/Trial and Error

Trial and Error

I don’t think Unai Emery is quite the right manager for Arsenal. I admit I am not coming at this from a position of total neutrality. This was the feeling in my water when he was appointed and initial impressions are very powerful- even when formed via vague notions. I understood and still understand the appointment. He was the safest choice of the touted candidates.

Arteta sounded exciting, but if you or I were making the decision and it was our head on the chopping block, we wouldn’t have appointed him either. Most of us don’t take speculative risks in our jobs and most of us don’t have jobs with the kind of public scrutiny endured by highly paid executives of Premier League football clubs.

Emery made a lot of sense not just because of his record, but because he is the anti-Wenger in just about every respect. Playing ‘chameleonic’ football with tactics, formations and iterations that mutate for every game. The philosophy is malleability, in stark contrast to the free-form yet rigid interpretation of ‘Wenger-ball.’

Few of Emery’s ex-players speak particularly warmly about him because he is not exactly the touchy feely type. This is a coach who views his players almost as a golfer might view his clubs. Emery is the cool yin to Wenger’s warm, avuncular yang. Here was a club culture gone rotten, where players, we’re told, treated the training ground like a luxury health spa.

My Arsenal Vision podcast colleague Clive refers to Emery as ‘a cleaner.’ If Arsenal’s executive branch felt some players could do with some tough love, you can see why Emery was an attractive appointment for them. There is a tangible logic, but as we’ve discovered with the constant upheaval at executive level, theory and practice are different beasts.

Hiring Sven Mislintat- football’s most famous polisher of rough gems- alongside Raul Sanllehi- a modern day David Dein with his extensive contacts book- to work in tandem behind the manager was a very logical move. It didn’t work for reasons that may never become totally clear.

Because that’s the thing with humans, we complicate everything with our stupid, irrational emotions. Ego, hubris and pride pollute the canvas. On the face of it, Arsenal’s decision to promote Freddie Ljungberg into the first-team setup to create a visible pathway for young players is a decision dripping in logic.

Overseeing the synergy between youth and senior teams has been a key part of Edu Gaspar’s role with the Brazilian national team. Brazil have many young players with dual nationalities and Brazilian football underwent a regrettable trend of haemorrhaging talent to other countries.

The CBF were unhappy with the likes of Thiago Alcântara, Diego Costa and Jorginho declaring for other nations and part of Edu’s brief was to fix this leak through early interventions. The potential fringe benefit here is that nobody knows more about young South Americans with European passports. That’s quite an ironic skillset considering his arrival at the club back in the summer of 2000.

Hiring Edu at a time when the club are publicly making youth progression part of the club’s medium term MO makes perfect sense. A lot of the appointments Arsenal have made in recent years have made an awful lot of sense. On paper. This week, Head of High Performance Darren Burgess was, we’re told, relieved of his duties. This despite enjoying a reputation as one of the leading fitness experts in professional sports.

Upon his unveiling, Emery said he wanted his team to press and their running stats spiked under his stewardship. Who better to assist that transition than such a highly rated fitness and conditioning expert? This relationship also hasn’t worked for reasons that we can only speculate upon.

Liverpool are vaunted as one of the best run clubs in elite football at the moment and that’s not an unfair reputation. Yet they arrived at their current status via a furious process of trial and error. Remember Damien Comolli? Or the failed ‘moneyball’ approach that saw them recruit Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam and Andy Carroll at great expense? Spurs struck gold with Mauricio Pochettino, but they had to sit through Tim Sherwood and Andre Villas-Boas beforehand.

The devolved Technical Director model has now been accepted in England and the Premier League, a few years after it became en vogue in places like Spain and Italy. It was previously scoffed at for being too bureaucratic and, well, too difficult to implement. What if the manager and his technical committee don’t see eye to eye?

It was a popular complaint from the ‘proper football men’ of the punditocracy. Managers themselves seem to either just about tolerate or outright refute it. Arsene Wenger and Harry Redknapp were outspoken opponents and that’s understandable. No manager likes to be publicly performance managed.

I doubt, for instance, that the insertion of Freddie Ljungberg into Unai Emery’s coaching setup was Emery’s idea. The presentation of the decision by Arsenal sends a clear signal in my view, that youth development is one of Emery’s KPIs and you can infer that they were unhappy with how the manager performed in this area last season.

Which is actually pretty harsh on Emery. He probably only has one more season to return Arsenal to the Champions League to rescue his job and developing young players does not mesh comfortably with that objective. There are a lot of assumptions that the failed signing of Denis Suarez bore his paw prints, but I am not so sure.

I think this inference has been made because Suarez once played for an Emery team, but history shows that Suarez wasn’t a player Unai especially relied on or kept from the door. The more pertinent link in that transfer is surely Raul Sanllehi asking his old muckers at Barcelona to do him a favour. All of which is to say, the scepticism of the ‘proper football men’ towards the devolved Technical Director model is not entirely misplaced. It is difficult to make such a structure work, as Arsenal are seeing.

It relies on several powerful, ambitious individuals coalescing. Appointments can make a lot of sense on paper, but there is no way of assessing the chemistry until you throw all of those volatile ingredients into a beaker and sit them over a Bunsen burner. This time next year, we could well be hearing whispers of Freddie Ljungberg and Edu Gaspar hating each other’s guts.

Essentially, Arsenal are in their trial and error period. They might get lucky and the mix they have concocted for next season could bubble up very nicely. It is more likely that we are going to have to sit through a few Comolli’s, a few Roy Hodgson’s, Franco Baldini’s and, maybe even a Tim Sherwood, before we find the right formula.

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