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YAMA WEEKLY ROUNDTABLE: THE XHAKA INTERVIEW, REPLACING LACAZETTE, & EMERY AND MOYES

Each week, a few of the writers at You Are My Arsenal will answer questions regarding recent matches, transfers, squad developments, and other goings-on at Arsenal Football Club. This week, Justin Fisher (@jtfisher34 on Twitter), Pabst the Physio (@GamingPabst), and Dope Gooner (@dopegooner), along with guest writer DailyAFC (@DailyAFC), have tackled a handful of Arsenal-related questions below:

Last week, The Players’ Tribune released an extended interview with Granit Xhaka. What are your impressions from the interview?

Justin Fisher: While I have not always been the biggest fan of Granit Xhaka the player, I have a ton of respect for Granit Xhaka the man. I think that is the main takeaway point from his interview- a reminder that behind the performances on the pitch is a man who has the same emotional range as the rest of us. Some days are good, some days are bad and regardless of the performance on the field, every person even professional footballers deserves a level of respect. Xhaka clearly loves Arsenal and even if he does leave this summer he will give his all for Arsenal.

Pabst the Physio: I’m probably going to come off this looking extremely snobby. While I do understand booing your own players and being critical of their performances, I do also think there’s a line that shall not be crossed. You don’t, no matter what, threaten the person or, for that matter, include that person’s family and relatives. I do very much sympathise with Granit’s story, how he views football, how he deals with criticism and his motivation to continue. I do also think we, as fans, have a habit of zoning into players we don’t like, and use them as a medium for our frustration. Right now it’s Granit. I fear that, when he leaves, we will refocus that on Gabriel. That being said, I have to also mention that he does strike me as someone who holds pride above everything else – and with that feeling of hurt pride being upheld at that level, is going to ultimately be the reason why it would have been better for him, and the club, that he had left that window.

Don’t give me wrong, I think Xhaka is a very good player, but if he left, he could have furthered his career much more than him staying here and being a constant medium for criticism.

Dope Gooner: I think Granit Xhaka is the bravest player at Arsenal Football Club, and that interview was just another example of that. I think a lot of what he said in that interview was very valid. There is a problem, especially in the Premier League, with abuse directed toward players. In the age of social media, we just seem to forget that players are people too, human beings with hopes, fears, loved ones, and emotions of their own. He has every right to speak out against people who take their anger too far. Death threats against players and their family members are not acceptable. Constant targeted abuse online is not acceptable. I don’t agree with all the points he made (as an American sports fan, booing is just kinda of part of the landscape) and I was also quite furious with him after the Crystal Palace incident, but I have to give him credit for having the courage to get in front of the camera and speak truth to power.

DailyAFC: Granit made a lot of fair points. As fans we see the players performance on the field, but we are always tainted. Not just by our view of how they played, but of their value and worth to us as a player. Each of us have bad days or difficult times in our lives: family and friend problems, sickness, and all sorts of things that we deal with. Players are no different. I think we, as fans, would do well to remember that. Not just with Granit, but with every one that pulls on that Arsenal shirt and all the coaching staff. That being said, I do think he handled that situation really poorly. I think he should have admitted that and it would have been fine for him to admit it. I for one handle things poorly often. And I’m fine admitting it, and even apologizing when I realize it. Granit should have done the same thing in my opinion. One other point I wanted to make to Granit, if you’re reading this. The fans were whistling at you in part because we were about to drop points in an important match. Even a light jog would have been better than slowly walking off the pitch. It was a small thing but would have probably changed the outcome of the situation.

After his latest season-ending injury, are you concerned about Kieran Tierney’s durability?

JF: To put it simply, yes I am very concerned. While cliche, the phrase “The best ability is availability” does have a lot of truth to it. Tierney missed a few weeks earlier in the season, and missed the final 6 weeks last season so there is a clear pattern now. Moving forward, I think we need to sign someone who can compete with Tierney for the starting spot, which will also allow for more rotation to alleviate the minutes he is required to play.

PtP: I had doubts since his arrival, as he nurtured a groin injury, that got re-aggravated early on. He strikes me as one of those players that will keep the pace until something breaks down. And for a player who is instructed to make a lot of high paced runs and command and entire wide space, that can risk him breaking down during a season.

I remember when Darren Burgess came to Arsenal, and one of the things he implemented was monitoring amounts of sprints and distance covered and using that as an indicator for players time on the field. I think that season was Ramsey’s least injured season by far. I do wonder if Tierney is getting tasked with a role that might be bigger than what his body allows him.

DG: Yeah, I’m starting to get worried. Outside of our lockdown season back in 2019-2020, Tierney has never finished a season with Arsenal. That’s not good, especially considering how important is position is in the modern game. We learned the hard way last year that we needed an understudy behind Tierney in the depth chart, and that was proved right again this season. One of the most important abilities a footballer can have is availability, and Tierney has not adequately shown that he has that.

DAFC: I think any time a recurring injury comes up with the same player, or there’s a player who seems to get injured often, there’s some concern. But I do know that elite athletes and professional footballers put their bodies under a lot of stress. Sometimes that stress leads to injuries, especially with the schedules these players have to go through. Kieran Tierney is a very good full back and one of the few full backs I’ve watched where he can have a huge impact on the game. He’s enormously valuable for us and we all remember the period where our attack basically flowed through him. At best case there is probably mild concern, at worst case there is a good amount of concern. Not because of the severity of the injury, but because of how important he seems to be to our team.

In Tierney’s absence, who do you think should start at left-back?

JF: Despite the concerns over his ability, it has got to be Nuno Tavares. We saw what happens when you take Xhaka out of midfield and leave Lokonga exposed. Play a left back at left back!

PtP: Tavares. No doubts. He looks like he’s struggling somewhat to keep up with the positional demands, which takes away from that chaotic energy he exhumed during the start of the season. But his defensive capabilities are very sound, and his athletic profile is as good as Tierney’s, he’s just that taller and bulkier. When his confidence resurfaces, I’m sure he’ll look to force his way back into the team. While Xhaka puts in an honest display, he does lack the acceleration and speed to really impose himself on that left-back spot. He gets into the habit of staying further back, to catch the wingers before they gather speed. It gives us one less offensive body, and, as we saw against the Saints, we need as many players forward and running as possible.

DG: It’s gotta be Tavares. I get that he’s only less defensively suspect than Andre Santos or Sead Kolasinac were, but he is the most natural left-back we have remaining. Additionally, I think the best immediate solution for limiting how much of a liability Tavares can be is to get him in a consistent rhythm with game time. If Tavares’ problematic moments can be limited, I truly think there is an interesting player in there. Lastly, I’d rather play him than take Saka or Xhaka out of their preferred positions.

DAFC: There isn’t really a good answer here to be honest. Xhaka looks out of place at LB, and our midfield really needs him. Cedric is an option, but he’s been filling at RB so I’ll assume he’s unavailable. That essentially leaves us with Tavares or some sort of odd fill in like Saka. Tavares is young, raw, and still seems a bit out of place in the squad. He has a lot of talent and ability, but makes quite a few misplaced passes and has a tendency to lose possession in key areas. But he’s essentially all we’ve got. So let’s hope he can surprise us all and even make a case to be our starting LB next season.

Do you think Gabriel Martinelli could replace Alexandre Lacazette’s contributions in buildup?

JF: I think we sometimes over index what Lacazette does in build up. At his best, he is someone who is a focal point and draws the center defense close which allows space for the two outside wingers. Lacazette does not do fancy flicks and first time around-the-corner passes to send in our wide forwards. Gabriel Martinelli would be able to provide the same space for the wingers by virtue of his threat behind- causing defense to be unwilling to leave too much space in behind allowing Saka or ESR space to operate. That was a long way of saying that maybe Martinelli can’t operate with his back to goal as effectively as Laca, but in function, he can provide the same space for others.

PtP: I don’t think we have any players that can replicate Lacazette in his good periods. We don’t have that many offensive players who are comfortable receiving with their back to goal under pressure, and able to take the right decision. That being said, I do wonder, given the recent absence of Lacazette, if we look to tweak or tactics ever so slightly to compliment a player who’s more direct in their approach. Recently we played Nketiah as our no 9, who’s much more direct in his play. Perhaps it’s time to revisit passing it out from the back and hitting opponents with pace in the final third?

DG: As much as I rate Martinelli, I don’t see him being very effective with his back to goal. He’s a very direct player and always wants to get directly at the opposition, which is probably why he has not been deployed as a starting center forward by Arteta. So far, Nketiah has proven capable of some decent linkup play in Lacazette’s stead. In my mind, that further shows where the Brazilian is in the striker pecking order. I think Arteta views Martinelli’s skill set as being better served playing out on the left wing and would rather not change up his system too much in order to fit him in as the nine.

DAFC: I do not. But not for the reason’s you’d expect. I’m not a tactical mastermind, so I’m not going to pretend I know exactly what he would or wouldn’t bring to that #9 role. But I do know Arteta coached under Pep Guardiola, one of the best managers of all time. I don’t believe Arteta thinks Martinelli fits that role for our system, so I’m trusting his instinct. Of course, Arteta could envision him there long term. Every few months there is an article that comes out about Gabi playing #9 in training, hinting that he’ll play there in a match, but it hasn’t happened yet. And as we saw with Aubameyang, Arteta doesn’t mind playing strikers/pacy players on the wings and having them make a lot of runs in behind, so I envision Martinelli staying put on the wing for now.

Are Unai Emery’s and David Moyes’ recent victories in European competitions an indictment of Mikel Arteta’s performance as Arsenal manager?

JF: Unai Emery plays a defensive, counter attacking style of football that works really really well in cup competitions. It is easy as the underdog to sit back, soak up pressure, and hit teams on the break. In a league format, that does not work well if you have aspirations like Arsenal. We saw what Unai Emery brings, he brought Arsenal to the Europa League Final but failed to deliver in the league. Arteta has spent most of his time at Arsenal overhauling the squad and providing the foundations for which this season relative success has been built upon. Yes the league positions have been poor- but that has to be taken with context. I have been a skeptic of Arteta, but the football we have played this season has convinced me that he can instill a system that can deliver- just needs the squad depth to do so.

PtP: I’ve actually given this thought recently, in the aftermath of the three defeats. And Arsenal find themselves in a very tight spot here. In the league we’re flanked by teams who either have a better squad depth, has better integrated veteran winners or has a trophy winning manager. And while they might not have a squad as talented as ours, they have the ability to either rotate they starting 11 without taking a quality hit, have someone who can pick a draw or a win out of a loss or a manager who can bank on experience to drag a team through this part of the season, where mentality begins to exhaust players. Unai Emery is a very good manager, he was also a good manager while staying at Arsenal. He just wasn’t the right manager, and he didn’t get there at the right time. He had to wrestle with a lot of backroom egos where his reputation inside the club didn’t merit him some type of respect. I still believe that, if the internals of Arsenal were addressed earlier, Unai Emery’s tenure might look much different. Furthermore, and I know this is probably not what fans want to hear, I actually do commend David Moyes’ achievements at West Ham. He got thrown to the wolves at Manchester United, before being labeled as a master in failure. Got handed dead jobs like Sociedad at 15th place, Sunderland who were destined for relegation with an aging squad and no budget before landing the West Ham job twice. For him to go and build West Ham to a point they can compete in an international tournament is a nod to him. That being said, I wouldn’t look at neither team or manager and say that they’re better or worse than Arteta. They’re both much further in their managerial career, and have both tasted the bitter nectar of being fired for their teams’ performances. Also, Moyes’ first coaching job was at Preston North End, Emery’s was Lorca Deportiva. Neither didn’t manage a first league team before being a manager for at least 3 years. I’m sure, when Arteta has been a manager for the same 15-25 years, we’d see a much different manager.

DG: I don’t think so. People, especially the very online ones, just want to cherry-pick and clutch at individual facts that make their opinions look good without consideration of context. Both Emery and Moyes are looking like strong bets to finish outside of Champions League and Europa League places in their domestic leagues, and have turned their attention to European competition to salvage their respective seasons. Does that mean Emery is in a CL semifinal and that West Ham might win their way into that competition as well? Sure, but it also means that they can’t maintain the consistent output over a league season that we want Arteta to achieve. And having witnessed Arteta in a similar situation to Emery’s and Moyes’ just last season, we know that criticism comes with that territory as well. At the end of the day, all we can do is maintain consistent targets for what Arsenal need to do and let the other chips fall where they may.

DAFC: Not at all. Each club, squad, and situation is different. Comparing managers across clubs and even leagues just doesn’t give an accurate picture in my opinion to make a judgment on a manager’s ability. Looking at the whole picture, Arteta has reduced our wage bill, got us playing good football (up until the last few games…), and has us challenging for a top 4 spot, which seemed ludicrous after the first few matches this season. European competitions are also way different from league play. You could argue that Arteta’s performance in the Premier League is an indictment of Moyes’ performance as West Ham manager. But at the end of the day you need to see improvement in the team, so I’m waiting to see if Arteta can turn our current slump around and get the players firing again.

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