Özil a lux­ury Arse­nal sim­ply can­not af­ford

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Front Page - Ken Early

In May this year, soon af­ter leav­ing his role as coach of PSG, Unai Emery gave an in­ter­view to the jour­nal­ist Marti Per­ar­nau which touched on the theme of lead­er­ship at a foot­ball club.

Emery cited a quote from Jorge Val­dano to the ef­fect that, at Barcelona, the leader is Lionel Messi. At Real Madrid, it’s Florentino Perez. And at Atletico Madrid, it’s Diego Sime­one. A player, a pres­i­dent, and a coach: the only thing they have in com­mon is that each of them is the undis­puted lead­ing fig­ure at the club.

“In ev­ery club you know ex­actly your place, and ex­actly the place you are given by the whole group,” Emery said.

“In my opin­ion, to­day PSG’s leader is Ney­mar. Or rather it will be Ney­mar. He is still in the process of be­ing the leader.”

In his dis­creet way Emery was mak­ing it plain that he did not con­sider Ney­mar to be ideal lead­er­ship ma­te­rial – at least not yet. But he wasn’t re­ally com­plain­ing ei­ther. He is a re­al­ist. He un­der­stood that Ney­mar’s sta­tus as the mar­quee sign­ing and fran­chise player placed him be­yond the au­thor­ity of any man­ager.

“The first thing I did this sea­son was to es­tab­lish my pri­or­i­ties; I have to keep Ney­mar happy, that is the first thing. Keep him happy,” Emery said.

This new pri­or­ity had ne­ces­si­tated a change in his ap­proach to the group.

“A few months ago, a PSG player told me: ‘Mis­ter, you have changed this year’. Well, of course I have, I can­not be the same with and with­out Ney­mar in the team.”

He did not il­lus­trate his talk about Ney­mar with any of the more lurid sort of anec­dotes about the star’s at­ti­tude and be­hav­iour, some of which have been re­ported by jour­nal­ists such as Diego Tor­res at El País.

But you did not have to read too far be­tween the lines to de­tect Emery’s re­gret that he had not been able to im­pose more of his own per­son­al­ity on the job. His kid-gloves han­dling of Ney­mar had brought nei­ther suc­cess nor re­spect. In­stead the crit­ics dis­missed him as weak. He sounded like a man who had de­cided that, wher­ever he ended up next, he would not fail again in the same way.

When Arse­nal sacked Arsène Wenger at the end of last sea­son they lost the leader who had de­fined the club for 22 years. The role is now up for grabs.

The last ma­jor de­ci­sion Arse­nal took dur­ing Wenger’s time at the club was to give Me­sut Özil a new con­tract worth £15 mil­lion a year un­til 2021 – a de­ci­sion Wenger is said to have op­posed, but which the club took any­way be­cause they didn’t want a re­peat of the Alexis Sanchez de­par­ture to Manch­ester United.

The new con­tract made Özil the best-paid player at the club, and as he was al­ready ar­guably the most tech­ni­cally gifted player, he was solidly in con­tention to be Arse­nal’s Ney­mar. He may even have as­sumed that this was his new sta­tus.

Özil’s prob­lem is that Emery will be damned if he lets an­other star player dic­tate the terms at the new Arse­nal. If Emery is go­ing to suc­ceed there it will be be­cause he has con­vinced his play­ers to be­lieve in his way of do­ing things. And his way is quite dif­fer­ent from what they have been used to. Wenger be­lieved that foot­ball was an art form that was pri­mar­ily about self-ex­pres­sion. Emery has a more old-fash­ioned sort of idea: foot­ball is com­pe­ti­tion and the most im­por­tant thing in com­pe­ti­tion is re­sis­tance to pain.

As he told Per­ar­nau: “Be­ing com­pet­i­tive is to know how to suf­fer. Suf­fer like Sime­one’s team do to win. Suf­fer like Pep’s does to win in Eng­land.”

And suf­fer­ing is a long way from Özil’s idea of what the game is all about.

A 5-1 de­feat at An­field is a set­back for Emery. In mit­i­ga­tion, Arse­nal fans are used to los­ing heav­ily at Liver­pool. Last sea­son they lost there 4-0 and it’s less than five years since their last 5-1 de­feat at the same ground. The Liver­pool and Arse­nal teams are both al­most un­recog­nis­able from that day in Fe­bru­ary 2014. Only a few start­ing play­ers from that match re­main at the same clubs: for Liver­pool: Jor­dan Hen­der­son, Daniel Stur­ridge and Si­mon Mig­no­let, for Arse­nal: Lau­rent Ko­scielny, Na­cho Mon­real and Me­sut Özil.

Liver­pool’s man­ager at the time, Bren­dan Rodgers, would later de­scribe his tac­tics for the match in a video for The Coaches’ Voice. In a nut­shell, Liver­pool’s game plan was to wait un­til Özil dropped into mid­field to re­ceive the ball, then press him, win pos­ses­sion, and set Ster­ling and Stur­ridge fly­ing through the cen­tre past Arse­nal’s slow de­fend­ers. As Rodgers was happy to ex­plain in what was billed as a tac­ti­cal “Master­class”, it worked a treat.

So even five years ago, when Özil was 25 and pre­sum­ably as full of run­ning as at any point in his ca­reer, Arse­nal’s op­po­nents were al­ready tar­get­ing him as a weak link. Noth­ing has hap­pened since then to make you be­lieve he has ad­dressed the short­com­ings that Rodgers tried to ex­ploit that day.

Since Özil ar­rived in the Premier League in 2013, no player has as­sisted more league goals or cre­ated more chances. Many would ar­gue that such a record speaks for it­self; how can a cre­ator like this not make the start­ing team? Th­ese voices be­come louder ev­ery time Özil doesn’t play and Arse­nal don’t win.

Yet from Emery’s point of view the pri­or­ity has to be Arse­nal’s long-term weak­ness in de­fence. Arse­nal can score goals with or with­out Özil; they are the fourth-high­est scor­ers in the league. But they have al­ready con­ceded 30 goals, their worst de­fen­sive per­for­mance af­ter 20 league matches since the 1960s. This team is sim­ply not strong enough to carry a player who es­sen­tially stops par­tic­i­pat­ing when his team loses the ball. That is be­fore you con­sider the ef­fect of Özil’s ex­am­ple on the rest of the play­ers, on whom Emery is try­ing to im­press the supreme im­por­tance of know­ing how to suf­fer.

A power strug­gle with his best-paid player is the last thing Emery needs, but he learned at PSG that some­times you can do your ut­most to avoid con­flict, and still end up los­ing the bat­tle. Don’t bet on him be­ing so diplo­matic a sec­ond time around.

‘‘ Ozil’s prob­lem is that Emery will be damned if he lets an­other star player dic­tate the terms

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