You can almost see what UEFA is getting at with this new Nations League nonsense. With the exception of the World Cup and, to a lesser extent, the Euros, fans simply do not care about international football. Friendlies, which have nothing to do with qualification for either major tournament, have long been ridiculed by those who dislike seeing the rhythm of the domestic league season spoiled for meaningless matches of questionable value. Adding an element of competition to proceedings, as the logic evidently went, will do more to get fans engaged in these matches that exist simply to give national teams the time to develop their squads. Has it worked?
No. Not even sort of. Fans see through the attempt to dress up these friendlies as important, and an overwhelming majority have been pining for the return of proper football again. In North London, the feeling is no different, with fans anxious to see their Arsenal resume their brilliant run of form, winning each of their last 9 matches and forcing themselves back into the competition for a Champions League place. Luckily for those who can’t be bothered to concern themselves with the international break, the Gunners have provided them with plenty of intriguing storylines to slake their thirst until the schedule resumes again next weekend.
Gunners Make No Issue Over Mkhitaryan…Yet
Almost as soon as the Europa League draw took place this summer, Arsenal supporters were surprised to learn that one of their own would be unable to feature in their away fixture against Qarabag in Azerbaijan. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who is Armenian, was forced to stay away from Baku due to political strife in the country as his teammates fought to maintain their early lead in Group E. For the Gunners, this was not much of an issue, as Qarabag was not thought to be of such a quality as to put the result in doubt. While they struggled to assert their dominance over their stingy hosts, the Gunners managed to dispatch of them with little trouble, and evidently without needing the former United man to do so.
While Mkhitaryan missing a winnable group stage match did not ultimately hurt the Gunners, the issue could potentially rear its ugly head again should Arsenal make it to the Europa League Final, which will also be held in Baku. The club chose not to make an issue out of Mkhitaryan’s absence this time around, but a return to Azerbaijan with a trophy and Champions League qualification on the line could prompt the club to seek an exemption for the player. Mkhitaryan was forced to miss out on the Gunners’ run to the semifinal of the competition last season, and there are many who feel that Arsenal could have advanced even further had they been able to call on Mkhitaryan and fellow January arrival Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. As arguably the most important competition the Gunners have entered this season, having all hands on deck should they reach the final will be a boon to Emery and the team.
Ramsey Contract Drama Continues
In the ensuing weeks since the report first broke outlining the club’s apparent about-face in their ongoing contract negotiations with Aaron Ramsey, the story has continued to evolve. Ramsey has come out this week providing quotes that confirm there was an offer on the table that he was inclined to sign, only to have it revoked by the club. The story has caused distress for many, with some questioning the club for not coming to this decision during the summer when he could have been sold on for a (slightly reduced but still substantial) transfer fee, while others still have blamed Ramsey or his agency for the situation.
It is difficult to understand the exact circumstances surrounding the negotiations during the summer; whether Ramsey had any interest in signing with another club before the season, whether Unai Emery was mistaken in his initial valuation of the player upon arrival, or even if the agent has been entirely forthcoming with the club during negotiations. The fact remains that something has changed within the club since Unai Emery spoke about building the team around Ramsey when he first arrived in North London.
Has Emery simply decided the Welshman isn’t as good as he thought he was? Or has he perhaps gotten a better look at the young players coming through the academy and decided that the club has more talent ready to shoulder responsibility than he had figured before his arrival? It is highly unlikely that his opinion has changed so drastically about a player who has played as much as Ramsey, but given the midfielder is reportedly after a contract north of £200k per week, it is also a question of value. With Arsenal seeing Europa League football limit their ability to grow the wage bill further, perhaps they feel that a player with Ramsey’s injury history is too big a risk for them to take.
In spite of all that, this situation is far from over. Ramsey stated this week that he isn’t really interested in leaving in January and that he would stay and fight to help Arsenal achieve something special this year before departing at the end of the season. The situation will gain a bit more clarity once January comes round and he is able to field offers from other clubs. If he finds the market for his services is robust, he will likely move on after a decade at Arsenal. However, if the market proves a little soft for a brilliant but inconsistent and injury prone player, the parties could find themselves back at the negotiating table discussing terms that Arsenal could find a bit more palatable.
Manager of the Month Snub?
With September now thoroughly in the rearview mirror, the Premier League has released its first batch of monthly awards that come with a relevant sample size, and some Gooners (surprise, surprise) are not happy. Newly promoted Wolves manager Nuno Espírito Santo pipped Unai Emery, Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, and Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp to the top spot after his side won 3 of their 4 matches in September en route to a surprising 7th place in the current Premier League table.
However, the result has some supporters questioning the validity of the decision, as Arsenal notched 6 wins in as many tries in September (4/4 in the Premier League), falling right in the middle of their current run of 9 games unbeaten. How has a manager who has done such a great job getting a team lacking belief in itself and having dropped the opening 2 matches of the season to turn around their fortunes so drastically not been given the award? After all, the media, which had spent the majority of the first 6 weeks of the season declaring Arsenal finished and a top 6 also-ran, has now started asking whether the Gunners are true title contenders. Surely that is worthy of recognition?
The argument is not without its merits, but the Manager of the Month award has never been solely about who achieved the best results in a given month, but rather, which manager has done the most with what he has been given. Unai Emery has got his players playing hard for him and for the badge, but are Arsenal performing significantly above their expectations? Or has he simply gotten a supremely talented squad playing more to their full potential? Nuno Espirito Santo may have one of the most talented sides (and expensive) sides to ever come out of the Championship and into the Premier League, but one has only to look at Fulham’s struggle to balance their own talent into a winning team to see how difficult the job can be. Espirito Santo has carried his 3-4-3 system through promotion without having to dramatically alter his team’s approach, and he has been rightly commended for the job he has done.
However, in this humble writer’s opinion, they did get the award wrong. No, it shouldn’t be Unai Emery, nor Guardiola or Klopp. The manager that has done the most with less is…Eddie Howe of Bournemouth. Howe might have only won 2 of his 4 matches during the month, but to have Bournemouth and their anaemic budget in 6th place at this point in the season, ahead of such clubs as Everton, Manchester United, and Espirito Santo’s Wolves, is nothing short of miraculous. Howe learned the hard lessons last season that Fulham are learning right now, and his newly pragmatic approach is yielding tangible results for the Cherries. His 50% record in September may not blow anyone away, but Howe continues to justify the hype that has surrounded him ever since he lead the tiny south coast club into the biggest league in the world.