Europa League final: Unai Emery's Arsenal can finally shrug off Arsene Wenger hangover by winning first European title

Winning a first European trophy would suggest that Arsenal have progressed under Unai Emery and will transform into a team that owns its future and identity.

Samindra Kunti May 29, 2019 16:24:51 IST
Europa League final: Unai Emery's Arsenal can finally shrug off Arsene Wenger hangover by winning first European title
  • Winning a first European trophy would suggest that Arsenal have progressed under Unai Emery and will transform into a team that owns its future and identity.

  • Arsenal's wayward away form proved their undoing in the Premier League. It raised all kinds of questions and doubts.

  • Emery can count on his European pedigree — at Sevilla, he became a serial Europa League winner — to restore Arsenal to Europe's group of elite clubs.

Baku: Major finals often have an antiseptic feel - think of the World Cup and the Champions League where corporatism and the burden of expectations tend to shackle the authenticity of the spectacle on offer. In general, the Europa League final is an exception. It's a grand day out for the fans, who revel in the reality of a European Cup final and in the mere idea that their long-lasting club love will, at last, be reciprocated with silverware. Ajax fans filled the boulevards of Stockholm and Marseille fans invaded Lyon with pyrotechnics, but in Baku, those scenes of raw fandom have not been repeated for a panoply of reasons — and with reason: on Tuesday, Arsenal fans wearing a Henrikh Mkhitaryan shirt were stopped by local police in the Azeri capital.

For Arsenal, the importance of this final can't be understated. These 90 minutes will define Unai Emery's first season in North London. It seems odd in a season that progressed steadily both at home and in Europe with mature displays that had Arsenal claiming a top-four finish and reaching the Europa League final, but in the final stretch, domestic strength waned.

Arsenal's wayward away form proved their undoing in the Premier League. It raised all kinds of questions and doubts: had the Basque coach obsessed with details not improved Arsenal? Were Arsenal de facto still living in the Wengerian age?

Europa League final Unai Emerys Arsenal can finally shrug off Arsene Wenger hangover by winning first European title

Arsenal manager Unai Emery during training. Reuters/Maxim Shemetov

In Europe they dispatched Napoli and Valencia with a combination of barnstorming and measured football, reinforcing the confounding nature of this team, who have combined the exuberant, the banal and the downright inexcusable with such frightening natural flair that you'd be excused for thinking you were watching three different teams.

Their undulating form and flux in performance level exposed the core or precisely the lack thereof of Emery's team. They never looked like slipping up against their much-fancied Italian and Spanish opponents, but could never reproduce the same business-like approach against Crystal Palace and Brighton and Hove Albion at home. Who then is this Arsenal? Is it a new team countering Wenger's invisible, fading influence at the Emirates Stadium that has been tweaked and trimmed to represent Emery's ideas of possession-based football with grit or a watered-down bygone team without palpable plan and direction? The response is yet another question: could a win in the final set Emery and Arsenal up to finally move into a different era and leave this transitional season behind?

Emery, in part due to his flexibility, has been hard to understand this season. There has been little consistency in his tinkering: back three, back four, playing 4-2-3-1, two central strikers to accommodate both Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette have all featured.

In Arsenal's impressive 2-0 win over their West London rivals in January, Emery played with two attackers. The hosts' early onslaught through a sustained high press yielded an excellent goal from the French striker in the 14th minute before Laurent Koscielny doubled the score with a diving header just before the interval to put the game beyond Chelsea.

That win could serve as the blueprint for Arsenal's approach against Chelsea, whose Italian coach Maurizio Sarri has not succeeded in redesigning the team to his own image. Without Aron Ramsey, however, Arsenal will struggle to replicate the first-half dominance from January. Granit Xhaka, Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira — the latter two firmly integrated by Emery — should provide enough steel to take on Chelsea's midfield, but will leave Arsenal vulnerable.

At least, Emery can count on his European pedigree — at Sevilla, he became a serial Europa League winner between 2013 and 2016 — to restore Arsenal to Europe's group of elite clubs after missing out on the Champions League for a third consecutive season following Wenger's protracted farewell years. The implications would be gigantic from a sporting and financial point of view for next season, but moreover, winning a first European trophy would credibly suggest that Arsenal have progressed under Emery and will slowly transform from a work in progress with a few contours to a firm team that owns its future and identity.

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