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Unai Emery’s passive aggressive management of Mesut Ozil serves no purpose

September 30, 2019

THE mutual antipathy between Unai Emery and Mesut Özil is not news. Initial rumblings of discontent gave way to a stand-off between the pair last winter, which has, by now, settled into a frosty impasse. The German’s selection provokes more online discussion than his omission nowadays – put simply, everyone knows the score.

Özil’s form started circling the u-bend before Emery showed up in North London. His decline married with Emery’s super specific idea of how his most advanced midfielder should operate have made for unhappy bedfellows. Özil’s substitution in the Europa League Final, when he was replaced by Joe Willock in Baku, was so pointed that Emery might as well have made the switch with a giant foam hand.

However, the German appeared to enjoy a decent enough pre-season until he and teammate Sead Kolasinac became targets of a sinister criminal plot. The incident denied Özil the opportunity to build on some promising pre-season performances and, since then, last season’s ancient grudge has morphed into new mutiny, as Emery has again sought to make an example of his highest paid player.

Despite having played only 71 minutes all season, the coach omitted Mesut from the trip to Frankfurt because he was being ‘rested.’ Emery is not stupid enough to think anyone would genuinely believe that rationale, it was a pointed gesture followed by a pointed comment. He wanted everyone to know that he was punishing Özil without going quite as far as to spell it out.

Özil was an unused substitute in the following game against Aston Villa, with Joe Willock and Lucas Torreira preferred from the bench in a situation where the Gunners were chasing the game. The double change was an excellent one from Emery that effectively swung the momentum of the contest. But it did illustrate, as if the point needed illustrating, that Özil’s omission from the Frankfurt trip was nothing to do with restoration.

The German did start against Nottingham Forest in the Carabao Cup- as captain no less- and was removed after 71 minutes, despite playing very well and creating a total of six chances for teammates. Again, there was and is no need to ‘rest’ or preserve the player at this point, so the substitution was another pointed gesture from the manager.

Most Arsenal fans, whatever their feelings on Özil, have moved to a point of acceptance that he will not be picked for every game. A lot of fans would support that position. As I said at the outset, his form has been below his lofty standards for some time now, predating Emery’s arrival. Yet it’s hard not to think that the coach is sending some mixed signals.

Everyone knows that the two don’t get on, that is absolutely in the public domain. The executive branch of the club has tried to sell Özil unsuccessfully due to the size of his salary. A year after the fallout occurred, it’s difficult to understand what these pointed, passive aggressive incidents are in aid of. Who is Unai Emery sending a message to here? The player? Özil would have to be exceptionally dense not to have received and understood the signals some time ago. The club? Why? What for?

If there are serious breaches of discipline behind the scenes, it causes one to wonder why Özil is being picked at all and why he has been maintained in the coach’s captaincy quintet. That, in itself, is an extraordinarily mixed message. On one hand, the coach wants the world to know, via a series of implied gestures, that he doesn’t value the player.

On the other, he is suggesting that Özil is one of his most trusted lieutenants, which surely nobody believes by now. Nobody could seriously think Emery regards him as a leader. It may be politically troublesome to drop Özil out of the captaincy group, but it does rather beg the question as to why Emery continues to make an example of the player by other means.

Not selecting Mesut for a large chunk of games is not a controversial decision any longer and one that pretty much escapes censure. A lot of Arsenal fans, myself included, would argue that selective selection of the player is appropriate, even if Emery never has quite solved that position behind the strikers.

Omitting the player from a Europa League match for a transparently false reason and then hauling him off in the middle of an impressive performance in a nice, comfortable home fixture – the kind in which Özil often thrives – just seems unnecessarily provocative, a case of rousing sleeping dogs. The impression is of a coach that doesn’t quite want to have an argument but wants everyone to know that he feels a bit grumpy with the opposing party. I’m not sure I can understand who this is meant to serve.