in many ways, even though he took no time off, there was a natural break in Emery's career. Up until this point, he had scratched and clawed his way up the managerial ladder, overachieving with underfunded clubs.
During his time at Valencia, he lost Raul Albiol, David Villa, David Silva, Carlos Marchena, Joaquin and Juan Mata. And, no, given the chaos reigning at the club, they were not adequately replaced. It was a similar story at Sevilla, though at least Emery had Monchi's annual transfer miracles to help keep him afloat: Jesus Navas, Alvaro Negredo, Gary Medel, Geoffrey Kondogbia, Federico Fazio, Ivan Rakitic, Alberto Moreno, Aleix Vidal and Carlos Bacca all left during his time there.
Think it's easy to rebuild and reload every single year, losing your key men? Think again.
This was scrappy Emery. This was "lemons make lemonade" Emery. This was the Emery that saw value in (just about) every single footballer he met. This was the Emery that saw opportunities where others saw problems.
Then came Paris Saint-Germain. If it's easy to see a steady, vertical rise to this point, this is where things change. The air is rarified at the top; expectations are high.
You probably know the story from here. In his debut season, PSG failed to win the title for the first time in four years, though they did win the French Cup and French League Cup. In the Champions League -- suddenly his benchmark -- they pummelled Barcelona 4-0, only to lose 6-1 at Camp Nou amid some controversial refereeing.
This past season, after the memorable summer spending spree that landed him Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, Emery won a domestic Treble while again going out in the knockout stages of the Champions League, this time limply to Real Madrid. Make of this what you will. Personally, I'm not sure his time at PSG is of much use one way or another in offering clues as to what might happen at Arsenal. The league, the job, the club's situation, fan expectations ... everything is radically different to North London.
It did feel like he got bullied at times by some of the big egos in the PSG squad, and not just over the Neymar-Edinson Cavani penalty-taking fiasco. He became the first manager in Champions League history unable to hold a 4-0 first-leg lead. He won no more than his predecessor (and his predecessor was Laurent Blanc), and no big club is beating a path to his door. On the other hand, it's just two seasons at a hugely unusual club in hugely unusual circumstances.
The earlier part of Emery's career is a better barometer, and it speaks to a guy who is an excellent man-manager (his English isn't great but will improve), a superb tactician who likes to tailor his approach to what he has available and a well-liked guy who cares what others think of him.
If anything, the knock on him at Valencia, and to a lesser extent at Sevilla, is that he was too nice, too willing to accept the party line from the club and observe the hierarchy. In fact, even as both clubs were poorly run at the top, Emery rarely spoke out and often seemed grateful just to be there.
Those aren't necessarily bad skills to have at Arsenal, where newly arrived figures from different football cultures will have to try to coexist in the space where once there was only the immensity of Wenger. A pragmatic approach that yields results -- more so than an idealised version of football and a string of top four "trophies" -- might be just what Arsenal need.
There's one more quirk. Much as he was praised, he also developed -- justly or not -- a reputation as the guy who could not win the big games. Indeed, his record against Barcelona (two wins, five draws, 15 defeats with Sevilla, Valencia and PSG) and Real Madrid (three wins, one draw, 13 defeats) is nothing to write home about.
Then again, Arsenal don't play in La Liga. And the road ahead is long and steep. If there's a guy who, until two years ago, specialised in pushing boulders up mountains, it's Emery.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.