Saturday 20 July 2019

Jamie Carragher: 'Emery has inherited mess but he looks right man to fix it'

Arsenal's disastrous recruitment policies of Wenger era will take some cleaning up

London derby calling: Arsenal manager Unai Emery speaks with goalkeeper Petr Cech during training at London Colney ahead of today’s game against Chelsea. Photo: Getty Images
London derby calling: Arsenal manager Unai Emery speaks with goalkeeper Petr Cech during training at London Colney ahead of today’s game against Chelsea. Photo: Getty Images

Jamie Carragher

When Unai Emery took over at Arsenal, we wondered what legacy he had been left. Now it is clear. He inherited a shambles.

An imbalanced squad, inconsistent star player, extravagant contracts way above market value, a highly-rated international running down his deal, a chief executive on his way out and a head of recruitment who, having made errors in a short period, is on the verge of leaving.

Emery has a mess to clean up. Worse still, there is no money available to start that lengthy process. This was not the job advertisement he responded to when Arsène Wenger's exit was announced.

The muddled thinking at boardroom level at the Emirates has been exposed. Throughout my career Arsenal were admired as low-key but smart operators. They were a club that seemed to do things in the right way, the blueprint for others to copy.

Now I am not sure how much of that was a mirage - certainly in the last few years of Wenger's reign. Wenger's success in consistently qualifying for the Champions League evidently allowed his hierarchy to bluff their way through every season, collecting the proceeds of European qualification. Finish fourth, take the Uefa earnings. Job done.

Stan Kroenke has had it easy for too long. He, more than anyone, needs to show why he bought the club. He is the owner of a global sporting institution and needs to make the financial commitment needed to get Arsenal back into the Champions League elite. The first serious setback at the club in 20 years - Wenger's failure to qualify for the Champions League in 2017 - triggered a series of decisions showing the board's poor judgment.

We must go back to last January to recognise the roots of the problems Emery faces. Arsenal's knees jerked and whatever coherent plan they may have had was ripped up.

The board must have known a year ago that Wenger's long-term position was insecure. It is inconceivable high-level discussions did not float the idea of replacing him when they headed into the January 2018 transfer window.

In those circumstances - in the knowledge the budget would be so stretched as a consequence - how could they sanction a £350,000-a-week contract for Mesut Ozil? Surely they needed to be sure the next manager valued Ozil as much as Wenger?

Similarly, which voices were most persuasive when signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, recruited on massive contracts? Alongside Ozil's extraordinary salary, those deals denied Wenger's successor a significant budget.

Unbelievable

That is why Emery has gone public to reveal he is operating in the loan market - an unbelievable situation for a club of Arsenal's stature.

These financial constraints come at the wrong time because Arsenal's squad lacks depth, quality and balance.

In fairness, Aubameyang has been a success story of the last 12 months. He has been a brilliant signing. What is strange is Arsenal signed Alexandre Lacazette instead of Aubameyang the previous summer. Both players cost £50 million. They have the same characteristics as central strikers. For most scouts, it would be one or the other. They are also in their late twenties so, if one becomes surplus to requirements, they will not have the same sell-on value.

Anyone watching the duo can see they do not complement each other, one having to compromise his best qualities if they are in the same team. That Emery has made that work in many games shows how skilled he is, using different systems and playing Lacazette on the left.

The Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan deals look a case of the head of recruitment, Sven Mislintat, using his Borussia Dortmund connections to settle on what he knows best.

Another recruit, 30-year-old defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos, also came from Dortmund. He has struggled. So has 35-year-old Stephan Lichtsteiner, a player whose best days are gone. Goalkeeper Bernd Leno has not been convincing, either.

These deals - alongside the exit of chief executive Ivan Gazidis - must explain why Mislintat has been isolated and his period at the club is reportedly ending.

Emery's first season was always going to be tough. There was too much to shift out. He has to assess the character and skills of those left behind and establish who should come on the journey with him.

It reminds me of the first year of Gérard Houllier and Rafa Benítez's reign at Liverpool, which they spent assessing who needed to be off the wage bill to make space for new recruits, and which personalities would respond to their methods.

"I need to know who is with me," they would tell us. Reputations did not matter.

Emery's most recent interview in which he said he likes to provoke 'friction' in his squad as a motivating tool tells me he is cut from the same cloth.

"I believe in always looking for more, both individually and collectively, with conversations which are comfortable but also with conversations which are less comfortable," he said. These words show me why Ozil has become a problem. Emery has tested Ozil on numerous occasions and the reaction can be measured in this season's appearance record.

When Ozil has been on the end of a strong decision from Emery - subbed or left out the starting XI - there is a trend of him being unavailable the next game, sometimes through injury and other times for what are described as 'tactical reasons'.

This first happened after the second game of the season against Chelsea when Ozil was subbed after 68 minutes and missed the next game through illness. There are numerous other examples. Ozil has been absent with a knee injury since being subbed at half-time against Brighton on St Stephen's Day. It is an unfortunate coincidence. With such a powerful, well-paid and popular player who Arsenal tend to win more without - and a player adept at winning support and sympathy from supporters on social media - this has become an untenable situation. But who would pay Ozil his Arsenal salary?

What can Emery do? It's all well and good saying he must do everything to get a tune out of Ozil, but the manager must look strong to send a message to the rest of the squad.

I wrote at the start of this season Arsenal would have to suffer short-term pain before it gets better. Then they went 22 games without defeat. They did not look convincing in that run, riding their luck at times. Unless they defeat Chelsea this weekend, the top four looks beyond them.

For all this, Emery's work to date is more cause for hope than it may seem. Balancing immediate ambitions with the longer-term vision is a diplomatic minefield at a club like Arsenal. Emery's approach so far is one of a manager who feels he will get the time to take the team in the direction he wants.

I know from my experiences under Houllier and Benítez, when we endured some terrible periods in their debut season, things are never as bad as they seem. The improvement after a year was exceptional.

It was not so long ago Arsenal defeated Spurs 4-2 with their best performance of the season, signposting where Emery intends to lead them.

The promise is there. There is much to rebuild at The Emirates, but Emery is not the architect of the structural defects. He is the one who can design and oversee the renovation.

© Daily Telegraph, London

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