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As has often been the case over the course of the last decade, Arsenal finds itself in crisis. This time, it comes in the form of a crisis of confidence in head coach Unai Emery.
Arsenal drew 2-2 with Crystal Palace at home on Sunday. That final result in itself is upsetting to Arsenal supporters, but more upsetting was the way it came about. The Gunners opened the game hot with a pair of goals from central defenders Sokratis and David Luiz in the first 10 minutes to take an early 2-o lead. But, like against Watford earlier this season, Arsenal couldn’t hold that lead. VAR played a significant role, both when it (correctly) awarded a penalty to Wilfried Zaha to give Palace its first goal and when it (bafflingly) disallowed Sokratis’ would-be equalizer late oneBut the bottom line was that, as has often been the case this season, Arsenal didn’t play near well enough to collect the full three points.
It was another failure to win against a team that Arsenal should typically beat. Same as the 1-0 loss to Sheffield United last weekend. Emery has Arsenal in fifth-place in the English Premier League with 16 points, four points off the top-four and 12 off league leader Liverpool. Dating back to its disastrous run to end last season, Arsenal has won just six of it last 17 Premier League fixtures.
Something is not right in North London, and the blame lies at the feat of the coach, Emery. Because Arsenal’s poor run of form at the moment is only part of the crisis. The other part is Emery’s atrocious man management skills. Through his differing treatment of two players—Granit Xhaka and Mesut Özil—Emery has turned the Arsenal supporters against him and made his position as head coach near untenable.
To understand Emery’s poor man management this season, you first have to understand Arsenal supporters’ relationship with Xhaka. The Swiss midfielder joined Arsenal from Borussia Monchengladbach on a $51 million deal that was a club record at the time. Supporters were excited about the prospect of deep-lying creative presence in the midfield and expected him to become a star for the club.
Instead, he’s proven to be a very solid midfielder but a good bit away from star quality. Xhaka’s hot-headed and has a propensity for bad challenges, which has led to him being handed red cards or giving away penalties at the worst possible times in the past and drawn plenty of ire from fans. On top of that, the prevailing tactics in the game have changed enough over the last few years to make his position in deep midfield somewhat obsolete. Many supporters wanted to sell him over the summer, and most who didn’t thought he would be a good option off the bench, at best. In short, most Arsenal fans have little love for Xhaka.
Things got more complicated earlier this season when Emery named him club captain, much to supporters’ chagrin. By naming Xhaka captain, Emery essentially guaranteed he would start most games and be a major contributor despite his numerous shortcomings. It didn’t help that Emery only named him to the position after a long, drawn-out process during which fans made clear that they would rather another player be picked to represent the club as captain. Although Xhaka has been widely noted as a hard worker in training and clearly has the respect of his teammates, this decision to go against the fans could ultimately be Emery’s fatal fall.
Because on Saturday, the relationship between Xhaka and the supporters turned toxic. With the match level at 2-2, Emery subbed Xhaka off. A smattering of fans mockingly cheered the change. Xhaka got upset at threw his captain’s armband to the ground and trudged off the pitch instead of jogging. The cheers turned to boos. Xhaka taunted and hurled expletives at the fans. The booing intensified. Xhaka ripped off his shirt, tossed it to the ground and stormed down the tunnel. It was an ugly, ugly scene.
Considering the fans were against him ever being named captain in the first place, the blame for this Xhaka situation falls on Emery. Because the boos directed at Xhaka are essentially boos at Emery’s decisions up to that point that led to the situation. Now Xhaka will likely be stripped of his captaincy and a moment that should have never happened could become a flash point for the season.
Emery’s other flaw has been his insistence on drumming up a war between himself and Özil, the club’s highest earner.
Emery and Özil butting heads dates back to last season, when most fans were on Emery’s side. Over the years, despite his clear world-class creativity, Arsenal fans have become disenchanted with Özil, specifically because of his poor play in away matches. There are many supporters who wanted him sold this summer but think he should still play something of a role in the team if he is here.
But Özil has yet to play a minute of Premier League soccer this season and wasn’t even named in this weekend’s squad. If the Gunners were a creative force without him and still able to get good results, it’s unlikely fans would bat an eye. But with neither of those happening, it’s clear there is an Özil-sized hole in the squad that Emery refuses to fill.
Because of this refusal, an unnecessary dichotomy was created: Emery vs. Özil. And Özil is winning this battle. The mercurial German has come to represent anti-Emery sentiment, so without playing a second of football, he’s become one of the most popular players at the club simply because so many fans are against Emery right now. Late in Crystal Palace match, fans ironically began singing the Mesut Özil song—“We’ve got Özil, Mesut Özil/I just don’t think you understand.” In the past, those lyrics were meant as a brag. On Sunday, they were deployed as a message to Emery: “You know we have Mesut Özil, World Cup winner, attacking creator extraordinaire, right?”
Emery could survive a poor run or results or the fans turning on him, but it seems rather unlikely he’ll survive both. I’m not saying he’ll be sacked this week, this month or even this year. (Arsenal has never been a club to make rash managerial decisions.) But even if Arsenal achieve all its goals, the relationship between coach and supporters has become too toxic to continue past this season. And Emery has no one to blame for these circumstances but himself.