The Squad Is The Star

“The most important is that we are playing with different players in different matches. The performances are continuing well in these matches and different systems also. We need to use different players, different systems, as each match is different and it is good for this moment and this moment is coming this week and this month.”

So said Unai Emery after his side’s 5-1 win over Bournemouth last week. Three days later, he used a different formation and made four changes to his line-up for the North London derby. Alex Lacazette, a sub against Bournemouth, and Aaron Ramsey, an unused substitute in the same game, combined for the Gunners’ goal and were central to Emery’s counter attacking game plan.

Lacazette was a goalscoring substitute against Bournemouth and Aubameyang really ought to have been against Spurs, having won and then failed to convert a stoppage time penalty. The Frenchman looked dejected to have been substituted 56 minutes into the derby at Wembley, prompting his manager to respond in his post-match assessment. “I am very consistent in my work to take the best decision and to give them the chance to do the best performance for us.

Earlier in his tenure, Emery’s propensity to make half-time substitutions became legion. I don’t think a half-time substitution was always a comment on a player’s performance, or a punitive measure. Few could argue that Matteo Guendouzi is not well liked by the manager, but he was not spared the half-time hook at Wembley. The coach rarely holds any kind of decipherable grudge in proceeding fixtures.

Guendouzi was subbed at half-time during the 2-1 win over Newcastle in September and he has not exactly been exiled from the squad ever since. Granit Xhaka, Alex Iwobi (x3), Mesut Özil, Nacho Monreal, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Aaron Ramsey, Alex Lacazette, Stephan Lichtsteiner, Shkodran Mustafi and Mohamed Elneny have all been replaced during the interval for reasons not relating to injury this season.

Only Özil at Brighton could remotely be interpreted as a punitive measure. None of the remainder of those players found their status in the squad altered in light of the switch. I think a lot (not all) of these subs are quite possibly pre-planned. Parcelling his game plan into chunks would certainly chime with Emery’s meticulous approach. But the message is clear, it is almost never (possibly never, ever) personal.

Emery interprets his players as cogs for his machine and he wants his machine to function differently according to the scenario. This has been difficult to process for Arsenal fans for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s such an enormous departure from how Arsene Wenger operated. We have become accustomed to players being given artistic license, which, like every approach, had drawbacks and advantages.

I think it’s fair to surmise that Mesut Özil didn’t appreciate having that indulgence taken away from him- and you can argue the merits and pitfalls of removing it. That doesn’t have to mean Özil flounced in a diva like fashion, because we don’t have that information. But there has certainly been an adjustment period for him.

Aaron Ramsey came out of the team for a time as he struggled to adapt to being played a little further forward by Emery. It was clear from the outset that the coach did not trust him as a wandering part in a midfield two. But Ramsey has reset his software a little more quickly than Mesut and has adapted to the idea of being a pressing agent in a counter attacking setup, as he did brilliantly at Wembley on Saturday. He has found a role as a disruptor of the opposition.

That approach isn’t appropriate for every game. Arsenal’s plan against Southampton at home was to press high, so playing Ramsey behind Lacazette worked and it was the Frenchman’s tigerish closing down that yielded the second goal in that game. Against Bournemouth, Emery’s plan was to move Bournemouth’s back three around (hence the presence of wing-backs), for which Özil and Aubameyang were more logical options.

Back in October, I wrote a piece about how Arsenal’s more malleable attackers, who can operate in a structure, have fared better under Emery than the ‘free stylers.’ Emery has been left with a talented, yet very unbalanced attack by his predecessor and I think rotating it in this way has proved a logical way to handle that imbalance.

The situations around Ramsey and Özil, two players the supporters are very familiar with, have caused discomfort for the fan base. Emery is, I think, trying to affect a cultural change at the club where the team is the star, to borrow a glib cliché. This needn’t be interpreted as a power move per se. I am not sure the ‘personal’ aspect even comes into it for Emery (for better and for worse).

Unai sees his players almost like a set of tactical tools- like a golfer sees his clubs. Sometimes you need a 3 wood, sometimes you need a 5 iron. Adjusting to this approach has taken some time for Arsenal fans- understandably so. Not least because Ramsey and Özil are no longer used in every minute of every game now and they have become firm fan favourites. They were also central to how we made sense of Wenger’s Arsenal.

Arsenal have, for some years, had absolutely defined superstars who played no matter what. Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie, Mesut Özil, Alexis Sanchez, Dennis Bergkamp, even Thierry Henry (despite the star quality he was surrounded with) were central tenants to how Arsenal played. Even if half fit, they were selected and this was how we came to understand our team as Arsenal fans. Emery has fundamentally changed that.

That is not to say he has always chosen the right clubs and there have been large portions of the season where it has been difficult to analyse his approach. I think this is partly because his approach is fluid and, hopefully, the last week or so shows nascent signs that the players of the players responding to this. They have played very well using different formations and personnel in each of their last three games.

Of course, a manager still has to manage the human side of a football team. Players are tactical tools, but they are also humans too and need to be managed as such. But the players are also obliged to try to respond to change. Most of them looked like they were crying out for it during the last two seasons of Wenger’s reign. (Obviously, change still has to be good change).

It’s too early to say the players are totally bought in to Emery’s horses for courses approach, but the signs over the last week or so have been good. The next step is for the fans to come on board and to resist the urge to analyse games through the prism of their favourites being protected at all costs. The next time Lacazette’s substitution at the Emirates is not greeted with pantomime booing, we will have made a big step forward in that regard.

Wing backs doesn’t always mean 5 at the back. 3 central midfielders doesn’t always mean “3 DMs OMG!!!” and one thing we absolutely know about Emery is that he likes to share game time between his players. If Lacazette doesn’t start, you can be pretty sure he’ll get 30-45 minutes from the bench and he’ll probably start the next game too.

Özil and Ramsey will share game time, Mkhitaryan, Iwobi and Suarez will likely share two roles. Guendouzi, Torreira and Xhaka will share two roles, the right-back spot will be rotated between Mustafi, Lichtsteiner and Maitland-Niles, left-back between Monreal and Kolasinac. If the players adjust to it consistently, the supporters will surely follow and hopefully the team sheet won’t cause the consternation it has to this point. For better or for worse, the cult of the individual has expired at Arsenal.

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