To re-launch a big football club, to sweep everything away and start on a blank sheet of paper is a daunting task and not one many managers ever get to do.
But Unai Emery is one of the lucky ones. His first game, on Sunday against Manchester City, is more than just Arsenal’s first with their new manager. It is their first of the new era, the first when the club is in line with the modern game, rather than at odds with it.
That heightens the sense of novelty for Arsenal this weekend, but it also heightens the size of Emery’s job. Most managers arrive with an expectation that they build on what they inherited, tweak it, improve it, slowly push the team to the next level. That is how most teams evolve.
Arsenal do not have that luxury. Not after years of drift, slipping slowly away from the title race and now out of the Champions League spots. Not after 14 years since their last Premier League title and 10 years since they last even challenged for it. What Arsenal need is something they have not had since 1996: a fresh start.
Emery did not excite everyone when he took over but his style of management, with a clear philosophy and idea of how he wants to play, makes him well-suited to delivering this kind of relaunch. He has his own ideas – possession football, aggressive pressing, hard running, good defensive shape – and has started to teach the players. A more hands-off manager like Carlo Ancelotti would have worked less well. He needs something to keep ticking over and recently at Arsenal nothing or no-one has been doing that.
But if Emery is looking for an example to follow, of how to build up from nothing, then he might well look a few miles down the road. That is where the comparison with Tim Sherwood’s time in charge of Tottenham comes in. Not because Sherwood and Wenger’s reigns were comparable, but because Pochettino walked into an equivalent situation at Tottenham in the summer of 2014. An unbalanced squad, with some talent but not much organisation, too many years too far down the table, and a serious lack of direction, organisation and focus from the top.
The comparison is not perfect but it is instructive. And the way that Pochettino seized control of Tottenham in 2014, building the platform for subsequent second and third placed finishes and four years of steady improvement at the club.
The key for Pochettino, looking back, was the unapologetic imposition of his philosophy on Spurs from the start. Spurs had been going back and forth for some time but Pochettino made instantly clear how things would work at White Hart Lane from that point on. It was his way or out. Soon enough Pochettino knew which players would work for him and which would not. The ‘bomb squad’ of Emmanuel Adebayor, Younes Kaboul, Etienne Capoue and Benoit Assou-Ekotto were sidelined as soon as Pochettino made up his mind. In the second season Aaron Lennon, Andros Townsend and Nabil Bentaleb were all pushed aside very quickly when Pochettino made up his mind.
By making so clear that players were either with him or against him, Pochettino fostered a sense of unity and commitment that still powers Spurs to this day. Even in Pochettino’s third and fourth seasons in charge, top players Kyle Walker, Danny Rose and Toby Alderweireld found that as soon as they tried to leave the club they were no longer first choice. But his own authority is stronger now than almost any other manager in the Premier League. And that means that his methods, tactics and training sessions go completely unquestioned. He has earned the power that he now has.
Whether Emery will need to control the Arsenal dressing room in the same way remains to be seen. They have far higher profile, higher paid players than Spurs but equally Emery will want to impose himself on players who need some firm discipline. At PSG the dressing room proved too strong for Emery, his attempts to change the formation failed, and his chances of getting £200m signing Neymar to do anything he did not want to were slim from the start.
Emery will also have to prove that he is a big enough figure to handle the size of the job. Even though this is not the same as Wenger’s job, because he is just one part among many, he is still the public face of the club. Especially given the speculation over the future of Ivan Gazidis, the man who has put this whole new structure together. He will have to be able to bear that public weight, in the way that Wenger did, even if he does not want to.
When Brendan Rodgers took over the Liverpool job from Kenny Dalglish in 2012 he had the chance to relaunch the club after a difficult few years and a period in which the club had also lost direction. That was a huge job, especially for a 39-year-old with no experience managing at the very top of the game. Although Rodgers nearly won the 2013-14 title, he never quite got a hold of the job, never got control of transfers, and three-and-a-bit years later Liverpool replaced him with a genuine top manager in Jurgen Klopp.
Rodgers could never quite do what Pochettino did at Spurs and take complete ownership, filling the size of the role himself. The challenge for Emery as he maps out Arsenal’s future is to fill the role the same way, taking advantage of the unique opportunity he has, earning the right to re-draw one of Europe’s biggest clubs around himself.