Bricks in the Wall

Replacing Arsene Wenger’s omnipotent presence at Arsenal was always going to be more of a project than an appointment. In hindsight, it seems obvious that the contract he signed in 2017 was a temporary measure so that the club could go about making the backroom appointments to buttress the new Head Coach’s arrival.

In came Sven Mislintat, Huss Fahmy and Raul Sanllehi as machinations developed rapidly. In 2018, Arsenal is far more than a football team, it is a top tier organisation that cannot operate according to the whims of a benevolent dictator. A single point of contact is a single point of failure and Arsenal’s executive team quickly constructed scaffolding to absorb the tremor of the post Wenger era.

Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis sprung a surprise by agreeing to leave for AC Milan in the autumn. The club responded by naming two individuals to succeed him in Raul Sanllehi and Vinai Venkatesham. No longer would executive leadership of the club fall on the shoulders of one man. Once again, Arsenal arrived at a collective response to an individual departure.

Shad Forstyhe arrived at the club in the summer of 2014 to some fanfare as the Head of Athletic Performance. When Darren Burgess was appointed as Director of High Performance three summers later, many of us assumed that Forsythe would be ousted. It hadn’t occurred to many of us that Burgess’ appointment was an addition and not a replacement.

Unai Emery brought trusted assistant Juan Carlos Carcedo with him to North London, but, to the surprise of many, retained the services of Steve Bould. Carcedo and Bould share the job title of Assistant Head Coach. The performance staff, the executive staff and the coaching staff suddenly became a series of networks, as opposed to a collection of monoliths.

As the season develops, we are gradually finding out more and more about Unai Emery’s coaching style and he is collecting more and more information about the players at his disposal. In the opening weeks of his reign, many of us scratched our heads and wondered what kind of style Arsenal were trying to play. We scratched around for a sense of identity or philosophy.

Gradually, we have discovered that, for the time being at least, Emery is fond of the ‘horses for courses’ approach, where each opposition is subject to an individual game plan. In other words, Arsenal’s identity is fluid, it is not monolithic (this can and will have its drawbacks, as every management approach inevitably does).

Emery’s adaptable approach to games has slowly begun to deconstruct Arsenal’s dependence on individuals on the pitch too. Each plan requires different attributes, which means that every game needs different players. The coach’s team line ups are almost impossible to predict from one match to the next and he responds swiftly to in-game situations, shifting personnel and formations at will.

Half time substitutions are not considered a ‘punishment.’ The likes of Alex Iwobi, Granit Xhaka, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Aaron Ramsey have been sacrificed at the altar of Emery’s tactical tinkering early in games. But players are not ostracised thereafter, many of them will start or be prominently involved in the next game. Removing players at half time or early in the second half is often not so much a comment on individual performance as it is an acknowledgement of a fluctuating game state.

With the attackers Emery has at his disposal, he has plenty of cards to shuffle should he choose. For instance, I think it is quite likely that his half time double substitution against Spurs, where Lacazette and Ramsey came on for Iwobi and Mkhitaryan, was pre planned. Neither Iwobi nor Mkhitaryan had played badly to that point, but they had been asked to exert a lot of energy.

Maybe Emery did not plan to make the change at the interval, but with two quality, high energy attackers on the bench in Ramsey and Lacazette, it is distinctly within the realms of possibility that Iwobi and Mkhitaryan were asked to do 90 minutes running in a compressed time frame, before handing the baton to Ramsey and Lacazette.

In recent years, Arsenal have become accustomed to single points of contact on the pitch. Lucas Torreira recently spoke about acclimatising to playing in a midfield two, having played in a trio at Sampdoria. Presumably Granit Xhaka had a word in his shell like this week and gently explained, “You think that’s bad? I was doing that all on my own last season, pal.”

Emery undoubtedly has a balancing act in forward positions with lots of plates to try and spin. After a few seasons of relying on individual feats from Özil and Sanchez, or on Santi Cazorla to form a one man midfield, Arsenal are suddenly spreading resource. Nobody is a guaranteed starter and nobody is assured of playing in their favourite position. Players are asked to do what the game demands, whether it be from the start or the substitutes’ bench.

Again, there are pros and cons to this approach. We must be cautious about over eulogising in this honeymoon period (I am writing in the wake of the Spurs result, wary that this piece will be published after the Gunners travel to Old Trafford). A couple of bad results and we would all be more predisposed to pointing out the flaws in Arsenal’s brave new, collective world.

But Arsenal have quickly moved from a club of prominent individuals surrounded by willing subordinates, to a hive of shared responsibility. The speed with which this transition has taken place has, inevitably, seen casualties and it will see a few more yet. The Head Coach appears to be managing frosty relations with Arsenal’s most virtuoso talent Mesut Özil.

Signed on a gargantuan contract in January as a PR move to offset the departure of fellow star Alexis Sanchez, Özil has struggled to adapt to Emery’s tactical demands which often cannot accommodate the sort of freedom Mesut needs to operate. I think this is why there weren’t many concerted moves for his signature 12 months ago when it was clear that Özil was on the market.

His talent will not be doubted by any manager, but, a little like his Gunners progenitor Cesc Fabregas, he needs a fair bit of accommodation and, approaching his 30th birthday, I think Europe’s elite clubs decided against reimagining their teams to fit him in. There is a paradox in Özil’s play in that he is one of the most collectively minded players one could conceive of on the ball, yet he requires freedom from the structure off the ball, which creates stress on teammates.

It’s too early to write Özil’s Arsenal tenure off in perpetuity. Pretty much every member of the Gunners attack has moved between disposable and indispensable on the spectrum of opinion as the weeks have gone by. But it does look like the German is going to have to adjust to Arsenal’s new penchant for collectivism. When you’re used to being the brightest star in the sky, it’s not easy to become another brick in the wall.

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Renowned Arsenal historians Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews and I have written a book about the tumultuous early years of Arsenal Football Club covering the period 1886 – 1893. ‘Royal Arsenal- Champions of the South’ is available to order here.