LONDON — Unai Emery is the biggest change to come to Arsenal in 22 years, but the club’s new head coach wants things to look very much the same when the Gunners are playing.
The 46-year-old Spaniard became the Premier League club’s first managerial hire since 1996 when the club ended weeks of speculation by announcing that Emery was the replacement for Arsene Wenger.
Following two seasons with French champion Paris Saint-Germain, Emery has been charged with arresting the club’s slide without altering its famed style of play, as Arsenal prepares to enter a second consecutive season without Champions League football.
The fluid, possession-dominant style of football that Arsenal became known for under Wenger is something both the club and Emery want to maintain.
"The history here is a team who loves playing with the possession of the ball. I like this personality, I like (being) this protagonist with the ball," he said. "When you don’t have possession of the ball, I want a squad that is very intensive with pressing."
A former midfielder with Real Sociedad, Emery coached Valencia from 2008-12 before taking charge of Sevilla in 2013, following a brief spell at Spartak Moscow.
Emery’s reputation was elevated after guiding Sevilla to three straight Europa League titles, but he couldn’t make an impact in the continent’s more illustrious competition.
PSG became the first team in the Champions League to be eliminated from the knockout stage after winning the first match 4-0, losing 6-1 at Barcelona in the return leg of the last 16 in 2017 and then failed to reach the quarterfinals again in Emery’s final season, beaten home and away by Real Madrid.
Now he’s taken over a team that hasn’t been past the Champions League round of 16 since 2010, while trying to replace the longest-serving manager in European football.
"It’s a big challenge for me," Emery said. "But I worked with other big projects and I’m proud to be here and to work after Arsene Wenger. … I believe we can develop the players who are here and the objective is together to work hard. (The target) for all the competitions next season, (is) to be a candidate and challenge for the title – that is very important for the club after two years outside the Champions League. We want to be in the best team in the Premier League and also in the world."
Emery was chosen from a list of eight managers interviewed by Arsenal over the previous month, a process that began just two days after Wenger’s departure was revealed.
It had appeared the club would gamble on former player Mikel Arteta, who is part of Pep Guardiola’s coaching staff at Premier League champion Manchester City. Instead, Arsenal opted for an established coach — and one who has constantly delivered trophies at Sevilla and PSG.
Emery’s departure from PSG came as a consequence of the failure to carry the club’s dominance on the domestic stage into the Champions League.
Despite this, the Arsenal hierarchy is confident that Emery’s arrival can put an end to the discontent that has crept into the Emirates, both on and off the field.
"We believe our players will respond to the new energy that Unai brings," Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis said. "I think they will have somebody under whom they can improve their individual games and our collective game. … I strongly believe that our fans, when they see the energy that Unai can bring with his qualities to the club, will embrace that."