LONDON (Reuters) - Whoever replaced Arsene Wenger as Arsenal manager always knew they would be stepping into extremely large boots and Spaniard Unai Emery never looked capable of filling them.
But it was not just the fact he was replacing “Mr Arsenal” — a manager who won three Premier League titles and seven FA Cups in his 22-year reign — that made his task so onerous, it was the fact the club had been in decline for years.
Wenger’s golden period was a fading memory and Arsenal’s membership of the Premier League’s “top-four” club had expired.
Flat-track bullies, Arsenal had been left behind by the likes of Manchester City, Liverpool and even arch-enemies Tottenham Hotspur, all of whom had adopted “high energy” football under Pep Guardiola, Juergen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino.
When Emery was announced as Arsenal’s new manager in May 2018 in the wake of Wenger’s exit there was some surprise, but a general willingness, even from Wenger diehards, to give the Spaniard time to mould a team.
There were encouraging signs at first. After losing his first two Premier League games in charge, against Manchester City and Chelsea, Arsenal went on a 14-match unbeaten run and appeared set for a top-four challenge.
The soft underbelly resurfaced though and Arsenal won only two of their last seven Premier League games to finish fifth and lost 4-1 in the Europa League final to Chelsea.
Emery needed a positive start to the new campaign but the opposite has been the case. Thursday’s 2-1 home defeat by Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League means they are on a seven-match winless run in all competitions — their worst sequence since February 1992.
They are eighth in the Premier League, eight points adrift of the top-four and the mood has become toxic. Any goodwill Emery retained has leaked away rapidly.
So what has gone so wrong?
Emery vowed to bring a modernise Arsenal’s style but 18 months in and his team has no clear identity. Defensively they have been soft and the goals of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have largely papered over the cracks.
His man-management has also been found wanting from his freezing out of playmaker Mesut Ozil to allowing the squad to vote for a captain, the unpopular Granit Xhaka, who was stripped of the role following the Swiss player’s bust-up with fans after being booed in a home game against Crystal Palace.
Major close season signing Nicolas Pepe appears to be an expensive luxury when Arsenal’s real need was more steel.
Emery’s prospects were hardly helped too by arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur’s sacking of the hugely popular Pochettino last week after a similarly poor start.
Tottenham’s decisiveness in hiring Jose Mourinho intensified the spotlight on Emery and the Arsenal board, even before the defeat by Frankfurt.
Former Arsenal midfielder Emmanuel Petit’s reaction to the news of Emery’s departure was “it’s about time.”
“The behaviour of the players, the team spirit, the selection, the substitutions, everything was wrong,” the Frenchman said on Friday.
Former defender Martin Keown said a failure to act could have seen Arsenal face a relegation battle.
“There are football people at the top of the club that need to make the decisions that need to be made because otherwise Arsenal will plunge even further down the table,” he said.
Mourinho’s appointment at Tottenham could influence who Arsenal turn to next. They could go a similar way and turn to a big name such as Massimiliano Allegri, Carlo Ancelotti or Rafa Benitez rather than take chance on Bournemouth’s Eddie Howe.
Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Christian Radnedge