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On managing expectations (and expectations of managing)

Sheffield United v Arsenal FC - Premier League Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

There’s so much toxicity around the Unai Emery discussion right now that I feel like I need to be crystal clear from the outset here, so let me set these things off in their own paragraphs:

This is not going to be a piece defending Unai Emery.

This is not going to be a piece where I argue for patience while he embeds his system.

What this is going to be is...unclear right now. So here we go!

If all you look at is results, Unai Emery is not terrible. Arsenal finished fifth in the league last year, and made the Europa League final; that ain’t all bad. Of course, the way they got to fifth wasn’t great, and the way they played in the final was awful, but on the face of it, Arsenal aren’t too far off where they want to be, and where we all want them to be.

Even this year, the Premier League season is almost a quarter complete, and Arsenal are two points off third place, and four out of second, and easing through their Europa League group. So, it’s not all bad! But.

Even given that surface-level satisfying progress, though, Arsenal...aren’t right. They’re not playing all that well, they struggle where they shouldn’t, and the sense around the fan base, at least, is that Emery isn’t the man for the job. Losses like yesterday’s to Sheffield United only amplify that feeling, because losses like yesterday’s shouldn’t happen, right?

From this point on, of course, there are two options: Keep Emery or let him go. I’m going to focus on the latter option here, because the former, well, we know what that looks like. So, let’s assume that Arsenal decide they’ve had enough of Unai Emery, and that all of a sudden tomorrow his keycard doesn’t let him in the door at Colney. What happens next?

I don’t mean that in terms of a specific person - if a manager is fired mid-season, I will assume that a placeholder manager will take over until the summer, when a more permanent solution can be more easily found. What I mean is, what happens to the team on the pitch?

There’s a sense around Arsenal’s online fandom that Arsenal are sort of a sleeping giant, ready to wake up and become a European powerhouse if only a manager with the magic formula shows up and unlocks a well of potential just waiting to be unleashed upon an unsuspecting world.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that’d be awesome! But I also look at this team, and its Xhaka-Mustafi-Sokratis backbone, and its often chowderheaded back line and decision making process (seriously, look at yesterday’s goal and tell me anyone close to the ball in a yellow shirt made a good decision), and I can’t help but think that the potential of this team might just be more or less what we are currently seeing. I’m not a fan of the Ron White style of comedy, at all, but there’s definitely some truth to the phrase “you can’t fix stupid”.

Again: this is neither an endorsement of Emery’s managerial prowess or an argument for doing nothing.

Instead, it’s a sort of warning that, if the only change made is to the manager, Arsenal may still be Arsenal. It may be that a new manager does find some well of talent that Emery hasn’t, and it may well be that a new manager gets more out of this team than Emery has. But there’s a fairly equal chance it may not be that! It could be that Arsenal, no matter how you arrange the pieces on the board, are what we see, not what some theoretical new manager has the vision to activate when we, on the other side of the TV, can’t see it.

So, I guess where I’m going with this is, it might be useful to be realistic with our expectations going forward. If Emery gets fired and this season still plays out as it has started, with inconsistent performances and forehead-slapping stupidity at times, the problem is deeper than who is managing. If Emery goes, and a new manager tears off a Solskjaer-esque 12 game unbeaten streak, well...oh wait, it’s still kind of a cautionary tale, because Emery, of course, went 14 unbeaten last year (and look at Manchester United right now).

There’s risk in change as well as stasis, for sure, and I don’t know which I prefer at this point. But that’s just it, this isn’t a math problem - there’s no single correct answer here. There’s just discussion. So let’s discuss!