Unai Emery’s English is not very good. That is not a criticism but a fact and something the Spaniard freely acknowledges. If anything he deserves credit for trying hard to speak in a foreign language during these nascent days as Arsenal’s head coach but it has led to him often struggling to get a clear message across. There are times, though, when Emery expresses himself perfectly well – so long as those listening are prepared to read between the lines.
Which brings us to Mesut Özil’s absence from Arsenal’s 3-1 victory against West Ham United. What should have been a moment for Emery to immerse himself in celebration of a first victory in charge of a new club in a new country has instead become dominated by talk of a rift between manager and player.
Emery denied such claims on Saturday, insisting Özil was not part of his matchday squad because he had been struck by illness – catarrh, to be precise – in training a couple of days earlier and not because he had thrown a strop after being told he would be starting on the bench.
That line was maintained when the 46-year-old then spoke to a small group of journalists in private surroundings, and even after it was put to him that allowing a sick person to enter the dressing room before a game, as Emery said was the case with Özil, was strange bordering on negligent. “He felt better so he is with us, and I prefer that,” the manager said and that was that. Move on. Nothing to see here.
But then came one more question and what felt like a telling reply. Emery was asked: “When you spoke to him [Özil] on Thursday about what you wanted to see from him [against West Ham], did you plan to play him in a different position?” With a broad grin he said: “Maybe.”
Sometimes less really is more and from that one-word answer and accompanying gesture came the definite sense that for all of Emery’s insistence otherwise there is tension between him and Özil and that, for the latter, breaking point was reached when he was told he would not be lining up as Arsenal’s principal playmaker – a No 10 in the No 10 role – in a game of genuine importance for Arsenal. According to a tweet from the ESPN journalist João Castelo-Branco, Özil “had an argument with Emery at practice and came out screaming. Information from more than one source linked to the club”.
Arsenal will continue to insist that Özil’s absence at the weekend was down purely to illness but, if so, it would be the sixth time since December 2016 that the German has been sidelined for that reason. It is an astonishing statistic for a supposedly healthy athlete and naturally leads to suspicion, especially given Özil’s somewhat flaky displays for Arsenal since joining the club in September 2013 and the nature of his relationship with Emery since he arrived in May.
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Arsène Wenger’s successor has called on Özil to be more involved in games, started him in a wide‑right position against Manchester City on the opening day and then, having deployed the 29-year-old as a No 10 at Chelsea, hauled him off on 68 minutes. Emery insisted after the 3-2 defeat that he was pleased with Özil’s performance but only after again making a reference to his somewhat lightweight approach to proceedings. “I took him off to stop Chelsea progressing easily with the ball,” Emery said in the Stamford Bridge press room.
What happens next is fascinating. Having signed a contract extension in January that increases his salary to an estimated £350,000 a week, Özil is in a strong position. But as the man brought in to lead Arsenal in the post-Wenger era, Emery is in an even stronger position and, having had to deal with the politics of Neymar at Paris Saint‑Germain, he simply may no longer be in the mood to tolerate an awkward star and certainly not one who appears an ill-fit for his high‑intensity approach. Aaron Ramsey looks a more Emery-like No 10, as seen by the way his forward sprints and aggressive pressing unsettled West Ham at the weekend.
All eyes then are on Arsenal’s training sessions this week and the team Emery picks for the visit to Cardiff on Sunday. For the sake of harmony Özil may want to leave his sickbed as soon as possible.