Big Match

Licence to manage on merit

Arsenal have charged Unai Emery with securing a top-four finish, but have not ordered him to pick particular players.
Arsenal have charged Unai Emery with securing a top-four finish, but have not ordered him to pick particular players.PHOTO: REUTERS

Ozil's fate a lesson in how Emery decides the system, not stars, to play

Maybe Unai Emery would have been more diplomatic in his native Spanish. Maybe his honesty was a motivational ploy.

Whichever, when asked why he did not even ask Mesut Ozil to warm up, let alone start, in Sunday's Premier League win at Bournemouth, he replied: "We thought how we can do better in a very demanding match with physicality and intensity."

It reinforced old criticisms of Ozil, whose body language, neglect of his defensive duties and attitude have long been questioned. It set the scene for tomorrow's North London derby.

It is a famously intense fixture. Mauricio Pochettino's Tottenham are renowned for their pace, power and pressing. While Ozil was rested for Thursday's 3-0 win over Vorskla, so were most others.

So if Bournemouth were too physical for him, the logical assumption is that a Spurs side who overwhelmed Chelsea must be.

All of which could leave him in limbo. Perhaps the World Cup winner will be wheeled out for specific games, part of bespoke blueprints where his passing is an asset and where it matters less if he does not track back. Certainly he is unlikely to leave: His salary is a deterrent to would-be buyers. Ozil and Arsenal may be stuck with each other in a saga without an ending.

Yet if his fate is to be football's best-paid substitute, Emery may relish that. He has the freedom to drop the big names, as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan can testify. He came from a star vehicle, a club with the wrong culture. "At Paris Saint-Germain, the leader is Neymar," he lamented in August. "At Manchester City, it's Pep Guardiola. My priority was to make Neymar happy; it didn't matter how."

Arsenal have charged him with securing a top-four finish, but have not ordered him to pick particular players. Ozil is averaging fewer assists and key passes per game than in his previous years at Arsenal and Emery seems to be relishing a licence to manage on merit.

It is about the system, not the stars - and a switch to 3-4-2-1 last week meant Mkhitaryan and Alex Iwobi operated as the inside-forwards - the team have rarely been built around Ozil.

Only five of his 10 league starts have come in his preferred position as a No. 10. The others have all been on the right. Emery has experimented with different combinations; some with Ozil, some without, but none with the notion that a man who has captained his teams gets Neymar-style preferential treatment.

Emery's willingness to reward the in-form and change the team by the game means Ozil's exile will not be permanent. Yet his preference for players who close down and follow his tactical instructions suggest the German will again be benched against opponents as physical and intense as Spurs.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 01, 2018, with the headline 'Licence to manage on merit'. Print Edition | Subscribe