Wednesday 21 August 2019

Want-away star casting a shadow in Golden State

Laurent Koscielny saga hangs over the squad. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire
Laurent Koscielny saga hangs over the squad. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire

Sam Dean

You would not have thought it from looking at the pictures of their first day in Los Angeles but there are storm clouds gathering above Arsenal.

It was with uncertainty and no little anger that Arsenal touched down in California last week at the start of phase two of the Unai Emery journey. Even the joys of the Golden State will do little to lighten the mood at a club who are reeling from the rebellion of Laurent Koscielny, their most senior player, and still coming to terms with the financial cost of their failure to qualify for the Champions League.

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Emery no doubt hoped to begin the campaign with a clean slate. A few days into training, and a few days before they had even played their first match, Koscielny provided the first blotch. It already feels like Arsenal are on the back foot, and we are not yet half-way through July.

Koscielny fancies a return to his native France, wants to do so for free and thinks the deal structure allows him to leave now. Arsenal, on the other hand, expect their captain to honour his contract, worth around £90,000 per week, which has a year to run. In an attempt to force a move, Koscielny has refused to attend the pre-season tour. These are early days in the dispute, yet it seems clear at this stage that Koscielny is far from clued up on the ins and outs of UK employment law.

Then again, who can say what is right and wrong in the deranged soap opera of modern football, where battles are fought on emotional grounds, using phrases such as "loyalty" and "service to the club", rather than with any logic?

Whatever the outcome, Koscielny's revolt raises wider questions. What does it say about Arsenal, for example, that the club captain is so desperate to leave that he has willingly taken a torch to his professional reputation? What will it say to the rest of the squad if Koscielny gets his wish? What will it do to Arsenal's season if Koscielny is kept at the club, loitering at the training ground with no hope of regaining Emery's trust?

Edu, the new technical director, can only hope his first week on the job is his worst week on the job. This time last weekend, Edu was the general co-ordinator of the Brazilian side who were about to win the Copa America. Now he is knee-deep in the financial and sporting quagmire that is the Arsenal 2019.

Friday's news that Tottenham Hotspur were trying to hijack Arsenal's move for William Saliba, the Saint-Etienne teenager, would only have worsened the atmosphere. Arsenal have been on the brink of completing a deal for days, following weeks of negotiations, but discussions over minor details have presented Spurs with an opportunity. Just as the Arsenal executive team landed in the United States, Daniel Levy was making his move.

It almost goes without saying that the delay over the completion of the Saliba deal stems from Arsenal's financial position under the ownership of Stan Kroenke.

Arsenal are fully self-sustainable as a business and so, with no Champions League football on the agenda for a third consecutive season and a wage bill stretched to its limits, they must agonise over every pound in every transfer. It is why they are yet to secure the signature of Celtic's Kieran Tierney, an exceptional left-back who is available for a reasonable price, and why their chances of signing Crystal Palace's Wilfried Zaha remain slim.

Arsenal face Colorado Rapids, also owned by Kroenke, on Tuesday. The discussions between Kroenke and the club's executive team will certainly be interesting, although it will no doubt be made clear to the 71-year-old that the forecast is not entirely bleak for his team.

Yes, there are serious problems in defence. And yes, they have not yet recruited a replacement for the departed Aaron Ramsey in midfield. But Arsenal's squad remains dangerous in attack, and it should not be forgotten that they finished just two points off third place in Emery's first season. The Spaniard will certainly believe himself capable of improving that.

Perhaps the Koscielny issue will galvanise the troops. Arsenal have lacked leadership for too long and there is a chance that someone else stepping up to the plate will facilitate a change of attitude. Emery wants fighting, passionate players.

The only thing certain is that this will not be a smooth process. Indeed, the predicament was best summarised by Calum Chambers, who last week tweeted a picture of himself and fellow defender Rob Holding in the cockpit of the club's plane.

"Fasten your seatbelts," Chambers wrote. "It's going to be a bumpy ride."

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