After a self-imposed exile, the author returns to the Emirates and finds Gooner Nation giving peace (and Unai Emery) a chance.
An hour before Arsenal was to play their opening game of the 2018 season, I found myself on Hornsey Road in North London, hugging a tree. I needed to steady myself.
I was returning to the Emirates for the first time in four years since witnessing two grown men choking the bejesus out of each other in the dying minutes of a game against Swansea. Presumably they were trying to resolve the half-decade conundrum roiling every miserable Gooner’s life: “Does Arsène Wenger deserve to leave on his own terms or should he be hog-tied, stuffed in the trunk, driven over the French border, and forced to drink wine from a screw-top bottle?”
I had observed this fratricidal civil war for a while, watching with increasing dismay as my fellow Arsenal supporters became shrill, squabbling cartoon versions of themselves. Let history record that the first shot in Arsenalageddon was fired in 2011 by one Daniel Turner (Mr. DT to you, mate), a bearded, neck-tatted, baseball-cap wearing bloke who unfurled a 12-foot banner in the North Stand of the Emirates with a message aimed right at Wenger’s puffy-coat protected heart. “THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES,” it read, “BUT IT’S TIME TO GO.”
Seven years later, Wenger is gone and Mr. DT is a viral megastar on the YouTube phenomenon Arsenal Fan TV (AFTV). The two developments are not coincidental. After every dispiriting, often self-inflicted defeat, Mr. DT stood on his AFTV soapbox outside the Emirates and did to Wenger what Vlad the Impaler had done to those who disappointed him—except with hundreds of thousands more clicks.
Mr. DT’s profane, venom-spitting rants struck a nerve in a Gooner Nation riven by the past few years of inexorable regression. The brainchild of a former BBC Reggae host named Robbie Lyle, AFTV built its social media empire in large measure on the snowballing Wenger Out movement and on the angry, purple faces of street-corner “pundits” like the 39-year-old Mr. DT. Their rage was further stoked by Arsenal’s rug-wearing and Trump-donating American billionaire owner, Stan Kroenke, and his ever-so-smooth front office toady, Ivan Gazidis, both of whom had shown nothing but haughty indifference to the fans’ demands for Wenger’s head on one of those pieces of silverware he should have won more of. Or, as Mr. DT put it in this piquant assessment:
“I’ve had enough of it! Ivan Gazidis! You fuckin’ liar. Catalyst for change? Catalyst for bullshit! The only thing I’ve seen changing is Arsène Wenger’s fuckin’ salary!”
Unlike Kroenke and Gazidis, who remained safely cloistered away in their presumably bulletproof Emirates suite, Wenger had nowhere to hide. He was out there on the touchline week after week, a tall, gray-haired, increasingly haggard-looking target being carpet-bombed by thunderous boos and constant chants of “Spend some fuckin’ money” and “You don’t know what you’re doing.”
I grew weary of the rancor. It was exhausting and tedious. Wenger In or Out was Arsenal’s version of Brexit, with Piers Morgan deputizing for Boris Johnson as the resident ass clown.
Still, I kept coming back to the Emirates, telling myself the anger would ultimately burn itself out as the results improved. I was wrong on both counts.
My personal crucible occurred on March 25, 2014, in the wake of Mathieu Flamini’s own goal in the 90th minute that earned Swansea a 2-2 draw and cost Arsenal two precious points in yet another doomed title challenge. While those two scuffling mouth-breathers from opposite sides of the Wenger divide tumbled into my row and the toxic miasma of bad vibes roared through the stands, I made a painful decision, one that I knew would have my late father spinning in his grave like Bergkamp pirouetting around Dabizas at Newcastle. I would begin a self-imposed exile from the Emirates. Call me crazy, but I thought football was supposed to be fun.
From the time my dad took me to my first game at Highbury in 1982, Arsenal have been at the core of my identity. But if being a true Gooner meant pledging allegiance to a foaming-at-the-mouth mob hell bent on hounding out one of the epoch-shifting giants in English football, I wasn’t about to raise my pitchfork in solidarity. Wenger had given me too many indelible moments of pleasure over the years to join a jihad against him.
Let me be clear, though. I felt the Frenchman should have exited stage droitafter the great, giddy come-from-behind victory over Hull City in the 2014 FA Cup Final, a game in which Wenger finally shucked the monkey of the past trophy-less decade off his back and stomped it to death. In the delirium that followed, “There’s Only One Arsène Wenger” rang around Wembley while his adoring players drenched him in a geyser of champagne, lifted him off the ground and tossed him toward the heavens. When he came back to earth, he should have simply dried off and called it a day.
A couple of months later, in an interview for ESPN.com, I asked him why, after all the abuse he endured, he didn’t just walk away in that moment of redemptive triumph? He narrowed his eyes at me as though I had dared to shoot at goal from more than six yards away.
“I can’t imagine my life without football,” Wenger replied, “and for those brilliant moments of happiness the game gives me, I am ready to suffer again.”
And oh, how he suffered as Arsenal descended ever deeper into a sinkhole of apathy and averageness. The sad, agonizingly drawn-out end to Wenger’s career took a physical toll on the preternaturally spry 68-year-old. According to an Arsenal insider who spoke every day to the man they called Le Professeur, “Arsène aged 10 years in the last six months. He was always a thin man, but he became almost skeletal. His face turned gray. He did not look well, and we were worried about his health.”
Wenger was finally euthanized in late April of this year at a surreal press conference in which Gazidis announced that the Frenchman had decided to “step down” (a euphemism for being pushed off the platform at the Holloway Road tube stop) while not even bothering to invite him to his own funeral.
I was still in exile then, watching the messy breakup from afar. My only regret is that I missed his lap of honor at his final home game, where I imagined helping him on with his coat, smoothing his lapels, and, at long last, saying thank you for everything, Monsieur.
I owed him that much for those “brilliant moments of happiness”: for the free-flowing artistry of Thierry, Denis, and Bobby P.; for the combative verve of Vieira and the rest of the Invincibles; for the smurf-like ball wizards, Cesc and Santi and “little Mozart” Rosicky; for the three league titles, the seven FA Cups, the 20 consecutive years of qualifying for the Champions League; for standing up to Fergie, for shoving Mourinho, and for threatening to break Pardew’s face.
Now I was back at the Emirates for the dawning of the Age of Emery, and peace reigned over a brave new Wenger-free world.
Why, then, did I need to brace myself against a tree trunk to regain my balance before completing the last few steps of my Arsenal haj? Could it be that my brain was still reeling from the previous night’s random encounter with a boisterous band of Spurs supporters strutting about in their newly minted MIND THE GAP T-shirts as if they hadn’t been hiding under their beds for the past 20 years of Arsenal dominance? But that couldn’t be it. For me, any exposure to happy Spurs fans generally results in nausea, not vertigo.
Or possibly my unbearable lightness of being had to do with the fact that I’d just left Tollington Arms, the Arsenal pub within prawn-tossing distance of Kroenke Towers, where I had celebrated my return from exile with my customary pint. Or five. What can I say? As a famous jurist once opined, “I like beer.”
“You all right, mate?” asked a guy in an Özil jersey, seeing me gripping the tree, my face sheathed in sweat.
“Yeah,” I lied, “I think I’m just suffering from Wenger withdrawal.”
“You may be the only one,” he chortled and moved on.
The Emirates looked pretty much as I had left it. The looming glass façade and brushed steel canopy still gave off that whiff of corporate soullessness, but any sulphorous particles in the air left over from Wenger’s end days had given way to a bouncy optimism in the stands.
For the sake of my wife’s psychic health, I will not disclose the price of my seat in the front row at the halfway line. Suffice it to say that what you lose in overall field perspective from sitting that close you gain by never being far from Mezut Özil’s lung-busting runs or the Beckenbauer-like composure of Shkodran Mustafi at the back.
I’m happy to report that Unai Emery betrayed not a hint of Moyesian unease as he emerged from the tunnel and strode briskly down the touchline. With his generously toothy smile and jet black hair gelled to Ronaldo-esque perfection, he bore a passing resemblance to Count Dracula, only younger and better-looking. Who knew that in the coming months he would turn the lights back on in the castle and remind the rest of English soccer that once again the Emirates was home to a team that you underestimate at your own peril? Or that he would lead Arsenal on a remarkable 22-game unbeaten run in all competitions culminating in a thrillingly pugnacious North London derby that sucked the lifeblood out of those banana-skin-throwing, divey little weasels from the seamy side of Seven Sisters Road. But for the moment, Emery’s pointy incisors were hidden in a genial bro hug with the opposing manger. The schedule makers had done Emery no favors. Returning the Spaniard’s embrace was Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola, whose ruthlessly assembled title-winning machine had finished a mere 37 points ahead of Arsenal last season.
Moreover, twice in the span of one soul-incinerating week in April, City had surgically dismembered Arsenal at home by identical 3-0 scores, a pair of defeats so abject that by midway through the second half, there were more wide-open spaces in the stands than in the Arsenal defense.
It made for bad optics, and for a man like Kroenke, whose only interest in the club is to create a profitable “brand,” the thousands of empty seats spelled fini for Le Professeur.
But now the Emirates was filled to its 60,000 capacity again, and the supporters’ yearning for a new urgent, dynamic era was palpable. Emery had already received his benediction from the Pepmeister himself, a vision of Cryuffian cool in the Man City technical area. Rocking a gray cashmere sweater and trademark skinny jeans, Guardiola had earlier that week praised Emery as “a top manager at a top club,” proving he hadn’t been watching Arsenal much lately and conveniently ignoring the fact that he had never lost to his compatriot in their 10 La Liga meetings.
I must admit that my initial reaction to the news of Emery succeeding Wenger was a big fat meh. Of all the glittering résumés that must have thudded onto Gazidis’s desk—Juventus’s self-regarding Massimo Allegri, former dick-ish Barcelona manager Luis Enrique, charisma-free three-time Champions League winner Carlo Ancelloti, to cite just three marquee names—are you telling me that the best person the club could find was last seen staggering away from the Camp Nou in a zombified state after presiding over the most spectacular shit-the-bed display in Champions League history?
Perhaps you remember the game. Ahead 4-0 going into the second leg, PSG rolled over like a puppy hoping to have its tummy tickled and Barcelona obliged, scoring three times in the last seven minutes to win 6-5 on aggregate. But it would be churlish to judge Emery—or indeed any sentient human—on his time with Neymar’s traveling circus troupe. The Spaniard would never have been entrusted with the Qatari’s gazillion-dollar global-domination crusade had he not overachieved at both Valencia and Sevilla prior to pitching up in Paris.
Though he was not on Arsenal’s original short list, Emery crushed his job interview so convincingly that he catapulted over the poster-boy candidates and emerged as the club’s second choice behind the former Gunners captain and current Man City assistant coach, Lego Head Arteta.
Despite his relatively low profile, Emery seemed strangely destined for the job. And not just because his surname was as eponymous with the Emirates as Arsène was with Arsenal.
Gazidis never had any intention of hiring another über-manager like Wenger, whose despotic control extended to every aspect of the club—from the training ground to the front office to the back room to whether the broccoli should be grilled or boiled. In fact, Arsenal’s chief executive wasn’t even looking for your standard-issue manager, someone who at least had a say in the players the club buys and sells. No, Gazidis simply wanted a “head coach,” and Emery, who felt he had a point to prove after the car-crash end to his PSG tenure, was, unlike Arteta, willing to leave all off-the-pitch responsibilities to Arsenal’s newly installed front office triumvirate of Gazidis and his two high-pedigreed deputies, chief of football operations Raul Sanllehi, a 16-year veteran of Barcelona’s chain of command, and head of recruitment Sven Mislantet who previously worked his transfer magic at Borussia Dortmund.
But what really won over the Arsenal brain trust was Emery’s unvarnished enthusiasm for the overpriced and underperforming players that Wenger bequeathed to his successor. Instead of insisting on a costly squad overhaul, as, no doubt, Allegri or Enrique would have, Emery made a persuasive case that he could remedy the rampant dysfunction with laser-focused coaching and a fearsome work ethic.
A total football geek for whom no detail is too granular, Emery is the sort of fully immersive manager—sorry, head coach—who would rather spend his precious off-hours watching endless match videos than, say, enjoying a long weekend staring at Emily Ratajkowski’s Instagram account.
“The day I go to play golf, somebody should come and take me away because I’ll be good for nothing anymore,” Emery has said.
Like Wenger, who won three FA Cups in his final five years, he’s also something of a specialist in second-tier competitions, having captured three consecutive Europa League titles with Sevilla. When Emery’s hiring was announced in May, you’d have had to be delusional (albeit not a big stretch for Arsenal supporters) to envision the Gunners finishing in the top four in his inaugural season.
If Arsenal were to achieve their Holy Grail of Champions League football, a perquisite they took for granted under Wenger for a astonishing 20 years running, the Gunners would need to enter through the back door of the Europa League, the lock of which Emery knows how to pick better than anyone in the game. Or so the thinking went.
In my mind, though, the most compelling reason to have him bestriding the Emirates touchline was his admirable track record for improving his former players, a none-too-shabby bunch that included David Silva, Juan Mata, Isco, and Ivan Rakiti´c. The fond hope was that the 46-year-old Spaniard could do the same for the likes of Özil, Xhaka, Bellerín, Iwobi, and Lacazette, each of whom were consumed by the collective funk that marked late-stage Wengerdom.
At the same time, Emery would need to squeeze every ounce of quality out of the grab bag of summer transfers that Team Gazidis dropped in the Emirates parking lot under the cover of darkness before they knew who the new manager would be. Of the five acquisitions, only one, the Uruguayan midfielder Lucas Torreira, even registered on the Premier League buzz-o-meter. The 22-year-old is only five-foot-five, but his muscular combination of positional intelligence, passing range, and “garra charrua”(that signature Uruguayan steel) belies both his size and age, as Ronaldo rudely discovered when Torreira marked the Preening One out of Uruguay’s World Cup win over Portugal.
Heaven forfend I should provoke the vengeful Football Gods with brazen assurances based on less than half a season. Nonetheless, dare I say that Torreira looks to be not only the answer to Arsenal’s decade-long defensive midfield prayers—a technically assured, ball winning, slick passing, hard tackling little big man to plug the Gilberto Silva–shaped hole in front of Arsenal’s ramshackle backline—but the most dominant defensive pivot in the whole damn league.
ALL TOGETHER NOW:
HE COMES FROM URUGUAY
HE’S ONLY FIVE FEET HIGH
The Arsenal players, in their red and white splendor, are out on the pitch now, limbering up—shaking out their legs, jogging in place, and waiting for Aaron Ramsey to pull a hamstring. The game is about to begin, and just about everyone in my row is scratching his or her head, wondering why we hadn’t heard Emery’s name booming out over the stadium PA in honor of his Premier League debut.
And then it occurred to me: Could it be that Gazidis was concerned about the vestigial affection for Wenger that a segment of the crowd still harbored and he didn’t want to risk having a gigantic bird turd fall from the sky on Emery’s coronation day like it did at Wenger’s misty-eyed Emirates farewell when a shot of Kroenke flashed on the big screen and boos cascaded down?
It is difficult to overstate how reviled Arsenal’s owner is by the team’s supporters and I commend him for having the good sense not to show his mustachioed mug on this happy day, especially after earlier in the week hoovering up all the remaining shares of a club he had yet to put a penny of his own fortune into.
The KROENKE: YOU’RE NEXT BANNER that I glimpsed in the North Stand was clearly a friendly reminder to Silent Stan (he has given precisely one interview to the English press since taking over in 2011) that he’s squarely in the crosshairs of the AFTV hit squad. With Wenger gone and Gazidis about to duck out of the firing line by landing a mega-lira deal with AC Milan, there was no one left to take one in the neck for Kroenke.
“Fuckin’ Stan Kroenke,” brayed Mr. DT. “He’s over in America now. I bet he don’t even know the fuckin’ result of our game. He’s just bought a ranch bigger than Birmingham. He bought a vineyard. He doesn’t give a fuck about us.”
As assiduously as Kroenke and Gazidis worked to de-Wengerize the club—from the restructuring of the front office to the culling of some 40 “Arsène people,” including his assistant coaches, his kit man, his physio, his high-performance analysts, and his sommelier—there’s one area they seem to have overlooked: the team itself.
Sure, Emery inherited a few A-listers, although I struggled to come up with more than three and a half—Aubameyang, Lacazette, Ramsey, and Özil. (You’re not really going to ask who the half is, are you?)
Much to everyone’s bemusement, Emery’s first Premier League lineup reeked of Wenger’s scatter shot approach. He deployed a midfielder (Ramsey) as the center forward with a striker (Aubameyang) slotted in on the right wing and Özil stationed somewhere near Piccadilly Circus. It was hardly the kind of tactical clarity that he was hired to impose after years of Wenger’s shape du jour.
Emery’s other big surprise was to keep Torreira in bubble wrap on the bench. Though afterward he would defend the Uruguayan’s omission as a precautionary move based on Torreira’s lack of match fitness after his late return from the World Cup, it was still a bit of a buzzkill for a fan base craving a new hero.
Instead we were treated to the hirsute stylings of Mattéo Guendouzi, a hyper-kinetic 19-year-old French midfielder whose wild mop of hair makes him look like the love child of David Luiz and Weird Al Yankovic.
I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the kid. His last competitive match had been for FC Lorient in France’s second division and now he was about to be dropped into a shark tank named Manchester City.
Knowing any Guardiola team gives no quarter in all areas of the pitch, Emery also handed an Arsenal debut to the 30-year-old Greek center back (and top Premier League Scrabble name) Sokratis Papastathopoulos. Along with the AARP-eligible (OK, 34-year-old) ex-Juventus hard man Stephan Lichtsteiner, Papa (you didn’t expect me to type his name twice, did you?) was specifically acquired to inject a much-needed dose of bad-assery into Arsenal’s soft-as-a-baby’s-bottom backline.
Lichtsteiner would come off the bench to Riverdance on the shins of City’s smack-talking $75 million French center back Aymeric Laporte, but his more critical role in Emery’s system is to serve as a human cattle prod to the World Class Defender Formerly Known as Héctor Bellerín.
I can still recall the adrenaline rush I felt when we signed the whippet-lean teenager from Barça’s La Masia stud factory in 2011. Here was a footballing tyro who possessed the incendiary speed to attack down the flanks as if he were an orthodox winger yet still had the horsepower to chase down opponents at the other end. Before long, Bellerín had turbocharged his way into any serious debate about the best right backs in the world.
Alas, in the past couple of seasons he did a reverse Samson. As his hair got longer, his prodigious gifts began to wane and he became a hood ornament for late-era Wenger stagnation. Bellerín was one of those players who Wenger allowed to meander in and out of games with no consequences. He lost his focus but never his position. Now, however, he has Lichtsteiner pushing him (literally) in training every day. As you might imagine, those sessions have been a tad more exacting and intense than Wenger’s laissez-faire kickabouts. To a man, though, Arsenal’s players have bought into Emery’s technically and physically demanding style of play.
“We’re working harder on the training ground than we used to,” Bellerín has said. “Emery wants us to press a lot during the game, so we need to be fitter. With Arsène, he wanted us to play in the same way regardless of the opponent. The idea was that we could play in our way and beat anyone. But Emery is very focused on preparing a plan for our next opponent, whoever they may be. It’s extremely detailed and very professional.”
You could tell by the way Emery put a reassuring arm around Bellerín and delivered some last-minute instructions that he was pleased with the 23-year-old’s progress. In preseason the fullback once again played with a smile on his face and much of the old dynamism in his legs. Emery believes Bellerín can fully regain his high-impact mojo, but if he can’t, well, he’ll find someone else who can.
There’s no hiding behind reputations at Arsenal anymore, a lesson Özil, the most coddled of Wenger’s untouchables, struggled to come to grips with early on in Emery’s tenure.
It has long become a tiresome but not wholly unfair trope that Özil can’t be bothered with tracking back on defense. In the past when the mercurial German failed to exert himself, Wenger would respond with a Gallic shrug and a pay raise to $400,000 per week. Emery’s attitude toward Özil’s fitful commitment is somewhat less indulgent. In the span of less than half a season, the German has been hauled off twice early in the second half and was not even asked to suit up for four games, ostensibly due to such grievous ailments as a “bad cold” and “backache.” But Emery’s loudest declaration of independence from the past was Özil’s omission from the match that matters more than all others—the North London Derby. For all his craft and vision, Özil doesn’t tick Emery’s most important box—battling as if your life depended on it from the first to last whistle. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
As the game kicked off, the Emirates was as jacked up as I can remember it in years, which isn’t saying much considering that Arsenal’s spiritual home, Highbury, was known as “the library.”
The Gunners no longer measure themselves by superpowers like City, but considering how meekly they capitulated to Pep’s men last season, simply showing some backbone against the defending champions would go a long way toward lifting the mood.
How invigorating, then, to see them badgering, pressing, and snapping into challenges from the start. Their energy and grit had the crowd roaring ARSENAL!!! ARSENAL!!!!! ARSE-NAL!!!!!!!
It couldn’t last, of course, and it didn’t. Raheem Sterling lost Guendouzi and Mustafi at the edge of the box and scored the first goal after 14 minutes.
One of Emery’s tactical fetishes is to have his team play out from the back with quick, one-touch passes. The strategy is all the rage among elite teams in modern football, and as Guardiola’s finely grooved juggernaut has shown, it can be devastatingly effective if you have a goalkeeper with the well-honed futsal skills of City’s Ederson. Arsenal’s No. 1, however, is 36-year-old Petr Čech, who possesses many strengths—a formidable shot-stopping ability, acute positional sense, and serious drumming chops (he once jammed with Queen’s Roger Taylor)—but twinkling footwork is not one of them. Presumably to provide the team with a goalie better suited to Emery’s preferred style, Arsenal dropped a cool $35 million over the summer on Bayer Leverkusen’s 26-year-old sweeper-keeper Bernd Leno.
Yet Čech had retained his place by working hard in preseason to adapt to Emery’s evolving system. Then came the 22nd minute against City when Guendouzi passed back to him and Čech looked like a man juggling a hand grenade. While attempting to switch play to the right, the six-foot-five Czech got his feet in a jumble and sent the ball trickling just wide of his own goal. The next time he completed a pass to a teammate, he was serenaded with ironic cheers. Never mind that he had made several acrobatic saves to keep Arsenal in the game, it doesn’t take much in a post-Wenger universe to unsettle a Gooner’s fragile psyche. The audible gasp to Čech’s slapstick gaffe seemed to indicate a less than thrilled verdict on Emery’s tactical acumen.
Good thing Čech let the Spaniard off the hook by injuring himself a few weeks later, allowing Herr Leno and his silky dogs to establish residence in the Arsenal goal. Otherwise, who knows how long before a small aircraft would be fueling up at a nearby runway, asking the tower for clearance to fly a banner proclaiming, EMERY OUT, WENGER IN?
Still, it was only 1-0 at the half, and what Arsenal fan wouldn’t be pleased with that score? Many, as it turned out. While standing in line for a beer all I heard was how Guendouzi was out of his depth, how you can’t teach an old Czech new tricks, and how ’Arry Redknapp’s grandmum would be an improvement over the combined efforts of Ramsey, Özil, and Mustafi.
When exactly did Arsenal supporters become the most self-involved and teeth-grindingly entitled bunch of whinging muppets this side of Manchester United and Liverpool?
But just as the words plus ça change came to mind, the second half started. And, lo!
There was a new man at the helm. Emery had boldly and decisively rejigged his team while ramping up his own energy in the technical area. Not that he was a docile presence in the first half, waving his arms and barking instructions, but now he was living every kick of the game with his players, bouncing up and down like a slightly less unhinged Antonio Conte.
If nothing else, no one could accuse Emery or his team of standing still. When was the last time Wenger subbed any one off before the 70th minute mark, let alone one of his core players? Yet 10 minutes into the second half, a none-too-pleased Ramsey was trudging off the pitch and an honest-to-goodness striker, Lacazette, was racing on.
A late cut from France’s World Cup–winning squad due to his regressive form under Wenger last season, Laca appears intent on making Didier Deschamps choke on his breakfast croissant. On the list of Emery’s reclamation projects, the 27-year-old Frenchman stands out for having the biggest upside. If he were to reclaim his goal-scoring élan pre-Wenger, he could be the difference between a big glamorous night at the Bernabéu or waking up in the Baku Hilton and heading off to the Tofiq Bahramov Republican Stadium to battle Qurabag FK, the Man City of the Azerbaijan Premier League.
Lacazette’s presence on the pitch for the final 35 minutes of the match didn’t turn the game on its head, but the Frenchman may have done something even more crucial for Arsenal’s long-term success: He galvanized Aubameyang who had cut an isolated and frustrated figure on the flank, starved of service and unable to use his searing pace to get in behind the City defense.
Widely regarded as the second-fastest man in world football over 30 yards (behind some Jamaican guy who played briefly in Australia) Auba tends to be most dangerous when positioned centrally.
He also hasn’t been shy in the past about showing his dissatisfaction when things don’t go his way. Emery, though, has convinced the Gabon international to check his ego at the training-ground entrance, a trick even the über-man motivator himself, Jürgen Klopp, wasn’t always able to pull off at Dortmund. Perhaps more ironically, it has taken a Spaniard to do what a Frenchman (Wenger) couldn’t: infuse a sense of joie de vivrein Laca and Auba’s game that manifests itself in training, where they crack each other up with their playful hijinks, and on the pitch, where they’re enjoying a potent, jazzy partnership that over the first 15 league games produced 16 goals between them, not to mention some of the most entertaining goal celebrations I’ve witnessed since Cameroon striker Roger Milla’s pelvic dance with the corner flag at the 1990 World Cup.
Sadly, little of their lethal symbiosis was evident against City, other than in a couple of shots they unleashed midway through the second half that were too close for Guardiola’s comfort. Pep responded by snapping his fingers in the direction of his dugout. Suddenly the terrifying depth of world-class talent that he has at his disposal was there for all to behold, embodied in a single substitution: Kevin De Bruyne, the Belgian international who the Guardianrated last season as the fourth best player in the world, came on for Riyad Mahrez, the 2016 Premier League Player of the Year whom Guardiola acquired over the summer for $80 million, a price tag that eclipsed the total amount Arsenal laid out for their five new transfers.
Within minutes, City swarmed down the field, an irresistible blur of movement, power, and verve that ended with Bernardo Silva lashing the ball past a helplessly flailing Čech. Guardiola pumped his fists in jackhammer bursts and whirled toward his bench. Game over.
There were, however, 35 minutes left in regulation, and here’s the part the Arsenal faithful can take comfort in on those cold, life-sapping Europa League nights: Arsenal didn’t “fold up like a wet rag”, to borrow a simile from fellow Gooner Donald Trump. The Gunners fought to the final whistle against the reigning champions, and the Emirates didn’t empty out in the 65th minute as it did against the same opponent in April. And oh yes, 2-0 has a whiff of respectability as opposed to 3-0, which is just a downright stinker.
Of course, these were baby steps, but at least they pointed in the right direction rather than simply repeating the same old failing patterns. “Arsenal was in decline,” was how Emery sized up the magnitude of the challenge he faced. “We had to stop it and start climbing.”
With Emery as their indefatigable Sherpa guide, Arsenal have been rappelling up the Premier League rockface with flashes of style that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Wenger’s wonder sides. I doubt even the Frenchman would have turned up his patrician nose at the electrifying team goals Arsenal scored against Leicester and Fulham. Brimming with sick skills—improvised back heels, dummies, dinks, and no-look flicks—and involving nearly every outfield player, the Gunners swept the length of the field to the soundtrack of slightly overblown chants of “We’ve got our Arsenal back”.
You can quibble that these glorious high-speed one-touch golazos have come, for the most part, against Premier League road kill, but it hardly diminishes Emery’s accomplishment—and I’m not just talking about the Gunners’ exhilirating unbeaten run. Arsenal may fall behind (as of this writing, they have never led at halftime), but whatever Emery puts in those orange slices he hands out in the locker room has his players in rampage mode once they step on the field for the second half. Arsenal have scored 25 goals after the break compared with nine before it. This kind of blitz football makes it easy to overlook the fact that their defense is still—how to put this gently?—crap. (Oh Granit, when will you ever learn you can’t switch off just because you now have Torreira to cover for you?)
No one is more aware of Arsenal’s fraility at the back than Emery. “Over [Arsène’s] time, only technical quality and offensive freedom were taken care of,” he said, adding that under Wenger the Gunners had “lost the defensive structure.”
That structure, apart from the first two games against Man City and Chelsea, had not been tested by any of the future Super League teams. Which is why when Liverpool came to town, some felt it prudent to lock the women and children away. Surely, Jürgen Klopp’s Big Red Machine would spread panic and terror throughout North London, not to mention lay waste to an Arsenal defense anchored by the hopelessly overmatched center back pairing of Shkodran Mustafi and Rob Holding.
It’s a measure of how far the Gunners have fallen in the Premier League hierarchy that Arsenal were now perceived to be plucky underdogs to a team on whom they famously inflicted their fair share of epic heartbreak over the years. (Anybody remember May 26, 1989? Here’s a hint: Reds captain Steve McMahon raised his right index finger to signal “One minute left.”)
Yes, but it’s also true that Klopp had a two-and-a-half-year head start over Emery in rebuilding a disheveled squad, and he did it in his own joyful, adrenalized image. Despite Arsenal’s impressive unbeaten streak, it was easy to envision all the hard pressing and bruising physicality of the German’s thrash-metal football overwhelming Emery’s teething side. So it augurs well that the Gunners could go steel toe to steel toe with Klopp’s marauders and come away with a feisty 1-1 draw against the one team given even a ghost of a chance of finishing within 20 points of Man City.
It is more encouraging still that Arsenal could twice fall behind to Spurs at home and no longer have to worry that their supporters would respond with a fusillade of boos and mutinous chants. Instead, the fans cranked up the volume of positive reinforcement, saving their bile for the lily-livered Whites and their comical shushing gestures. At times, the heretofore buttoned-down Emirates sounded more like La Bombonera, complete with red flares going off in the North Stand. And the Gunners began to punch back, oozing self-belief and trusting that the man gesticulating wildly in their technical area would find the right tweaks to forge a famous victory. And that is precisely what Emery did at halftime. He transformed the match with the kind of audacious double substitution that Wenger would have been pondering well into the 80th minute.
On came Ramsey (please Rambo, don’t abandon us for a measly hundred grand more a week and wind up sitting next to Alexis Sánchez on the bench of greedy once-weres) and Lacazette, and immediately you could sense the energy and intensity rachet up.
Within 10 minutes, Aubameyang had scored a Thierry Henry–worthy equalizer from Ramsey’s nasty flick on and moments later, the Welshman turned provider for Laca, whose left-footed shot shaved the post before nestling in the bottom corner: 3-2. If the Emirates had a roof, it most certainly would have blown off. It was left to the pint-sized field marshall Torreira, an all-action disruptor in the middle of the park, to seal this memorable bare-knuckle triumph over Arsenal’s old enemy with his first goal for the club. There could be no more vivid example of the passion Emery has instilled in the Gunners than the Uruguayan’s gleeful, jersey-doffing celebration that ended with a bare-chested slide into the corner of the erupting stadium. The Tottenham players slumped over in frustration. Shoulders sagging, they wiped at their disbelieving eyes. They were broken. The world may be a flaming shit show these days, but it’s comforting to know that certain things remain the way they were meant to be.
As the crowd chanted Emery’s name, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the Spaniard could be the Great Healer we’ve so desperately sought. Malice Toward None and Europa League Trophies for All!
It will take time (probably two or three transfer windows) and patience (not exactly the hallmarks of those fuse-is-always-lit Gooners like Mr. DT), until the team is recognizably Emery’s and not just a fine-tuned version of the squad that hit the eject button on Wenger’s magisterial throne.
But there’s a quickening pulse to Arsenal now, a surge of vitality I first felt three months ago when I returned to the Emirates from my enforced hiatus. Even in his Arsenal debut, a sadly predictable but not embarrassing loss to Man City, Emery’s obsessive drive rekindled hope in my Wenger-occluded heart.
As I exited the stadium that evening, my eyes were drawn to the glare of TV lights encircling a noisy crowd that had gathered near the bronze statue of Arsenal’s legendary former captain Tony Adams, arms outstretched triumphantly after scoring the 1998 title-clinching goal against Everton. I heard a couple of familiar sounding voices shouting into a microphone and gravitated toward the commotion. There at the white-hot center of the mob was Mr. DT, being interviewed by AFTV. Because of the crush and din around him, I couldn’t make out all his words of wisdom, but I did notice that his face wasn’t contorted by anger and there was no spittle flying out of his mouth. I pushed through the throng to get close enough to catch Mr. DT’s parting shot.
“This is a rebuilding process, and it’s not going to happen overnight,” he pronounced. “We need to keep our heads and not be negative. We asked for this so let’s not fuckin’ moan about it now that we’ve got it.”
For the first time, Mr. DT didn’t sound like a fuckin’ idiot. I’ll drink to that, I thought, as I headed to the Tollington Arms, glad to be home.