‘At certain times you have to provoke friction with footballers’

Oft times, Premier League managers can be defined by their sound bites; a few choice sentences from an interview or a throwaway phrase in some programme notes.

‘Dilly ding, dilly dong’ evokes memories of Cladio Ranieri, for example, while ‘sexy football’ is inextricably linked to Ruud Gullit. For my own part, when I think of Arsene Wenger, I think back to the infamous ‘playing with the handbrake’ phrase, among a slew of others he coined down the years.

Quite what will define Unai Emery’s tenure at Arsenal may not become clear for a number of years, if at all, but what he wouldn’t want is for the phrase that headlines this title to become a millstone around his neck. In short, he doesn’t want to be remembered as Mr Friction.

Many of us can get on board with the spirit behind what the manager is trying to say. In conversation with Sky Sports, Emery spoke of his approach to management and, in doing so, perhaps shed some light on the ongoing furore surrounding his relationship with Mesut Ozil.

He said:

“At certain times, you have to provoke friction with footballers.

“From that friction, you can get something more out of them, something from inside, a greater sense of ambition or maybe even a complaint – a complaint regarding the team can be positive.

“As a manager, you have to be careful because that friction can break a relationship. But I believe in always looking for more, both individually and collectively, with conversations which are comfortable but also with conversations which are less comfortable.”

And while provoking a reaction and forcing a player to go that extra 10 per cent is obviously desirable, there is an incredibly fine line between pushing and provoking. For the moment, it would seem Emery has strayed a little too close to the latter.

Whether Ozil was a deliberate target of the manager or whether, having watched his work over the last few months, the coaching staff decided they needed to see more from the German is, at this moment, unclear, but the current standoff between them is unhealthy.

In different [more succesful] times, it would be easier for fans to swallow this impasse but, with the team in something of a slump, these issues find their way straight to the forefront of the narrative.

Something has to give.

If nothing else, keeping our most talented footballer and highest wage earner out of the squad altogether seems counter-intuitive, particularly when we struggled to carve out chances against a West Ham side that was extremely limited in defence, albeit well organised.

But, at the same time, the manager risks putting himself in a position that means bringing Ozil back into the fold without having extracted the response he wants would seem like a capitulation – a fatal undermining of his authority. Such a thing is known to have happened at Paris Saint-Germain and the notoriety of the Spaniard’s spat with Neymar has followed him across the channel.

The likelihood of a buyer coming in for the German is incredibly remote at this stage, particularly given his wage bill, so a compromise must be found, and quickly. Our season stands on something of a precipice, with a lamentable slide into mid-table mediocrity perilously close.

We have Chelsea, Cardiff, and Manchester City to come in the league in the next few weeks and, in truth, we have to be looking for six points from those fixtures if we are to retain any serious pretentions of  spot in the top four.

The manager must ask himself, are our chances improved or worsened by the presence of Ozil in the squad? For now at least, he must ditch the friction and look to smooth things over.


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