When Alex Ferguson departed Manchester United in 2013, it was always going to be a big job for his successor to emulate his exploits in the managerial hot-seat at the club.
Ferguson made as big of impact on football in England as literally anybody in the history of the game. He spent 36 years in Manchester between 1986 and 2013 changing United from a “nearly” club to the most successful side that the league had ever seen.
In his departing speech at Old Trafford in 2013, he urged his sides supporters to get behind their new manager – fellow Scotsman and familiar face to all after spending a decade in charge just down the road at Everton, David Moyes.
With the benefit of hindsight, we know that the United job was a poison chalice of sorts, and while the side Ferguson left behind had literally just won the league, the enormous upheaval that took place meant United – and Moyes – had their worst season in years.
Moyes didn’t last the full campaign, and hasn’t recovered from the humiliation of what should have been the dream appointment since. United too have not recovered – showing glimpses in the past 5 years, such as an FA Cup in 2016 under Louis van Gaal and the Europa League in 2017 under Jose Mourinho, but nowhere near the exploits of old.
The only manager who can hold a candle to Ferguson in recent times is the man who recently departed Arsenal after 22 years, Arsene Wenger.
What a few mediocre years in Europe and in the league towards the end of his tenure can blur is the enormous influence and effect that Wenger had on not just Arsenal, but English football.
When Wenger left Arsenal, he was the longest serving manager in the league by over a decade and a half. For anyone under 30-years-old or so, Wenger is literally the only point of reference as the manager of Arsenal.
With such an intrinsic attachment to the club and it’s footballing mentality, in a similar vein to Ferguson, the change is almost going to be inevitably difficult.
The man who has been tasked with entering the post-Wenger era is Unai Emery. The Spaniard was announced to be the man for the job after a short spell of deliberation, having left his previous club Paris Saint Germain at the close of the season.
To make matters worse for Emery, there is no way he can quietly ease into the season as his opening game is arguably the most difficult home fixture of the season as Premier League champions Manchester City make the trip to North London.
All eyes will be on Pep Guardiola’s side as they aim to build upon last season, where they were the best club in the league by a sizable distance.
Things don’t get much easier for the second competitive match of Emery’s era. The second fixture of the season is against Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea team at Stamford Bridge. If City at the Emirates is one of the most difficult home matches of the season, then Chelsea at Stamford Bridge is one of the top 3 most difficult away fixtures, new manager or not.
There is a decent chance that Arsenal will not win not just one, but both of these games. It’s a new-look team with a new manager – it’s certainly a possibility.
Now, with the season just on the precipice of beginning, this is very negative thinking, but it’s also not an unrealistic outcome and one that I’m sure Emery and his staff have to be in some way prepared for.
Opinions can change very quickly in football, and even as a new manager, there’s only so much time before welcoming positivity turns to a lust for blood – as Moyes found out the hard way, or in an even more extreme case, Frank de Boer with Crystal Palace last season.
De Boer arrived at Selhurst Park to replace the recently departed Sam Allardyce. Having previously managed Ajax and Inter Milan – the time with the latter admittedly not going very well – he had some coaching pedigree. It didn’t mean much, however, when his side lost their first 4 matches without scoring a single goal. The Dutchman was promptly sacked.
It would be incredibly pessimistic to suggest an eventuality like that for Emery, especially after such a positive pre-season campaign, but that doesn’t make his opening two matches any easier.
The games that follow City and Chelsea, are, on-paper, more inherently winnable: West Ham United (H), Cardiff City (A), Newcastle United (A), Everton (H), Watford (H), Fulham (A), Leicester City (A) and Crystal Palace (H) before making the trip to Anfield to face up against a fellow “top 6” contender in Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
The fixtures proceeding the Chelsea match are winnable, and, in a very positive slant, could even represent a winning streak for Emery if things do go smoothly – what is exactly what the new manager will need to solidify his reputation at The Emirates.
On the other hand, with the glass half empty mentality, because these games are “winnable”, losing points in them could possibly be disastrous – especially if, for example, both City and Chelsea registered wins against the Gunners.
With that being the case, Emery will have a mountain to climb to inspire fans about his abilities.
Emery will be gazing over his first competitive game as a manager of a new club, in a new league, in a new country on August 12th, as he takes the reigns from a man who defined what the club is all about for longer than the past two decades, and the stakes couldn’t be higher for him.
To end on a positive note, while taking over from Wenger has the potential to be a poison chalice, there is also room to reinvigorate Arsenal, and make the move back to the pinnacle of English and European football.
Emery has some top-quality players among his ranks, and if he can get them playing well and fix some of the holes that have emerged over the past few seasons defensively, then he may enjoy a good start to his time at Arsenal – and in this first season, a good start is half the battle.