Ken Early: Odd man out Özil a luxury Emery and Arsenal cannot afford
Manager’s priority has to be to address brittle side’s long-term defensive weakness
Unai Emery: His kid-gloves handling of Neymar at PSG brought neither success nor respect. He won’t make the same mistake with Ozil at Arsenal. Photograph: Ian KIngton/Getty Images
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 to address 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, which makes it 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.