Perfectly Weighted Balls

It is fair to say that Unai Emery has inherited a number of difficult situations upon taking the reigns at Arsenal. The desperation of the Wenger’s final years led to a number of short term decisions, resulting in a top heavy squad whose resources have been misallocated. The consequences of that misallocation is felt in his restricted transfer budget.

The salary awarded to Mesut Ozil back in January 2018 was a move of desperation, with the Gunners keen not to lose any more face having sold Alexis Sanchez for peanuts, with the prospect of Mesut walking away on a Bosman looming. A lot (but not all) of Arsenal’s current defensive issues are a result of having to shop in the bargain bin due to the largesse of spending on attackers, most of whom have little resale value for one reason or another.

While Ozil’s salary is not an issue of Emery’s making, the obvious fallout between the pair is not an inherited problem. The circumstances are inherited, but it is clear there is a personal disagreement between the two. Arsenal did not deal with the Aaron Ramsey situation satisfactorily, but they have rather punctured the balloon by publicly taking his contract offer off the table. There is no speculation, we know he will leave on a free at the end of the season.

Emery has decided, therefore, not to try and induct the Welshman into his plans. It’s a bad resolution and a result of historic mismanagement, but it is a resolution nonetheless. Where Ozil is concerned, the situation is very much aflame. This has led to questions over Emery’s handling of big name players and big egos, having been dictated to by Neymar and his entourage at Paris Saint Germain.

I think this is an unfair comparator. The Neymar situation was and is absolutely unique. Even Barcelona wasn’t big enough to contain Neymar’s ego and it was made very clear to Emery by the ownership that Neymar was the king of that particular jungle. Emery had no recourse to deal with the problem. Besides which, Neymar played well for PSG and actually fit the manager’s attacking ideal as a nominally wide player that drifts into the half spaces.

Neymar is so good that you simply put up with the circus that revolves around him much in the same way that you tolerate Cristiano Ronaldo’s rampant narcissism. At Arsenal, there is a far more ‘chicken and egg’ type conundrum for Emery- should he look to accommodate and indulge Ozil and build the rest of the team around the club’s finest individual talent? Or should he insist Mesut steps into line with his ideas? Unai has opted for the latter.

I would argue that Ozil is not consistently brilliant enough to warrant the Ronaldo or Neymar treatment. Since Emery’s arrival, I have regularly suggested that some big heads would roll during this season, because that is what happens when you are trying to implement cultural change in any organisation. In many ways, Ramsey and Ozil are the last remnants of the Wenger era.

Arsene indulged them with tactical freedom. Ozil was also afforded the liberty of extra duvet days. When Arsenal signed Ozil and Sanchez they moved into a situation where there was a clear delineation of superstars in the team. It totally spelled the end of the flat wage structure. It is difficult to suggest that Arsenal have managed this model well. Emery clearly strives for a more collective culture.

It could be that he sees the Ozil quandary as a very public weighing of his balls. In the microwave culture of modern football, he knows he won’t have the Arsenal job for too long. While I think the Neymar situation was totally unique and unmanageable, that is not necessarily how the rest of the football world sees it. All managers at top clubs know they are in a constant state of audition. If it is perceived that Unai has been dictated to by both Neymar and Ozil, that mud will stick and he will be seen as a soft touch.

However, I am not convinced that this is a ‘take out the biggest guy in the prison to earn respect’ scenario. Emery has used both carrot and stick with the German, anointing him as one of the 5 captains in the squad. Ozil was left out of the North London derby a few weeks ago for ‘tactical reasons’, but captained the side in the next match at home to Burnley.

Culture change always carries casualties. We are not privy to exactly what has happened between the manager and star player behind the scenes, so it is impossible to say whether the treatment of Ozil is commensurate. If Mesut is testing the manager’s chin in front of the squad, Emery has to show he can deal with it and if he is serious about developing a more collective culture, he has to root out anyone that doesn’t share that ideal, regardless of their status.

There are sizeable issues with freezing Ozil out, however. Firstly, you deny yourself one of the world’s foremost creative talents. Secondly, age and wage make Mesut very difficult to move on. He signed the contract extension last January because, let’s face it, Arsenal made him the highest offer. Nobody else deemed him worthy of that salary last January and is stock has fallen further in the last 12 months.

Having retired from international football, Ozil has even less reason to want to move on on a salary cut. A less discussed issue is how it shapes dressing room politics. Arsenal are not playing particularly well and results have dropped off of late. If that situation continues, sooner or later, players begin to question whether leaving out such a talent is in their best interests. Ozil has good friends in the squad and it is probably difficult for them to witness this situation at the best of times.

Emery is in a potentially fragile situation because it’s all very well slapping down the biggest boy in the playground, but he might have some big friends ready to throw up the dukes on his behalf. Of course, Ozil might not necessarily be guilty of diva like behaviour here. Emery favours high pressing, hard running attacking midfielders that force turnovers high up the pitch.

That’s not what Ozil is and he is never going to be, you don’t transition from being an accountant to a lawyer just because that is what your director wants. It is frustrating in any job when you are not asked to play to your strengths but instead lean into your weaknesses. This is why casualties are inevitable in any sort of organisational change. Pep Guardiola took some big scalps at Barcelona before he set about creating one of the greatest teams of all time.

But even if Ozil is not exactly what the manager wants or needs, he is very far from useless. For all of the misgivings about how he copes against more physical opponents, he was just fine against Burnley who are, in the words of by dear departed Nan, a right bunch of shithouses. Arsenal have not exactly conformed to one system or style of play under Emery either.

The situation is always politically far more weaponised with Ozil too. For a start, he has one of the slickest PR operations in the sport. Consequently, the player has a tribalist fan base to match any team. Many Arsenal fans are still very preoccupied with individuals and accommodation of their favourites, which makes supporter buy-in (assuming supporter buy-in does or should matter to a coach) tricky too. (This is also not to say that anyone challenging Emery’s thinking on Ozil is a besotted fan boy or girl).

There are a lot of personal agendas at play and isolating Ozil, even if it happens to be absolutely the correct thing to do, will create a lot of furore and it also represents a tragic mismanagement of resource. A lot depends on Emery’s intentions too. He has given the player plenty of carrot and plenty of stick over the last 4 months. Has that been to inspire a reaction? To give Mesut enough rope to hang himself with? Or to create a market for him?

This is not a straightforward issue with a presentable solution. Managing difficult situations and people is all part of a leader’s job. Time will tell how well Emery has handled this, because however it plays out, hindsight will eventually tell us whether he has been right or wrong to marginalise his most naturally talented player. George Graham rooted out the likes of Charlie Nicholas and Kenny Sansom and was vindicated. Bruce Rioch swung at Ian Wright and missed. How this punch lands could define Emery’s reign.