The thing is, we’re not used to this. A change of manager might be routine for supporters of other clubs but that’s not how it is for Arsenal fans. When it comes to changes at the top we’re the football equivalent of Belarus, whose citizens last greeted a new president in 1994. Remember this is only our second switch since 1996, back in the days when no one had a mobile phone and the Spice Girls were young.
So this is a novelty for us and we’re not quite sure how to handle it. Are you meant to be gleeful, punching the air that the man whose departure you’ve been hoarsely demanding for weeks, if not months, is finally out? Is that what you do? Because when Arsène Wenger left in 2018, it wasn’t like that. We bowed our heads and gave him a stately send-off, full of both gratitude and guilt, not quite able to believe a long, once-joyous era was really over.
There’ll be none of that for Unai Emery, who won nothing and left no real legacy. Which means not many fans will be feeling guilty that their demands for his head have been heeded. On the contrary, they expected it. And when I say “expected it”, I don’t mean they expected it once Emery’s initial luck – with an early 22-match winning streak – ran out, I mean they expected it as soon as Wenger’s departure was announced. Before the new man was even named.
You see, many Arsenal fans have always assumed that we are fated to repeat the Manchester United experience: legendary manager leaves, series of lesser men attempt to fill his shoes and fail. There was a fatalist assumption that Emery was bound to be our David Moyes. It was only a matter of time. When Arsenal failed to finish in the top four at the end of last season, taking just seven points from our last seven games, and then got clobbered by Chelsea in the final of the Europa League, blocking our route back to the Champions League, Emery’s destiny was confirmed: he was Moyes with a Spanish accent. From that point on, it’s just been a matter of waiting for the management and owners to catch up with reality.
True, not all fans were so pessimistic. The summer signings – Nicolas Pépé for £72m and all that – offered a flicker of hope. It’s also true that most supporters were ready to give Emery a chance. Witness the reaction when he sidelined the previous record signing, Mesut Özil. That didn’t trigger a full-scale revolt; many, if not most, supporters were ready to think that the manager must surely know what he’s doing and therefore give him the benefit of the doubt. The trouble was, it was never clear that Emery did know what he was doing. Formation, selection, tactics – even to an inexpert eye (like mine), there appeared to be no coherent plan or vision. Too often he seemed to be winging it.
There’s fevered talk of his ultimate replacement, but for now the interim boss will get a warm reception. A loved former player, Freddie Ljungberg begins with enormous goodwill, partly because of who he is and partly because fans are gagging for a fresh start. There’s never been any doubt that there is talent among the current players: indeed, part of the frustration at Emery arose because he’d been handed a cast of top-drawer actors and yet couldn’t seem to make a decent movie. Now it’s to be hoped there’ll be an infusion of new energy and excitement, as the players vie for the attention of their new, if temporary, boss, bagging an away win at Norwich on Sunday. That’s how it works, right? Because remember, we’re new to this.