Granit Xhaka, Mesut Ozil and ‘dressing room piss-taking’: What’s really going on at Unai Emery’s Arsenal

He has not completely lost the dressing room – yet – but Emery’s problems are mounting

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Friday 01 November 2019 08:40 GMT
Unai Emery says there were positives to take from Liverpool loss

It is a familiar sound around Arsenal’s London Colney base, often followed by stifled sniggering.

Many of the club’s younger players now openly do impressions of Unai Emery, in a way that is a lot more cynical than those light-hearted “good ebening” internet memes.

That greeting is one of the few elements that give the Arsenal manager a bit of public personality, but one of many elements some of his squad will – in the words of one training ground source – “mercilessly take the piss out of”.

And while some of that is typical behaviour under any boss, it is here typical of a club where his very direction and authority is under question.

So much for the sense that underlay a lot of the 2018-19 season, where it often felt that a lack of identity at Arsenal was making their matches much less interesting.

This Saturday’s home fixture against Wolves is now full of intrigue, way beyond the basic football necessity that Emery needs to get a first Premier League win in four.

It offers an effective referendum on so much to do with the club.

Most immediately, there is the wonder on whether Emery will go back on so much that he has said, and pick Mesut Ozil. It feels like he has to, after the German’s most recent performance against Liverpool. It emphasises how Emery can’t seem to do right for wrong at the moment.

Then there’s the most recent crisis. Will he play Granit Xhaka after last week’s reaction to fan abuse? Will he make him captain?

Before even that, the game’s very programme notes will offer a storyline, and a news story. Much will be revealed by whether Xhaka even writes them.

Most of all, though, this match offers another referendum on Emery. So much of Arsenal’s current problems stem from the confusion and uncertainty that have characterised by his reign. His lack of assertiveness has added to a lot of these problems, not least the Xhaka situation.

That whole episode has the potential to define Emery’s tenure, going right back to how the captaincy was decided on, with that squad vote.

Xhaka eventually issued an explanation on Thursday night, although it fell short of an outright apology, and didn’t mention either Emery or the support of the club. Sources have maintained all week that one of the issues was that the Swiss international just didn’t agree with the manner of the apology suggested. Those who know the player also dispute the image Emery painted of him as being “upset, devastated and sad”, as well as the idea mental health is any kind of concern.

Granit Xhaka has been angry with the fallout

They say he is “angrily unwavering” on principles like this. The statement arguably proves this.

Emery, however, has backed himself into a corner where he can’t be unwavering at all. His and the club’s general handling of this has created a situation where it’s almost no-win.

If Xhaka does not start, the questions will start over whether he was mentally right to play.

If he does play but is not captain, it will show he has been demoted and effectively punished.

Unai Emery is not as popular as he was

If he does play and is captain, it will show the manager didn’t have the conviction of his own words from Tuesday.

This is how badly it’s been handled, with Emery having already run the risk of upsetting one of the players that had been behind him.

Those numbers are steadily falling, which is what all this is really about.

All of the club’s current issues come from a lack of clarity, a lack of assertiveness.

That applies to everything from to the identity of the team, to the line-ups, to the delivery of instructions over how they’re supposed to be playing.

One coach at another top-six club recently told the Independent that “communication and game insight” are pretty much the keys to management, and if there is fair debate over the latter with Emery, there is no debate over the former.

Some of the players do genuinely struggle to understand what he is saying. That is a problem he similarly had at Paris Saint-Germain, even if it comes from an otherwise admirable insistence on speaking the language of the country he’s working in. It’s just that he doesn’t speak it well enough.

It would similarly be wrong to say that Emery has totally lost the dressing room. It’s not at that level. Many of the players like him personally, and even find some of the “good ebening” quirks endearing, while a good portion of those regularly playing still support him as manager.

Will Mesut Ozil play this weekend?

They aren’t massively backing him, though, and there is a feeling he is “losing that changing room bit by bit”.

The Xhaka issue similarly isn’t as much of a talking point for those inside the club as outside, but the captain’s closer friends in the squad are invested.

Some players – including some of the more senior players – are “just not having” Emery.

They wonder whether he’s even that good. There are plenty that doubt the tactics. Emery doesn’t seem to want to work on their weaknesses.

Many of the players feel that too much changes from game to game, which is how the team can go from careful possession to chaotic pressing and then counter-attacking, with no real core guiding identity.

The irony is this comes from immensely detailed training sessions, but this has led to utter chaos in terms of the consistency of the performances.

At the moment, you don’t know what you’re going to get from Arsenal, although it does feel that they are one of the few clubs that could go through what happened at Anfield on Wednesday. They came from behind to be 3-1 up, 4-2 up and then 5-4 up in the 94th minute, only to still get eliminated.

This all speaks to the lack of direction, to the lack of underlying principles that harden teams like Liverpool and Manchester City.

Liverpool and City are so far ahead

And some of it admittedly comes from the situation that Emery was chosen out of.

He was initially picked as head coach to be just another part of a more multi-faceted technical structure that was specifically designed to dilute the power of the manager after Arsene Wenger, but the problem is so much of that has already changed around him.

It means there is more onus on a manager who hasn’t always shown himself interested in such force of personality.

Many would doubt the force of his personality at all, with questions over his authority over players going way back past PSG and right through his career. It was a huge issue at Valencia.

So many of the other issues we’ve already seen at Arsenal go right back through his career too: questionable tactics and in-game management.

One big question when he was appointed was over those three Europa Leagues with Sevilla. Did they indicate a trophy-winner waiting for the step-up, or merely reflect that he was a second-tier manager?

Arsenal are offering another referendum with that, starting with this weekend.

It should be stressed that there is no current will to sack him, but many of the hierarchy do feel content they did not extend his contract in the summer. They are now just as content to decide on his future at the end of the season, but a series of situations coming together right now make this a crossroads period.

If it goes bad on Saturday, it could get really bad. It could be good night, rather than good evening, and with no mirth around it.

Emery needs to show a surer hand than ever before.

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