Tuesday, March 5, 2024

How negotiable are the non-negotiables?

Mikel Arteta quickly won Arsenal fans over (and, it must be said, large parts of the media) with his clear and precise communication style. His clarity was especially welcome after 18 months or so of Unai Emery’s word soup press conferences that left transcribers and fans alike scratching their heads.

One of the foremost bullet points in Arteta’s PowerPoint was “non-negotiables”, the behaviours and principles all of his players must live by (and he used the word “live” rather than “work” in his unveiling press conference). The coach pulled no punches in those early months, the likes of Dani Ceballos and Ainsley Maitland-Niles were briefly frozen out before rehabilitating themselves with an improved attitude in training.

Post-lockdown, Matteo Guendouzi and Mesut Özil were more severely dealt with. Özil remains in a footballing Siberia at London Colney while Guendouzi’s Arsenal career is thawing off in Berlin after a couple of months of the cold shoulder. Arteta was creating a meritocracy, Guendouzi and Özil’s profiles and standing within the club are markedly different but both were treated the same for their lack of supplication.

Players that behaved were included and those that didn’t were excluded, even if temporarily. Not only was this clarity welcomed by Arsenal fans but fans also welcomed the sense that the new coach was trying to correct a playing culture that had become too comfortable. A large section of the fan base wanted a greater sense of accountability for players and Arteta was obliging in an unapologetic and clear manner.

This is not to say that some of his decisions haven’t been questioned, of course. The decision to exclude Mesut Özil from the registered Europa League and Premier League playing squads is one of the most contentious and talked about calls in the Gunners’ recent history. However, everyone knew the score- toe the line or be shunned.

This past weekend, those lines have been blurred- at least publicly. The inclusion of Willian in the starting line-up for the Leeds game a few days after the Brazilian’s ill-advised sojourn to Dubai have raised questions as to how equally certain players are treated. Willian has not performed well to this point this season anyway and the fact that he only lasted 45 minutes before being replaced due to a muscle injury calls into question the wisdom of 14 hours of leisure flying during the international break.

Willian’s trip was said to be promotional and, therefore, work-related, which may spare him the ire of the British authorities in a time when leisure travel is outlawed. However, we know that Arsenal weren’t made aware of the trip and saw fit to ‘investigate’ the issue. So why wasn’t he excluded for the fixture at Leeds?

I think the first thing to say is that there is too much that we don’t know externally to conclude that Willian has been afforded preferential treatment. Dropping a player is not the only recourse of punishment, after all. We know the club spoke to him but the ramifications of that discussion remain private.

He might have been fined, he might have been dressed down in front of the whole group, he might have to make Mikel Arteta’s tea while wearing an unflattering fez for the next three weeks. We don’t know. Maybe other players have committed similar indiscretions that we’ve no knowledge of and have been handed out the same private sanctions that may (or may not) have been dished out to Willian.

I would speculate that this is a first offence for the player and has been dealt with as such. Because the other thing we shouldn’t assume is that Arteta has instantaneously dropped everyone that has erred. For instance, I don’t think Guendouzi and Özil were struck off for first offences. We know that Guendouzi behaved in a way that irritated Arteta during a winter training camp in Dubai and he was not banished at that point.

There is probably a distinction in behaviour between those that have been dropped and Willian too. Arteta puts a lot of stock in how players train, we are told that Maitland-Niles and Ceballos had fallow periods at London Colney that led to their exclusion. Willian’s was a PR (and, it must be said, public health) gaffe and, rightly or wrongly, Arteta probably didn’t regard it as much of a challenge to his authority. Ceballos has fought with two Arsenal teammates now and it doesn’t seem to have unduly troubled the manager.

I think the Willian incident is “inconclusive” as far as we are concerned, as supporters. There is too much information missing for us to be firm. Where I do think Arteta is fair game for criticism is in his public handling of Nicolas Pepe after his admittedly stupid red card against Leeds United.

I don’t think Arteta was excessive in his assessment of Pepe’s indiscretion as “unacceptable.” It was. Where I think the manager showed inexperience was in his follow-up statement, “I really liked the personality of the team when Pepe let the team down.” It might not be entirely inaccurate, but it’s a strong, emotional statement.

In my view, Arteta allowed his frustration to get the better of him and it was an utterance that included a lot of his pre-existing baggage with the player. Aubameyang and Luiz have been sent off in crucial away fixtures during Arteta’s tenure and neither earned the same level of censure as Pepe- Luiz in particular has hardly covered himself in glory with some of his dismissals.

It is clear from his selection policy that Arteta trusts Luiz more than he trusts Pepe (whether or not you think that is justified) and it seems obvious to me that the coach allowed his pre-existing frustrations with Pepe to spill over into his emotional condemnation. It is only November, whatever Pepe’s long-term future (and I am certain Arsenal will try to offload him next summer) he will be needed this season.

I have an issue with introverts being considered mentally weak and it is a stereotype that looms large in the macho world of football. We can’t be sure how the player reacts to different stimuli but Arteta needs to hope that this public diatribe doesn’t further disengage a player that has certainly struggled to engage at Arsenal on a footballing level.

The Ivorian might be entitled to wonder why he has been treated differently to other players who have earned needless red cards. There again, it is possible that Arteta’s comments weren’t emotional but calculated- maybe he calculated that Pepe has had enough arm around shoulder and what he now needs is a boot in the testes. I have my doubts but it could be more deliberate than I believe.

Arsenal do have to safeguard their public image to some extent, though. A look at Arsenal’s recent transfer and contract business also raises cause for concern. The club handed a very comfortable four-year contract to Cedric Soares this summer and he has yet to make the bench for a Premier League game.

Willian, David Luiz and Aubameyang have all been handed contracts that set them up into their mid-30s too. Each contract renewal is an individual case, of course and you can probably divorce the Auba contract from Luiz and Willian (and certainly from Cedric). Nevertheless, if Arsenal aren’t careful they might earn a reputation as a comfortable retirement home.

How much those decisions were instigated by Arteta probably varies from player to player and Raul Sanllehi’s “mutually agreed departure” might go some way to fixing the issue. Nevertheless, it’s an issue of perception that the manager will have to deal with, ultimately. Luiz, Willian and Cedric all share the same agent, after all. Arsenal was often referred to sardonically as “the Colney crèche” in the latter days of Arsene Wenger’s charge.

Now the club needs to be careful that it isn’t perceived as the Colney care home. Ultimately, what matters most is how the players perceive these matters and whether they believe there has been unequal treatment. Lest we forget that the club instigated potentially very divisive pay cut negotiations earlier this year and it’s very easy to nurse a grudge with your employer in those circumstances.

I absolutely think that Arsenal require the kind of cultural reset Arteta has promised but we have to acknowledge that it’s a very difficult task for any leader to execute- especially an inexperienced one. Time will tell whether Arteta has managed it with the right measures of delicacy and firmness.

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