COMMENT: This was no simple nod. No subtle hint. This was a sledgehammer. Unai Emery laying bare what he was forced to confront in those first days of preseason at London Colney.
Ahead of Wednesday's Europa League final. A shot at a European trophy. At Champions League qualification. The Arsenal manager admitted he had to sell the idea of actually participating in the competition to many of the senior players he had just inherited.
"We needed to feel this competition was an important competition," Emery, a three-time winner of the Europa League, admitted as he recalled those first days of preseason.
Then came the kicker, some of this lot wanted to pick the team for him.
"Okay. I explained then to every player that we needed the focus on every competition."
And with that, Emery confirmed a confrontation. The need to actually spell out who was in charge.
"I am going to decide when you are going to rest or not," stated the manager, paraphrasing what he expressed to certain individuals. "I don't want you to think you might not play in the early rounds and yet when we arrive at the semi-final or the final you say to me: I am here to play. No. I want you here, I want you ready to play, and you will be ready to play throughout."
If ever there was a doubt about the need to change the manager last year. To reinvigorate the culture inside the club. This revelation from Emery put paid to all that.
Picking and choosing your games. Your competitions. That's bad enough. But for senior players to feel so comfortable. Almost entitled. That they can confront the manager and tell him when they should and shouldn't play? It simply is proof of how much the player culture inside London Colney had deteriorated in the latter years of Arsene Wenger's reign.
New manager. Clean slate. Or so the cliche goes. Everyone champing at the bit to impress the new man in charge. Yet, as Emery revealed last week. The opposite was true. A league winner with PSG. A multi European winner with Sevilla. But instead of finding an eager, enthusiastic group of pros desperate to win over the new boss. Emery found cynicism. Entitlement. And all of it, given the scant success of this group, hopelessly misplaced.
If the Manchester City of Pep Guardiola are England's benchmark, then where did Arsenal, pre-Emery, fall in the grand scale of things? Just consider Guardiola's line-up at Burton Albion for the second-leg of their Carabao Cup semifinal. 'Defending' a 9-0 first-leg lead, Guardiola selected Sergio Aguero and Kevin de Bruyne. He also threw on Gabriel Jesus after the break. The manager at City wants to win everything. As do his players. Aguero's performance on the night was memorable. He not only struck the winner, but also turned in as energetic a display as any this Treble winning this season. The attitude that Emery found last summer just wouldn't survive at City.
But things are turning around. The run to Baku is proof of that. Away victories at Napoli. At Valencia. Against clubs that actually are serious about winning this competition. As much as the manager can take credit for the tactics and selection for these triumphs. Just as important was the shift in approach from his players. To actually demanding from eachother to win - no matter the game or opposition. To give 100 per cent at every opportunity in front of you. It's the basics. The pure basics. And as Emery revealed, it was something this team had been failing at before his arrival.
But the club is changing. And significantly so are the personnel. Aaron Ramsey's gone. Danny Welbeck too. And there's doubts now surrounding the future Laurent Koscielny. This all coming after Emery ushered Jack Wilshere out the door last summer.
Decisions not universally supported. Some even panned. Ruthless. Excessive. Even heartless. The usual suspects have all had their bit to say on this gradual clearout Emery is performing.
But given the revelations of the past week. And where this team now sits one game away from European glory and Champions League qualification. How can you argue that a sledgehammer wasn't need to break up this attitude Emery inherited?
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