Morning, a quick Saturday blog for you.
Unai Emery has spoken – again – about his time at Arsenal, this time in an interview with Sid Lowe – check it out in full it here. Despite my reticence to take another trip down Emery Lane, Sid’s pieces are always worth reading, and there was one thing in particular which stood out for me in this one.
The former manager talks about his time at the club, the failure at the end of his first season in the Premier League and Europa League, his trials and tribulations with Mesut Ozil, and ultimately his departure. There are things he says which are interesting, and things he doesn’t say which make you think there’s more to certain situations than he’s willing to make public.
When Ozil is the only player not to turn up to a post-Europa League final debrief, it suggests there’s a significant problem between the player and the manager. Emery insists in the interview that ‘I tried with all my might to help Ozil’, and the implication is that he didn’t get enough back from the club’s highest paid player. It feels like it’s a can of worms that’s not really worth opening this far down the line, and while I have no great fondness for either party, it was clear from the start that there were problems between the two of them. People can make their own minds up on how to apportion blame.
However, the thing that caught my eye was his desire to sign Wilfried Zaha last summer. It was a situation which played out on the back pages, and the player’s desire to join was public via his brother who insisted it was his ‘dream’. Speaking to Sid, Emery said:
“We signed [Nicolas] Pépé. He’s a good player but we didn’t know his character and he needs time, patience. I favoured someone who knew the league and wouldn’t need to adapt. [Wilfried] Zaha won games on his own: Tottenham, Manchester City, us. Incredible performances. I told them: ‘This is the player I know and want.’ I met Zaha and he wanted to come. The club decided Pépé was one for the future. I said: ‘Yes, but we need to win now and this lad wins games.’ He beat us on his own.”
To me, this absolutely sums up the dysfunction of the Emery era – and I say that so I include those above him too, this isn’t just about the former boss. Firstly, I should say I think Zaha is a good player, but not an £80m player which is what Palace wanted for him. They’re perfectly within their rights to look for that kind of money, but in terms of his output I just didn’t see that as value for money.
He had some excellent performances, and maybe the thinking was that at a so-called bigger club he might have had a better chance of producing consistency. His best season only ever produced 10 goals and 5 assists though. As for Emery’s contention that he won games on his own against us, I don’t know what he’s on about there.
He managed three games against Palace, and while Zaha made contributions, he was hardly a match-winner on his own. In fact, Palace’s only win came at the Emirates last season when Emery picked a weak team, and Zaha’s goal came from a ridiculous mistake by Shkodran Mustafi. If a player sets off on a mazy dribble from inside his own half and scores/creates a goal, I can understand being hugely impressed. If a player takes advantage of a cock-up by a defender with a track record of cock-ups then I’m not sure it’s that awe-inspiring.
In the 2-2 at Selhurst Park earlier in the season, it was another Mustafi mistake/penalty when he scythed down some bloke for no good reason, and late on Zaha won a penalty when he went over Xhaka’s leg. Remember, this was a game that Xhaka started at left back. And earlier this season (it feels so long ago now!), the 2-2 draw with Palace at home was ‘The Xhaka game’, when he hauled off his captain and that all blew up. Again, there’s no need to rekindle the flames there, but again Zaha’s contribution was to win a penalty against a fill-in full back (Calum Chambers).
Leaving that aside though, there’s a lot to unpack about the fact that the head coach badly wanted a specific player, Raul Sanllehi and the club knew exactly who he wanted, and yet they went out and got someone different. Emery wanted an experienced Premier League player to play on the left hand side; Arsenal went out and bought a 24 year old from Ligue 1 to play on the right. Palace were annoyed at our ‘ham-fisted’ bids for Zaha, almost as if we weren’t serious about it at all. We basically made some perfunctory bids for the player knowing they would never be accepted as a kind of appeasement to Emery while pursuing somebody completely different.
Now, if you’d asked me if I’d have preferred Pepe to Zaha last summer, I would have said yes. So it’s not be critical of the deal itself, but when it’s so at odds with what your manager actually wants, it doesn’t speak to a harmonious recruitment strategy. Arsenal would have looked at the age profiles of the players and the respective price-tags and thought Pepe was the best option for the future. I think we can all understand that.
Yet, even when things were going disastrously badly for Emery, he retained the backing of Sanllehi for a long, long time. Much longer than many of us expected. When things were blowing up, the club were pushing back against the fans in a fairly cack-handed way, and as I said at the time, Emery was only responsible for so much of what went wrong. At a certain point we had to look above him, and the people who were keeping him in the job week after dismal week after dismal week.
So you have to wonder why, if they were so supportive of him back then and so willing to fight his corner when he should have been let go, they weren’t willing to give him what he wanted in the transfer market. We’ll never know in the ins and outs of the Zaha deal because it never happened, but to bring Pepe in there were third parties who made a lot of money out of Arsenal last summer. Sure, ‘that’s how it works’ and ‘that’s what you need to do to sign players like that’, but the club went down one road and the manager went down another and whatever way you want to look at it that’s not healthy.
Obviously there was a lot more to what went on. It’s hard to have any sympathy for Emery bemoaning the fact four captains left, if anything that highlights the ludicrousness of that kind of set-up in the first place. The football got worse and worse, he lost the dressing room, and the club allowed the situation to fester in a way which I think remains a serious black mark on those involved.
But the Zaha situation is like a perfect summation of a relationship which was unraveling and would only get worse. The manager nailed his colours to that particular mast, and the club ignored him. They have every right to do that, of course, but it doesn’t augur well for what’s to come, and while the end of last season (Baku etc) was the start of it, last summer was a big part of that process.
Had Pepe had a storming first season, it would easier to justify the divergence, but with Emery, Freddie Ljungberg and Mikel Arteta all expressing similar concerns about his game this season, it’s reasonable to say it hasn’t quite worked out yet. The yet is important, as he’s still just 24 (he turns 25 at the end of this month but until then remains 24 because that’s how it works), and there’s time for him to make his mark at Arsenal.
It’s why, as I wrote this week, I was so fascinated to see what would have happened this summer in terms of transfers. Would Arteta have got the players he wanted, or had clients of big agents foisted on him by the Head of Football? It’s a shame we won’t find out, and while I’m more than happy the Emery era is over, it’s abundantly clear that this club has issues that go beyond the head coach/manager.
Blimey, that was longer than I expected. Have a great Saturday, more tomorrow.