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If any under-pressure manager could have brushed off the sacking of Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham as posing no threat to his own position, Arsenal’s Unai Emery was probably the one feeling least concerned by the prospect of the Argentine taking his job.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Zinedine Zidane and Thomas Tuchel will all have to accept the reality of Pochettino’s name being mentioned in relation to their own jobs at Manchester United, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain respectively every time their team suffers a setback, but it is virtually impossible to imagine Pochettino being lined up by Arsenal to replace the struggling Emery.
Terry Neill left Spurs to take charge of Arsenal in 1976, while George Graham managed Tottenham for two-and-a-half years at the end of the 1990s having guided Arsenal to league titles in 1989 and 1991 but, such is the antipathy between the two North London rivals, Pochettino to Arsenal belongs in the realms of fantasy.
But right now, Arsenal don’t appear to be a club blessed with the audacity, vision or self-confidence to turn the football world upside down by taking advantage of Pochettino’s availability. Some clubs and owners think big and bold, but Emery’s appointment as Arsene Wenger’s successor in 2018 tells you everything you need to know about the safe and conservative approach adopted by the Gunners under the ownership of Stan Kroenke.
Emery was lucky to land one of the biggest jobs in the game when he took charge of Arsenal last year. His success in winning three Europa Leagues with Sevilla was rewarded with the Paris Saint-Germain job in 2016 but, having failed to deliver any kind of upward momentum at the Parc des Princes, his exit at the end of the 2017-18 season was as a coach who left little or no mark on the club where he had spent two years in charge.
The same is happening at Arsenal where, if you had just come back from an 18-month holiday without access to news or social media, you would see virtually no difference from the club he inherited from Wenger. Arsenal continue to be breathtaking to watch going forward when it all clicks, but they still can’t defend, are a soft touch away from home and the midfield remains as devoid of top quality as it has been for almost a decade.
Emery has also been unimpressive in his dealings with Mesut Ozil and Granit Xhaka. With Ozil, he reluctantly handed the German midfielder a first-team reprieve at the end of October having overlooked him for all but two games in the opening 10 weeks of the season. And having allowed the players to decide between themselves that Xhaka should become captain in the summer, rather than make the decision himself, Emery then appeared to dance to the tune of the club’s supporters by dropping the midfielder and stripping him of the captaincy following his reaction to being booed by the fans during the 2-2 draw at home to Crystal Palace last month. Xhaka has not played since and Arsenal’s winless run in the Premier League now stretches back to Oct. 6.
Wherever you look, there are only negatives where Emery is concerned, which is perhaps why the Arsenal board took the unusual step earlier this month of issuing their public backing, alongside a demand for improved results, due to the growing tension around the Emirates. Yet while Emery may be immune from Pochettino’s sacking to a large extent, how Arsenal react to events at Spurs will give a clear indication as to where they see themselves heading as a club.
In many ways, Tottenham’s decision to sack the manager who took them to the Champions League final last season has upped the ante on Arsenal. Until recently, Arsenal were the big, ambitious powerhouse in North London, but they have been overtaken on and off the pitch by Spurs.
To take such a ruthless decision as sacking Pochettino tells you that Spurs will not settle for their current state of affairs. Appointing Jose Mourinho as Pochettino’s successor underlines the determination to win big at Tottenham. Arsenal, on the other hand, seem to be drifting along with no obvious sense of where they want to be.
Yet if the Arsenal hierarchy want to be the major force in London again, perhaps they have to take a leaf out of Tottenham’s book by refusing to settle for stagnation. They currently sit one point, and two places, above Spurs in the Premier League table, but few would argue that Arsenal look to be a better long-term bet than their local rivals. And if Emery was being judged by the same standards as Pochettino was at Tottenham, he would probably no longer be in a job.
With a trip to Norwich, a home game against Brighton and a London derby at West Ham next up for Emery’s team, anything less than six points will only increase the pressure on the Arsenal board to be as demanding as Tottenham’s.