It’s not very often Gary Neville becomes a poster-boy for Arsenal fans, but he adopted that mantle on last night’s Monday Night Football.
That the exchange with Carragher came during a Liverpool match provided a nice counterpoint. Jurgen Klopp came into Liverpool with a completely different idea of football to his predecessor. He’s now in his fourth season at the club, having overseen six transfer windows.
Only now has he a first team which is considered genuine title contenders; it’s been a long job. That gives you an idea of the size of the task facing Unai Emery.
Neville’s assertion that the Spaniard is learning about his squad is very true. The defeats in the two opening games were no surprise; the manner of those defeats is the steep learning curve. That we have no ‘untouchables’ – Ramsey dropped, Özil hooked – is part of that assessment.
However, some players will become ‘untouchable’; it’s the nature of team sports. A coach trusts some players because they assimilate to his ideas. Emery will follow that path, with Guendouzi looking to be the quickest to find his home in the Spaniard’s thinking.
Nothing is set in stone at this stage. The defensive side of our game is the immediate concern. Not just the back four, but the defensive side of the midfield and attack. The fabled high press. We’re not carrying it out consistently across each segment of the pitch.
In part, we’re still learning and adaptation in the summer friendlies was hard. The heat of Singapore and the levels of fitness; there was little chance of it being implemented immediately. There’s also the players understanding as a collective how it works. It only takes one instance of fluffed lines for the whole thing to fall apart.
Hook, Line and Stinker
The training sessions point Emery in the direction of those who are adapting quickest to his thinking, but it’s the players who aren’t adapting which are his problem.
Neville highlighted Mesut Özil but that’s the easy way out. He’s a high-profile target, easy to hit because of his salary. I’m not defending him, by the way, because he hasn’t performed so far.
However, he’s not the only one and the money a player earns isn’t the benchmark of whether he is adapting. All Özil’s salary points to is how good his agents are at negotiating or depending on your viewpoint, how bad Arsenal are/were at contract negotiations.
Hooking Özil for a poor performance is refreshing but let’s not go overboard. I will be stunned if he doesn’t become untouchable very quickly. Emery’s pressing game is similar to Joachim Löw’s Germany; it’s just a variation of something he is used to.
Özil’s substitution signalled a new approach on the sidelines, nothing more. Granit Xhaka’s substitution did the same but that has largely skated under the radar because of the German. We lost some impetus in transition when the Swiss went off but he was definitely a red card waiting to happen.
Those two changes don’t signal the failure of players to adapt. All they tell us is that at this moment in time, reputations mean nothing to Emery. It’s a new ruthlessness; paternal indulgence is gone and a younger, driven man is at the helm.
The squad are beginning to understand that as well. Neville’s point about players walking all over Emery if he chops and changes is never going to happen at Arsenal, however. It’s too much effort; we’d just slip back into our tippy-tappy ways.
Young Hearts Run Free
Each player has different things to learn. Hector Bellerin is under fire still but in the attacking sense, he grasps Emery’s ideas. You can see that already and that both our goals came from the right underline the key role the full-back plays. The signing of Roy Lichtsteiner will improve his defensive play, as will proper defensive coaching.
Wenger’s emphasis on players free-thinking within a framework is at odds with the regimented roles Emery has for the position. Bellerin is a younger squad member whose game will only improve within that structure.
In the centre, it’s hard to see Sokratis and Mustafi surviving beyond next summer. The former is too slow for the high defensive line while the latter is, well, just the latter. Koscielny’s return in November may bring some stability instead of the German but ultimately, we’ll go into the next two transfer windows looking for experienced centre-backs in their mid-twenties. Pace will be the key there.
The focus on defensive play is natural given the first two competitive matches of Emery’s reign. At Chelsea, we saw the attack come together. OK, no goals for the strikers but how often have I said we need others to find the net? For the goals to be shared around? It’s been a pet peeve for years.
I don’t doubt goals will come for Lacazette and Aubameyang. They are too good at their jobs for it not to happen. I do believe that as we get more confident and capable defensively, we’ll create more chances but that relies on players adapting to the new requirements. The quicker that happens, the better.
Adapt and Survive? Adapt and Die?
What I found baffling was Carragher’s assertion the coach must adapt to the players. As if the old way of playing saw us claim title after title. Emery’s plan took into account a paper and video-based assessment of the squad. He knew before he started where the problems lay. The question is how long will it take him to solve them?
This isn’t a quick job. Emery has limited funds and we aren’t going to solve our problems by hopping on a jet to Spain to slap €60m on the table to buy a centre-back. As much as the coach is in the spotlight, so too are the scouts and other back office staff. A coherent strategy, driven by the coach, is crucial to building a team which can get back to the upper echelons of the table.
It’s interesting but Neville’s timescales inadvertantly fit in with Arsenal history. 1953, 1971, 1989; 2021-22 for the title anyone?