Don't blow this, Arsenal! Europa League more important than ever for Emery after top-four failure

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The Gunners take a 3-1 lead into the second leg of their semi-final tie with Valencia and simply cannot afford to suffer another away-day debacle

When Arsenal won at Napoli to book their spot in the Europa League semi-finals it was Unai Emery’s 32nd win from his first 50 games in charge – no-one in the club’s 133-year history has a better record.

Emery’s closest challenger is George Allison, who won 28, then comes George Graham and Herbert Chapman with 27. Arsene Wenger is eighth in the all-time list with 23.

So, it seems remarkable that Emery heads to former club Valencia on Thursday night with the spotlight focused on him, but that is exactly what’s happening following a disastrous run of results for the Spaniard.

Since Alexandre Lacazette’s goal secured that 1-0 success in the San Paolo, Arsenal have failed to win in four Premier League games, losing three and drawing one. It’s a run of form that has seen them blow their chance of a top-four finish and the guarantee of Champions league football that comes with it.

The Gunners' only victory during that spell came in the Europa League, with Valencia seen off 3-1 at the Emirates in the first leg of the semi-final.

And now, with the second leg in the Mestalla upon us, Arsenal’s and Emery’s season sits on a knife-edge.

Get the job done in Spain and the Gunners can focus on the final in Baku on May 29 and a potential top-seed spot in next season’s Champions League.

However, should they fail to get over the line in Spain despite starting with a two-goal advantage, then the work Emery has done during his first campaign in England will come under severe scrutiny.

Ahead of the game, however, Emery told Goal that failure is not something he has thought about.

“I don’t think about ifs," said the former Valencia boss. "It’s not a condition for me. I am coach who in my past and present is thinking about what to do. I’m positive and working towards our goal and objective.

“I am very demanding with myself and give my players this mentality that we want to do something important.

“It’s not thinking about or feeling pressure like a negative. I think by demanding a positive.”

Unai Emery Arsenal PS

Given the job he inherited and the issues he’s had to face during his first season in charge at the Emirates, it is perhaps unfair that Emery finds himself under pressure.

He took over from a man who had run things his way in north London for 22 years and, as has been proven at Manchester United following Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure, it is far from easy to follow in the footsteps of one of the most iconic managers the game has ever seen.

Emery has also had to deal with Ivan Gazidis – the man who appointed him – jumping ship for AC Milan, as well as head of recruitment Sven Mislintat also moving on.

There was also the farce that was the January transfer window, with Arsenal having to scour Europe with their begging bowls out looking for loan deals because there was no money available to try and secure their targets on a permanent basis.

Taking all that into consideration, it’s tough not to come to the conclusion that Emery’s record of 33 wins from his first 55 games is an impressive one – yet he still goes into the semi-final second leg with many unconvinced he is the right man for the job.

A big factor in the criticism that is starting to come his way is that fans are struggling to really see many signs of improvement in some key areas.

He arrived with the reputation of a coach who was meticulous in his planning, a coach who would ensure his players were fully prepared for whatever threat the opposition would possess on a match day.

Yet he has failed to address the same problems that were consistently evident during the finals years of Wenger’s tenure.

The defensive record has not improved. Arsenal conceded 51 goals in the Premier League last season and, with one game of the current campaign remaining this time out, they have shipped 50. It’s the first time in 35 years that the Gunners have let in 50 goals or more in two successive seasons.

Nicholas Mustafi Arsenal PS

"The reality is, Emery needs four or five defenders and that is a concern as that is an overhaul," said former Gunners star Charlie Nicholas.

"Shkodran Mustafi has been a waste of £42 million, which is the biggest bug for me. Saed Kolasinac and Nacho Monreal are left wing-backs, while Sokratis Papastathopoulos lacks pace.

"Where are the young Arsenal defenders from the academy? It sounds as though with Arsenal's academy, if you are not technically good, then you don't fit the criteria for defensive qualities.

"We have not brought anyone through of any substance at all. If you can't afford £60m-£70m defenders, then you have to start the process of teaching.

"I am not looking for a Tony Adams but someone who has enough speed and understanding of a situation. How we can't find that is beyond me."

Criticism being aimed at Arsenal's defence is nothing new, which is perhaps why it's disappointing not to see signs of genuine progress at the back under Emery. But one thing you have been able to count on when it comes to Arsenal over the years is their ability to excite going forward.

But so far this season they have not really shown the type of attacking flair that was their hallmark under Wenger on a consistent basis, with the attack becoming increasingly reliant on Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang.

It’s been tough to watch Arsenal at times this season, especially away from home where Emery has been accused of setting his team up far too negatively.

Mesut Ozil, the club’s best creative talent and highest earner, has been used sparingly and has even found himself left out of the squad at times. Aaron Ramsey, meanwhile, is now Juventus-bound having been allowed to leave on a free transfer.

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Those are the sort of issues can be contained when you are winning, but if results are not going your way, then the spotlight will always fall on those in charge.

And while there is the usual frustration from the fanbase towards owner Stan Kroenke, Emery has certainly found himself in the firing line in recent weeks.

And should things go wrong in the Mestalla, those dissenting voices are only going grow louder.

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