He didn’t quite use the dreaded term ‘fake news’ — but he came mightily close. “The news is not true,” Unai Emery said with a smile on Friday, when quizzed over how he had responded to seemingly false reports of a furious training ground bust-up with Mesut Ozil this time last week. “In my career, I do not stop for news when it’s not true. When the news isn’t true, it isn’t true.”
But what about when the news isn’t quite true, or quite false? In case you missed any of last week’s rabid speculation: the normally equanimous Ozil was said to have thrown something of a hissy fit when Emery dared to inform him that he wouldn’t be deployed in his favoured No 10 role against West Ham, storming home and refusing to take up his place on the substitutes bench the next day. So far, so unlikely.
And so it proved, at least according to Emery, who duly insisted that Ozil was laid low with a suspected bout of laryngitis, causing him to miss last Friday’s training session as well as the 3-1 win over West Ham. Yet, listening to the Spaniard speak ahead of Sunday’s trip to Cardiff, it was impossible not to notice the parallels between what he was speaking about — namely, that his playmaker needs to play where his team needs him to, and not necessarily where he wants — and that which he last week denied saying.
Reports of an explosive row at London Colney and Ozil subsequently skiving off like a naughty teenager may be well wide of the mark, but there is no question that Emery is still working out just how best to utilise his highest-paid player, a man effectively given the run of the place during Arsène Wenger’s time at the club. And it remains far from certain that Emery sees Ozil as the fulcrum of his side.
“The most important is the mentality for helping the team with his quality and his performance,” Emery explained, neatly sidestepping a question on whether he believed Ozil’s best position to be at No 10. “I like the possibility to have the player play different positions on the pitch. It depends each match and is the same for other players too. For that, Mesut has played with me on the right wing and also as a 10 and we are going to continue to do that.”
After three games and a maiden victory Emery’s Arsenal team are slowly beginning to take shape — with his players showing in isolated bursts that they are coming to terms with his intensive high-press and eye-wateringly high-line — and yet Ozil’s role in all of this remains uncertain. He played on the right of midfield in Arsenal’s opening weekend loss to Manchester City, before moving inside against Chelsea, only to be withdrawn in the second half of the 3-2 defeat. And then the West Ham bunk.
Not that Emery is too worried, instead insisting that he will continue switching Ozil around as he sees fit. “In Mesut’s career he has played both as a ten and on the right,” he said. “When he was playing in Madrid, I remember a lot of matches on the right. His quality is for playing between the lines, attacking and midfield players. But I spoke with him for his best position on the pitch and I know he can play right and ten player. And I know he wants that I can use him for two positions.”
It’s all a far cry from the Wenger era, during which a stately Ozil spent five seasons alleviated from most defensive responsibility and utterly assured of his place in Arsenal’s starting XI, before being rewarded with a lucrative three-and-a-half-year contract extension in February. That deal made him the most expensive player in the history of the club.
Somewhat ironically that contract extension — one which club insiders concede Wenger was hesitant to approve because of lingering doubts over the player’s work rate — may ultimately have been prompted by interest in Ozil from Paris Saint-Germain, then managed by Emery. “When I was working in Spain and for the last two years with PSG, I spoke with a lot of people and players about the possibility to one moment sign,” was Emery’s non-answer on the topic.
Instead those nascent talks amounted to nothing, with Emery instead inheriting Ozil as the most valuable player at his new club. How long Ozil retains that star billing remains to be seen, although — barring another untimely bug — the German will be handed his chance to impress at Cardiff this weekend.
“He’s training normally with the group, in every session this week,” Emery added. “He’s OK. After this, it’s about where he is better for us and also about the opposition’s style of play.”