Unai Emery 'Not Feeling Pressure' Ahead of Valencia vs. Arsenal

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistMay 8, 2019

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 02:  Unai Emery, Manager of Arsenal gives instructions during the UEFA Europa League Semi Final First Leg match between Arsenal and Valencia at Emirates Stadium on May 02, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Unai Emery isn't feeling under pressure ahead of Thursday's UEFA Europa League semi-final second leg at Valencia, even though he admits winning the competition is Arsenal's only chance of returning to the UEFA Champions League.

Emery, whose team hold a 3-1 aggregate lead ahead of the return fixture at the Mestalla, dismissed the idea he's under pressure, per Football.London's Layth Yousif:

"It's not a condition for me. I am working to take our work and moving it ahead for our objectives. I worked in the past and in the present by being demanding and giving my players this mentality. We want to do something positive. It's not feeling pressure. It is more about demands."

He may be oblivious to any pressure, but questions have been raised lately about Emery's tenure. Those questions concern a worrying run of just four points from 18 in the Premier League recently.

Defeats to Crystal Palace, Leicester City and Wolverhampton Wanderers, along with Sunday's 1-1 home draw against Brighton & Hove Albion, did fatal damage to Arsenal's hopes of finishing in the top four.

The Gunners need to beat Burnley away on Sunday and hope north London rivals Tottenham Hotspur lose at home to Everton. Even then, it would take an eight-goal swing for Arsenal to go above their neighbours on goal difference.

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It's a scenario that doesn't appear too realistic, and Emery already believes Champions League qualification via the league is no longer an option: "We know it was difficult and our possibility in the Champions League is finished (in the Premier League) but we still have a possibility in this competition (Europa League)."

Preparing his players for the challenge has been Emery's priority this week:

Emery wants a fourth Europa League win.
Emery wants a fourth Europa League win.GIUSEPPE CACACE/Getty Images

Emery may well have a point, as he's left to rely on being able to tap into his uncanny key to success in the Europa League. He won the competition three seasons running as manager of Sevilla, and the Spaniard has identified a proactive approach as vital at the Mestalla, promising Arsenal will play to score.

The Gunners' recent barren run domestically has taken some of the focus off their exploits in Europe. Yet Emery is keen for Arsenal to respect the tournament and seize the chance to win it, per Sid Lowe of the Guardian:

"It's an attractive title and it’s getting more attractive: we’ve seen Manchester United, Atletico, Sevilla against Liverpool. The demands are high and everyone wants it, as a title, not just a way in (to the Champions League).

"At any club like Arsenal or Valencia, titles have to be objectives (in themselves). Arsenal only have two European titles in their history: the Fairs Cup (in 1970) and the Cup Winners’ Cup (in 1994), neither of which exist any more, so I have a lot of ambition to win a title."

Replacing Wenger has proved a challenge for Emery.
Replacing Wenger has proved a challenge for Emery.Power Sport Images/Getty Images

Those are strong words from a coach who has come under increasing scrutiny as he's attempted to replace Arsene Wenger after the Frenchman's mostly glorious 22-year reign came to end last summer.

Not unlike his time in Sevilla, Emery's work at Arsenal has to be judged through separate prisms, specifically performances in the Premier League compared with those delivered on the continent.

In the latter, the 47-year-old should be deemed an instant success. He's guided Arsenal to the cusp of the final by playing expansive football and beating some tricky opposition, most notably Napoli in the last eight.

The Gunners beat the Serie A outfit 3-0 on aggregate, sealing progress with a 1-0 win in Naples, courtesy of an Alexandre Lacazette free-kick. Emery rightly earned plaudits for his proactive team selection and calm, measured approached:

Similarly, Emery relied on his star power up front to help Arsenal rally against Valencia, after Mouctar Diakhaby had headed Los Che into an early lead at the Emirates Stadium.

Fortunately, the presence of Lacazette and fellow prolific forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, both of whom scored in the first leg, give the Gunners a chance against any opposition in Europe.

Their goals have formed something of a safety net for Emery, who has struggled to crack the code in England's top flight. Poor results have been the natural outcome of dismal performances, with heavy rotation and frequent changes of formation failing to provide a remedy.

Instead, Arsenal's style of play has suffered, with the issue painfully highlighted during the 3-0 defeat to the Foxes at the King Power Stadium at the end of April:

The Gunners dominating possession with slick exchanges of passes between the lines used to be a given on Wenger's watch.

Sadly, Emery hasn't been able to maintain this staple despite inheriting some wonderful attacking talent, including creative pair Mesut Ozil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The problem has been finding a team structure that brings out the best in those tasked with supporting the strikers.

Emery has found the puzzle so tricky, he often has even tried to solve it:

Forming a diamond with his quartet of marquee players didn't work against Brighton. The stalemate with the Seagulls saw home form on Emery's watch slip below the standards of Wenger's final season:

Wenger signed off with a sixth-place finish and without a trophy after exiting the Europa League at the semi-final stage following a 2-1 aggregate defeat to eventual winners Atletico Madrid. Emery's first season, meant to herald a new era, is beginning to eerily resemble the worst of Wenger's otherwise decorated tenure.

Yet for all the apparent negativity, Emery has tried to turn Arsenal into a fitter, more disciplined team. He hasn't always got the balance right between those demands and staying on the front foot in league games.

While the issues facing Emery are starting to mount, there are some mitigating circumstances behind his struggles. Injuries haven't helped, as centre-back Rob Holding, right-back Hector Bellerin and striker Danny Welbeck were all lost for the season.

Meanwhile, Aaron Ramsey picking up a hamstring problem in Naples was a bitter blow. The win over Valencia is the only victory for Emery's men since Juventus-bound Ramsey was lost for the remainder of the campaign.

Emery has also entered a club in transition at the executive level. Ivan Gazidis left his post as chief executive to join AC Milan back in January, before head of recruitment Sven Mislintat stepped down a month later.

Arsenal have been searching for a technical director ever since. Former midfielder Edu is expected to take the job, although the Brazilian FA issued a statement on Wednesday saying the 40-year-old is focused on his role as co-ordinator ahead of the Copa America this summer, per James Olley of the London Evening Standard.

Edu could return to north London to help Emery rebuild Arsenal.
Edu could return to north London to help Emery rebuild Arsenal.MAURO PIMENTEL/Getty Images

Emery will need smart support in the transfer market this summer as he continues to revamp a squad in his own image. He'll also need the goodwill of Arsenal fans to help support his rebuilding job, something he may be denied if he can't engineer yet another Europa League triumph.