Emery’s blind spot by Bryan
I was thrilled when Arsenal announced Unai Emery as the new head coach. Options were limited and we chose well. The appointment certainly averted the multiple years in football purgatory we would have endured, playing for 6th or 7th place, if Mikel Arteta had been appointed. And I don’t mean that as any disrespect to Arteta, it’s just that being a successful manager at a top football club isn’t something anyone is good at right out of the gate. I liken it to a comment I heard from a grizzled Italian-American at a smoky poker table out on Long Island one night back in the 90s . . . ‘if you want to get good enough to win money at cards, you need to be prepared to lose a Cadillac along the way.’ Arsenal didn’t need to be Arteta’s Cadillac.
However, as promising as things have been, it’s becoming clear that Emery has a blind spot, and if he fails to recognize and address it, we’re doomed to a dozen more years of underachievement.
Emery’s primary strength, for the want of a better phrase, is his “man-management’ skills. A huge percentage of his success to date is down to his ability to get a lot (I won’t say ‘the most,’ yet..) out of each individual player. He understands the importance of instilling confidence (compare that to what Aston Villa allowed to happen for the best part of two decades…. enough to ruin a European Cup winning club for an entire generation). And contrast it to what Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been able to do in just one week as interim manager of Man United. Instilling confidence and helping players attain the right mindset is the hard part and it’s 80% of the battle. But it will only get you so far and for so long. These “man management” skills need some co-conspirators, the most obvious of which is the combination of team selection and match-day tactics.
It’s the ‘team selection’ one I find most baffling. How do you not play Aubameyang and Lacazette together all of the time (often they’re not starting together, and even when they do Lacazette has been taken off early)? How do you leave Aaron Ramsey on the bench even when Mkhitaryan is out injured? Why play Xhaka, Guendouzi and Torreira at the same time? And when Ozil is your only creative midfielder (in the midst of Xhaka/Guendouzi/Torreira) how do you pull him at half time and replace him with Iwobi? To me these are just glaringly obvious mistakes. All of the above meant we looked toothless against Brighton in the second half on Boxing Day . . . not even one decent chance on goal in the final 45 minutes.
I’ll concede that we are lacking quality players in certain departments right now; some due to injury, others we just don’t have. But when you’re in that situation surely you’ve got to go with the best you do have. And we’re not doing that. This is what concerns me most. Emery can get a lot out of his players, but if he alienates them with poor team selection and tactics and we continue drawing with the likes of Brighton and losing to the likes of Southampton then he runs the risk of losing the dressing room, to the point that even his man-management skills won’t be able to salvage the situation.
On Saturday we travel to Anfield to face unquestionably the best football manager on the planet right now. We really should get our arses handed to us on a plate. But if Emery stops overthinking things and just puts out his best eleven I think we can give these scousers a run for their money.