Unai Emery has set a mean stall out. On Arsenal’s pre-season tour of Singapore, the team coach drove by the hotel from the airport and straight to the training ground. A signal of intent to his new players, perhaps, and certainly an instant contribution to the ‘narrative’.
Word gradually slipped out of extra training sessions and that artificial fruit juice had been banned, a subtle hint that the galactico of nutrition Arsene Wenger had even let standards slip in the canteen.
And though Arsenal lost their opening games to Manchester City and Chelsea, Petr Cech’s tangles with the ball at his feet served as a billboard advertising campaign that change was happening.
Proceeding through the ‘instant impact’ manual, Emery has even dabbled in bantz 101, answering a reporter’s phone at a presser. And after a suggestion Mesut Ozil might fill the role, Aaron Ramsey soon found himself the ceremonial scapegoat every regime change needs.
Emery describes neatly the challenge facing a new gaffer.
“Being convincing is the most fundamental thing to coaching: the players have to believe in you. Whether they believe in you because you have won many trophies, because you are a great coach, because you are imposing, because everything you say ends up happening… whatever the reason may be, they have to believe in you.”
In the ‘project’ manager era, time can be short to secure this unbelievable belief, as Emery’s compatriot Julen Lopetegui has discovered in Madrid.
Fortunately for Emery, the things he’s been saying have ended up happening. Arsenal embarked on a winning run against modest opponents, even if nobody is quite sure why they are now winning matches they might have drawn or lost last year.
But it is notable that previously hapless players such as Rob Holding are now parroting standard Emery phrases like “winning mentality”, the title of the Spaniard’s first book.
So Emery has safely negotiated phase one of his Arsenal stay. Likely defeat at home by Liverpool this evening may kick off a more challenging period, when he will have to convince the fans to believe in him too.
In the opening months of his reign, Emery has held one key trump card with the fans; the fact that he is not Arsene Wenger.
It has allowed supporters to rejoice again in beating lesser sides with beautiful goals, as though this is a new and exciting phenomenon at the Emirates. And it has damaged the business models of outlets of discontent such as Arsenal Fan TV.
It has given Arsenal fans back their hope, if perhaps not yet their belief.
Defeat at home by Liverpool would rebuild a familiar barrier between Arsenal and the top sides. And it would challenge Emery to match the achievements of the manager in the opposing dugout, who convinced fans with his personality even before he had a convincing team on the field.
In that regard, it remains to be seen if the eve of a meeting with Klopp was the best time to put it out there that Emery is prone to putting his players to sleep with his team talks.
That insight comes from another Emery book — an authorised biography by Romain Molina, subtitled El Maestro, published on Thursday.
Talking up Emery yesterday, Klopp provided a clue why all these books and manifestos are piling up from Europe’s preeminent gaffers. “Not all Arsenal fans were over the moon when they heard it was Emery. But that’s England a little bit, you want the poster boys.”
When you’re not Zidane Zidane, you have to put yourself on the posters, as Klopp’s Anfield predecessor Brendan Rodgers once admitted. “I’ve had to create a brand for myself around my philosophy, because I was never a big player.”
So this week, we learned more about El Maestro, how he likes to treat his players to long sermons, even reading them passages from whatever book is on his nightstand.
“A kind of seminar,” testifies Juan Mata, who played under Emery at Valencia.
“I remember that once a player fell asleep,” El Maestro admits, “and I didn’t notice because I was so caught up in my talk.
“If not everyone listens, I couldn’t give a damn because if there’s just one player listening to me 100 per cent that’s reason enough to give the talk.”
There are echoes of Rodgers’ towards the end of his Anfield reign in that theory. Scouring El Maestro’s manifesto, there isn’t the obvious sense of purpose that Klopp brought with him to Anfield.
He has found something similar at Arsenal and he sells himself as the kind of flexible, pragmatic manager who can improve whatever setup he encounters through attention to detail.
Pragmatism may well be exactly what Arsenal need right now. But there may be another clue in El Maestro’s teachings as to how he reportedly impressed the Arsenal board with a wide-ranging presentation, perhaps like the famous dossier that won Rodgers the Liverpool job.
“Unai Emery works with types of players, and not specific names,” says Molina, playing sweet music to the ears of club directors in charge of tight pursestrings.
Klopp has learned that a ‘type of player’ will only take you so far, no matter how great your sense of destiny.
And there comes a time when you must wait, and pay, for the right player, if you want to close in on that destiny. Players such as Van Dijk and Allison and Keita.
In latter-day Wenger, Arsenal had a manager content to make do.
If Arsenal’s willingness to make do continues, it may not matter very much how convincingly Emery sells his narrative. Arsenal fans may have to ask whether theirs is a club to believe in.
Emery has promised another book “which will look at what it means to compete”. It remains to be seen if Arsenal are on the same page.
Euro plot hits fans
There was further encouragement for a potentially lucrative Arsenal future hanging on the coattails of the top clubs in yesterday’s Der Spiegel story about a proposed European Super League.
While more excitable outlets reported the latest Football Leaks revelations as “shocking football”, they will likely come as little surprise to anybody who has been hearing of an impending Super League as long ago as the early eighties and on the pages of Roy of the Rovers.
The dreams of the European powerhouses have thus far been daunted, but the ideal of a beautiful, closed-shop carve-up of all the game’s wealth still persists.
As recently as last month, Der Spiegel reports, Real Madrid received an email discussing plans for a competition which would start in 2021.
It reportedly says the 11 ‘founders’ of the European Super League would “not be at risk of relegation and would be guaranteed membership for 20 years”.
Der Spiegel claimed the English clubs involved would be Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Arsenal.
With the other ‘founders’ reportedly exchanging clandestine discussions named as Real, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus, PSG, and AC Milan.
Der Spiegel say that five ‘initial guests’, would be Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Olympique Marseille, Inter Milan, and AS Roma.
A gilded two decades free from relegation and the necessity to chase glory would certainly chime with Arsenal’s business model.
It would be less helpful to Tottenham, even if the new White Hart Lane is completed in time for 2021.
They wouldn’t be the only ones pressing their noses against the glass ceiling, should these plans come to pass.
As Football Leaks whistleblower ‘John’ put it: “The clubs are constantly talking about the Super League and how they can market all this shit even better and make even more money.
“But there’s one thing they never talk about: The fans. About the people who made this sport great. What does a league like this, with matches being televised around the world, do with the spectators?”
Have them watching at home via umpteen different TV subscriptions, the clubs undoubtedly hope.
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