In his short spell in charge of Arsenal, Unai Emery has already shown that he is not afraid to take a gamble. And against West Ham at the Emirates on Saturday, Emery did not roll the dice once, but twice.
The first occasion was when he decided to invite a still unwell Mesut Ozil to join the rest of Arsenal’s otherwise healthy squad in the dressing room, for a full hour ahead of kick-off. The second was during the match itself , when he made the bold decision to haul off Alex Iwobi at half-time for Alexandre Lacazette.
It proved to be an inspired substitution, with Lacazette helping to create Arsenal’s decisive second goal in the 3-1 victory — Emery’s first three points in charge of the club. But the impact of his first gamble remains to be seen.
“He came today for one hour and stayed for one hour in the dressing room with the players. He was not 100 per cent good but he stayed with us for a while,” Emery explained of his decision to invite Ozil to the Emirates.
“I prefer that if he feels good, he stays with us here and not at home. And he felt better today, so he is with us. And I prefer that. Maybe tomorrow another player is sick also – that is because of me.”
Emery’s desire to involve Ozil on Saturday — and perhaps more importantly, his desire to have it widely known that Ozil was involved on Saturday — is understandable. The World Cup winner’s absence rather relegated the match itself to subplot status, as reports broke that there had been a furious training ground bust-up on Friday morning, after Emery had dared to tell Ozil he would start the game on the substitutes bench.
The Spaniard insists this is not true.
“Two days ago, I spoke with him about things tactically for this match and the last match.” he said.
“And he said to me he was sick two days ago. Yesterday, Friday, after my conversation on Thursday, he continued to stay off sick. We spoke with the doctor and decided it was better for him to stay at home. Then if today he was feeling better, he should come.”
It was unfortunate that the Ozil drama loomed large over this result, particularly as Emery’s second bold move — to throw on Lacazette at half-time — proved something of a masterstroke.
The change prompted an almost immediate turnaround. The first-half was an entertainingly end-to-end affair, with Marko Arnautović opening the scoring before Nacho Monreal’s close-range equaliser, but Arsenal grew in confidence in the second-half. They took the lead when Lacazette’s low shot was turned in by the hapless Issa Diop, before another substitute, Danny Welbeck, made sure of the win.
Emery’s trigger-happy approach to introducing substitutions — this is the second game in a row that he has made a change at half-time — is a departure in style from the more dogmatic Arsène Wenger, who rarely made any early changes, and drew heavy criticism for ignoring his bench altogether in last season’s chastising 3-0 defeat by Manchester City.
But Emery has insisted he thinks nothing of making a tactical change at any point in a match — an attitude that he has had his entire career.
“I usually also can do the substitutions when I think it is the best moment, but I felt maybe I would give the chance to the player after 45 minutes to try to change the performance,” he said on his decision to replace Iwobi with Lacazette so early into the game.
“But throughout my career I only did that tactically. For one player, the first half Iwobi was playing and if he had continued the second half he could have improved and finished the match better.
“So it is only tactically, because I preferred to go inside with Lacazette who is a different kind of player than Aubameyang, as he goes deep to receive the ball and then continues with the combination to progress up the pitch."
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies