Tuesday 22 October 2019

Xhaka tackle underlines Emery's impact at Arsenal

Top gun: Arsenal manager Unai Emery barks out the orders during Saturday’s match. Photo: Reuters
Top gun: Arsenal manager Unai Emery barks out the orders during Saturday’s match. Photo: Reuters

Sam Dean

It was a measure of how much Arsenal have changed in just a few months under Unai Emery that the head coach's reaction to a sliding tackle was almost as wild as when Alexandre Lacazette scored their late equaliser.

The suspicion is that it was not just the nature of the crunching challenge on an accelerating Mohamed Salah that so invigorated a fist-pumping Emery, but also the identity of the tackler.

There was Granit Xhaka, hurtling out of nowhere to whip the ball away from Salah at the last possible moment.

Well, it looked like Xhaka, and that was the name on the back of the shirt.

By almost every other measure this was a totally different player to the midfielder who so regularly disappointed in the biggest games under Arsene Wenger.

Liberated by the phenomenal Lucas Torreira alongside him, Xhaka was as dynamic and destructive as he has ever been in an Arsenal shirt.


He made more passes than anyone else on the pitch, more recoveries than anyone else on the pitch and more tackles than anyone else on the pitch.

It was a performance of spirit and intensity, both individually from Xhaka and collectively from the team, and it was a clear demonstration of how Emery has injected a new purpose into this club.

"I enjoy the small details," Emery said when asked about his reaction to the Xhaka challenge.

"Individual actions, defensively and offensively."

Emery does not just enjoy those "details", of course. He obsesses over them.

In training, he will physically move players into the correct position, focusing their bodies and minds on the intricate demands of their roles in his system.

"Each game we know what we do," said Xhaka. "We know well the opposition, where they are good and where they are not.

"He (Emery) is important. He helps us, not only me, but all the players, with the small things. The tactical things. You can see that on the pitch."

Xhaka is the most obvious beneficiary of this more hands-on approach and proved it against a Liverpool side who had grown used to having it their own way against Arsenal.

"A lot of small things have changed," said Xhaka, who was instrumental in Arsenal's stirring recovery from James Milner's opening goal.

"We have great character. We knew we would not lose this game because we were so good and showed that character again."

Emery admitted that the efforts of his players had left them exhausted at the final whistle, but that is what he wants from games like these.

He would also like the crowd as whipped up as they were on Saturday, inspired by the unusual amount of grit on display.

"I think we are getting the balance in intensity," Emery said. "Against Liverpool, we need to push a lot and I think when the supporters are enjoying with the players, I think also the players give their all in their performance and their desire."

The impact of Torreira cannot be overstated. The Uruguayan already looks a steal at £25 million, not just for his own actions but for what he brings to the others around him.

"Every game is better and better," Xhaka said. "He (Torreira) is so important. He knows when to go and when to stay. He brings good balance between offence and defence."

Emery agrees, pointing out: "It's very important for our balance that we have two midfielders like Xhaka and Torreira, because the balance in midfield is also important for the balance in defence and our balance offensively."

Having lost to Manchester City and Chelsea, this was a result that proved Arsenal are capable of going toe-to-toe - and, indeed, elbow to elbow - with the finest teams in the league.

When Emery was unveiled as Arsenal manager on May 23, he spoke in the Emirates 'Diamond Club' about his commitment to pressing football and how that energy could invigorate the frustrated fans here.

This was as close as we have got to any form of Emery manifesto for his Arsenal tenure.

"I have always been a coach who wants possession, and I like to win the ball back as quickly as possible," Emery explained through his interpreter. "Football is about two things - possession and pressing."

On Saturday, more than five months on, Arsenal looked closer to Emery's ideals for the game than ever before.

They pressed Liverpool with a purpose that not many teams manage and in doing so they managed to disrupt Liverpool's game. Too often in the past Arsenal had never really made an impression on their opposition, but this time they did.

"Our basis in the match was our intensity," Emery said. "One characteristic is this intensity. This way is good for us, it is a good test. We need more in our work, tactically. But the spirit is what we want."

Emery also knows that too often in the past there has a been a cycle of low-energy negativity between the players and the fans at the Emirates.

The opposite was true for this match as the positive energy of the crowd and the team fed into one another. It was football as Emery wants Arsenal to play it under his watch. (© Daily Telegraph, London)


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