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Unai Emery and rebuilding supporters’ love of Arsenal

The new manager speaks directly to supporters for the first time.

Paris Saint-Germain v RSC Anderlecht - UEFA Champions League
Unai Emery is saying all the right things.
Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

To oversimplify things a bit, the last few seasons at Arsenal have been tough. The club fell out of the top 4, saw its (remarkable) consecutive Champions League streak snapped, then missed the top 4 again. St. Totteringham’s day was cancelled postponed (twice). The gap between Arsenal and the other top clubs was no longer a gap. It was a chasm.

Manchester City and Liverpool? They played the exciting, freewheeling, attacking football that had once been an Arsenal hallmark. The Gunners ran about looking disorganized and lacking ideas.

Fans became increasingly negative after poor results, more upset with what they perceived as a lack of ambition from the club, and more disillusioned with the leadership of Arsene Wenger. The undercurrent of dissent grew into an angry buzzing and then to loud chants and protest signs from fans at matches.

And then those fans stopped showing up altogether.

Arsenal want those fans to come back. They want them to love the squad again, to fill every seat at the Emirates, and to enjoy being a part of Arsenal Football Club. I’m sure the managerial change and the front office restructure will help accomplish that. Indeed, it might be all that some fans needed.

But talk is cheap (and the irony of writing that in a piece about a speech is not lost on me). Some fans will reserve judgment, will want to see it to believe it, and may not be happy until Arsenal are back in the Champions League or at least markedly closer to it.

It seems to me that new manager Unai Emery’s speech on Wednesday was directed specifically at those fans, the ones for whom the trust has eroded and the love has faded.

Emery’s remarks were positive yet conciliatory, and they were not subtle. There was no reading between the lines to glean his meaning. His points might as well have been displayed on a gigantic, flashing neon marquee.

It’s impossible not to notice the words ‘ambitious’ and ‘working hard’ in that quote. Heck, he uses a form of ‘ambition’ three times in the span of two sentences. It’s a not-so-subtle way of telling the supporters, “I hear you. I understand what you want to see. I’m going to give that to you.”

Emery also doubled down on what he said in his opening press conference - essentially that he would rather win a high-scoring game than a low-scoring one. Again, it’s hard not to draw a straight line between his remarks and what was making supporters unhappy.

But there’s a lot more going on here than just reassuring fans he’s going to put an exciting product on the pitch. Even though the results faltered at the end, Arsene Wenger coached his teams to play beautiful, attacking football. Wenger’s Arsenal did it so well that it became part of the identity of the club. Emery is acknowledging that identity here - he understands that many Arsenal supporters want their team not only to win, but also to win by playing “the right way.”

Emery used the 1-0 scoreline intentionally. It’s a nod to the history of the club, another cherished part of what makes Arsenal, well, Arsenal. For years, if not decades, prior to Wenger’s arrival, Arsenal’s “identity” was also embodied in the “1-0 TO THE ARSENAL” chant that rang out around Highbury and, later on, more ironically in the Emirates’ early years as Wenger’s attacking, flowing style took hold.

Arsenal’s identity prior to Wenger was as a defense-first, highly disciplined team, so much so that Arsenal’s defense became part of popular culture (warning: not-entirely-appropriate-to-2018-attitudes referenced in that clip).

By Emery specifically referencing that scoreline, it seems he’s deliberately setting out his stall to be a much less defense-first manager, less in the mold of George Graham and more in the mold of the Manchester City and Liverpool model. He’s unmistakably asserting himself, putting his stamp on things, and taking control of the club.

And that stuff about ‘emotion’ and ‘the best feeling in football’ sounds kinda familiar, doesn’t it? That’s because it sounds like something Arsene Wenger would say. I can’t tell you if it’s a deliberate homage, an unintentional coincidence, or just me reading into things too much (and maybe overreacting to a few sentences), but once made, the connection is hard to unmake. In the midst of the most change the club has seen in decades, it’s comforting to hear something familiar, like an old favorite song that always makes you smile.

Arsene Wenger was a philosopher-manager, a man who believed that football was about more than the best way to take a free kick. He once said, “I am a facilitator of what is beautiful in man,” which sounds more like René Descartes than a Premier League manager.

Unai Emery seems to be cut from the same cloth. He’s known for his meticulous attention to tactics and strategy, but that quote shows that he understands there’s more to football than X’s and O’s.

Will his approach buff away the tarnish and restore Arsenal to its former glory? Who knows. It’s an extremely tall order. But he’s saying the right things. I’ll buy what he’s selling. Preseason starts on Monday, and for the first time in years, I’m excited.