Unai Emery pays the price for dithering and drift at Arsenal | David Hytner

In the end, when the Arsenal statement dropped on Friday morning to confirm the departure of Unai Emery, it came as a mercy. For the past few weeks the mood among many of the players had been they wanted the manager out and they did not exactly hide it at the training ground, and for the past six or so – from the Premier League defeat at Sheffield United – Emery had looked every inch the condemned man, thrashing desperately but unable to find succour.

There was a time when he had a clear plan about how to shape a team in the aftermath of the Arsène Wenger era, which ended in May 2018; how to return Arsenal to the Champions League and, for much of his first season in charge, he felt that he was close to finding the answers.

On 1 April, after the home win over Newcastle, the club sat third in the table – with only seven matches to go. That they would implode, losing four of those games to finish fifth, was the first indelible stain against his reputation and it was followed by the calamitous Europa League final defeat by Chelsea, when the team surrendered their second shot at Champions League qualification.

Emery never recovered from that 4-1 beating in Baku, when the second half resembled an ordeal, and after no little stuttering over the first two months of this season the unravelling has been comprehensive. The statistics during the death roll showed one win from nine matches and it was a period when Emery lost all composure, when he failed to manage the numerous issues he faced. They would coalesce to drag him down.

The starting point for any assessment of Emery’s Arsenal tenure must be Mesut Özil, the mercurial playmaker who was given a £350,000-a-week contract in February 2018 to prevent him from leaving as a free agent. It is difficult to overstate how divisive that club decision came to be, with sections of the dressing room questioning whether Özil has retained the same motivation. Toxic opinions have bubbled and some of the players wanted him to be sold during this most recent summer. There was no market for him.

Emery inherited the situation but, from an early juncture, it was apparent that Özil would not be a natural fit for his way of playing, which does allow for creativity albeit within a structured framework. On a related point Aaron Ramsey – who was allowed to join Juventus on a Bosman in July – also seemed to jar in Emery’s system, leading to the legitimate criticism that the manager fell short when it came to dealing with off-the-cuff and expressive players. He had struggled to manage Neymar at his previous club, Paris Saint-Germain, and more pressingly he failed to draw the required levels from Nicolas Pépé, for whom Arsenal paid a club record £72m in August.

Unai Emery, Europa League final

Unai Emery after Arsenal’s Europa League final drubbing by Chelsea in May, a defeat from which his team never fully recovered. Photograph: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images

Emery tried everything with Özil, from the carrot to the stick, but the moment that symbolised their dysfunctional relationship came when he substituted him in the Europa League final, sending on the youngster Joe Willock in his place.

Özil forms part of a dressing-room clique with Sead Kolasinac and Shkodran Mustafi, and there has been finger-pointing in their direction, while Lucas Torreira has suffered a dramatic drop-off in form. Emery lamented the sale of Laurent Koscielny on the eve of the season – the club captain forced his move to Bordeaux – and his replacement, David Luiz, came with defensive risks attached.

Then there has been the Granit Xhaka saga. Emery delayed appointing him as Koscielny’s replacement as captain for weeks and took too long in reaching the decision to strip him of the role after his well-documented bust-up with home supporters at the Crystal Palace game on 27 October. Xhaka returned to the lineup against Eintracht Frankfurt on Thursday night, which would be Emery’s final match. The manager looked indecisive during the affair and did not offer Xhaka any support – a dangerous game to play with a popular dressing-room figure.

‘No dramas, mi amigo’: Mourinho sends Emery best wishes after Arsenal sacking – video

Emery tied himself in knots over the closing weeks of his tenure, flitting erratically from one strategy to another. He seemed to overthink things and ended up confusing the players – plus possibly himself. Emery had always stressed how his team would react in defensive terms to what an opponent would bring but impose themselves when they had possession. Towards the end the players felt he had become too consumed by what the opposition might do with and without the ball. There was no proactivity and it led to shutdown.

Emery’s vision was to play a fast, short-passing game, with several options for each man in possession; taking the best was meant to become second nature. The full-backs would bomb on and the forwards would get on to their crosses. The plan relied on a central midfielder to link everything up, a Santi Cazorla-type, but, taking in the problems with Özil, Torreira and Xhaka, Emery did not really find one. Matteo Guendouzi does not always seize the initiative and Dani Ceballos has fired in fits and starts.

Unai Emery has thanked Arsenal and the club’s fans in an open letter published on the club’s official website. “I would have liked nothing more than to have achieved better results for you” he wrote. “It has been a year and a half full of emotions, of great moments and some other more bitter ones, but not a single day has gone by without me stopping to think about how lucky I have been to work for this club with these players and their professional and personal qualities. They have always honoured the shirt they wear. They deserve your support. I had already experienced a lot in football, but I have enjoyed and learned a lot in England, in the Premier League, about respect for professionals and about the purity of football.”

Emery’s dull press conferences will not be missed and it is important to say this was not an English language issue and more to do with his willingness to answer questions. He had an interpreter alongside him last season and could have spoken in Spanish to get any needed points across. No one would have been offended.

The lack of content from Emery raised questions about how he communicated with his players, how he inspired them, but it should be noted there were no such concerns when he oversaw a 22-game unbeaten run in the early months of his reign.

Emery’s players, as always in this situation, must look at themselves. How, for example, could they sleepwalk to defeat in that second half against Chelsea? The motivation for a European final has to come from within. It is Emery, though, who has paid the price. Few Arsenal fans have been sorry to see him go.

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