Football’s word of the season, at least in England, might be quadruple, or quad for short. First, there was Manchester City’s attempt to win a quadruple of trophies, which only came to an end in the most dramatic fashion against Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League quarter-finals. Then, there have been numerous references to quadruples this week as four English teams reached the finals of the two European club competitions, although of course only two of them can actually win them. One man, though, remains capable of winning his own unique quadruple of trophies, and that is Arsenal manager Unai Emery, who stands on the brink of winning a fourth Europa League title.
Unai Emery Could Win His Own Quadruple
A Europa League Specialist
Unai Emery is clearly a Europa League specialist, having already won a hat-trick of Europa Leagues with Sevilla between 2014 and 2016. In the build-up to the second leg of Arsenal’s semi-final with Valencia, he spoke openly of his pride at having won those three titles and even claimed that it was more important to him to win a trophy (in the form of another Europa League title) with Arsenal than to make the top four of the Premier League and qualify for the Champions League via that route. Further evidence of his love for the competition can be seen on his Twitter page, where he proudly lists his Europa League achievements with Sevilla and makes no mention of his two-year spell with Paris Saint-Germain, during which time he won the French title and numerous French domestic cups. However, that may simply be because he wants no reminder of his difficult time in Paris and particularly his fraught relationship with Neymar.
However, being a ‘Europa League specialist’, like Emery, is a bit like being the winner of a ‘tallest dwarf competition’ – it’s impressive, but ultimately not that impressive. Indeed, the fear of many Arsenal fans when Emery was appointed to replace Arsene Wenger last summer was that Arsenal had hired Emery precisely because they thought that winning the Europa League was the best way for the Gunners to qualify for the Champions League again after a two-year absence. In effect, those fans claimed, Arsenal were no longer a Champions League-level club but a Europa League-level club, and the appointment of Emery was proof of that.
The events of the last month in the Premier League, as Arsenal produced the worst form of all the four clubs competing for the last two places in the top four, only seemed to confirm those fears. Indeed, it is now evident that Emery had always prioritised winning the Europa League ahead of reaching the top four. That was shown, for example, in his decision to rest the club’s best central defender, Laurent Koscielny, for the away game against Leicester City (which Arsenal subsequently lost 3-0) and save him instead for the first leg of the Europa League semi-final against Valencia (which Arsenal won 3-1).
The complete collapse of Arsenal’s domestic form (they have only taken four points from their last six Premier League games and three of those came from a very lucky victory at Watford) was also proof, if it were needed, that the Gunners lack the squad depth to compete on two fronts simultaneously. Currently, Arsenal do not have a strong enough first 11 and, in particular, a strong enough defence to match the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool, let alone the quality of replacements that those two outstanding sides possess. So, rightly or wrongly, Emery chose to focus primarily on winning the Europa League and gambled on reaching the Premier League’s top four, a gamble that he ultimately and spectacularly lost.
Familiar Opponents In Final
Of course, the danger of putting all your eggs in one basket is that if you drop the basket you lose all your eggs, and that is the danger of Emery’s focus on winning the Europa League. Although Arsenal are now in the final, they face familiar but dangerous opponents in Chelsea, their London rivals, or more accurately, their usurpers as the best team in London (although if Spurs win the Champions League they can also legitimately claim that domestic ‘title’, too).
Arsenal’s recent record against Chelsea, under both Arsene Wenger and Unai Emery, has improved enormously since the decade of despair between 2005 and 2015, when first Didier Drogba and then Diego Costa bullied successive weak Arsenal defences. Arsenal not only beat Chelsea in the 2017 FA Cup Final but they beat them over two legs last season to reach the League Cup Final, and Emery himself oversaw an impressive 2-0 victory against Chelsea in the Premier League game this season between the two sides at The Emirates Stadium.
Chelsea may no longer have a centre-forward of genuine world class with which to terrorise Arsenal (instead they have Olivier Giroud, the ex-Arsenal striker, and Gonzalo Higuain, who is now clearly past his once brilliant best), but they do have one player of supreme quality who can win the Europa League final on his own. That man, of course, is Eden Hazard, who might just be playing his final ever game for Chelsea in the match in Baku, before his now apparently inevitable move to join his idol, Zinedine Zidane, at Real Madrid.
Arsenal Need To Win Final
The other factor that Chelsea have in their favour going into the Europa League Final is that they have already qualified for the Champions League, having capitalised on the collapse of both Arsenal and Manchester United in the Premier League in recent weeks. So, they will not be under the same intense pressure as Arsenal, who need to win the Europa League final to qualify for the Champions League next season. Although theoretically a team that needs to win should beat a team that merely wants to win, last weekend against Brighton & Hove Albion, Arsenal were reminded that a team that is relaxed (as Brighton were after their Premier League status had been confirmed by Cardiff City’s defeat the day before) can often beat a team that is under pressure.
Unai Emery now has nearly three weeks to prepare Arsenal for their final match of the season. He will have to employ all of his managerial nous to get the better of Chelsea and his opposite number, Maurizio Sarri, which above all means getting the best out of his superb pair of strikers, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who between them scored all the goals in Arsenal’s 4-2 win over Valencia in the second leg of the Europa League semi-final. If he can find a way to neutralise Hazard while also maximising the chances for his in-form strikers, then he might just claim a quadruple of Europa League triumphs and prove definitively that he is the King of Europe’s second-best club competition.