As Arsenal embark on their second season under Unai Emery, Martin Keown reflects on the scale of the task, the question of Arsenal’s identity and why he hopes Edu can help…
Martin Keown’s time on the coaching staff at Arsenal was brief. He was widely credited for having an impact on the defence during the team’s run to the 2006 Champions League final – one that included 10 consecutive clean sheets – but his return was not straightforward.
He once revealed that he wanted to explain to one Arsenal defender how he could stop making the same mistake by altering his positioning but Arsene Wenger was not prepared for the player to see the video because he feared it would destroy his confidence. It is a curious anecdote that helps to explain the failure to address Arsenal’s defensive problems.
Speaking at the McDonald’s Grassroots Awards, Keown is careful to put it as delicately as he can. “They couldn’t find a solution for me so I stepped out and it was right for me to do that,” he tells Sky Sports. “We could not find a working relationship at the time.”
Nevertheless, Keown is delighted that one of his former Arsenal team-mates has returned to the club in the hope of making an impact of his own. Edu, a fellow member of the squad that went unbeaten throughout the 2003/04 Premier League season, is the new sporting director – and Keown believes this is a step in the right direction for the Gunners.
“I think it is very interesting because he understands this role and he understands the expectancy at Arsenal,” he explains. “He cannot really affect it on the training ground. but he will be able to address things with the processes at the club.
“He is a great guy who was also greatly underestimated, to be honest. It was a big loss when he left the football club because there was an element of class to him. I am pleased that the club has recognised that because over the years there have been some special individuals play for Arsenal who do not work for Arsenal so I am glad one of them is returning.”
The question of identity is being felt keenly in English football right now. Frank Lampard and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer are now in charge at Chelsea and Manchester United respectively and Edu’s appointment suggests there is a desire for Arsenal to stay in touch with the team’s culture too. Steve Bould and Freddy Ljungberg remain part of the set-up too.
But what exactly is Arsenal’s identity? Keown knows better than just about anyone that this is a difficult concept to define given that it was so malleable during his own playing career there – one that spanned nearly two decades across his two spells with the club.
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“Things evolved from George Graham to Arsene Wenger,” he says. “There was a habit of behaviour, shall we say, among certain individuals that was created by George Graham. Then, of course, when Arsene Wenger came in it was more expressive with an emphasis on creation. But it is quite right that you look to retain an identity as a club.
“You could say that once they reached the Champions League final in 2006 there were none of the old Arsenal defenders around. Nonetheless, the ones that were there picked up habits from the ones who were there before. So you do get that succession plan with players and that culture that runs through the club.”
Martin Keown on the McDonald’s Grassroots Awards
“It is important that we recognise grassroots football because we take it for granted don’t we? The people turning up and setting up the pitches, organising fixtures and just taking people back and forth, we should be thanking them.”
Keown’s frustration is that in the 13 years since that Champions League final, and since he departed seemingly for good, the culture of defensive excellence was abandoned.
“The balance between physicality against technical players went too far one way,” he explains. “I think it was done in pursuit of trying to match the excellence of Barcelona, which is the team Wenger wanted to copy most of all. The balance at Arsenal was lost.
“Unai Emery is trying to get that back but he needs to get a better balance to the group because they forgot how to defend and for fifty per cent of every game, you are going to be without the ball. It is still their Achilles heel, particularly away from home.
“I am encouraged by the signing of Nicolas Pepe. He is exceptionally quick with very quick feet. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette need service and I’m sure Pepe will provide that as well as weigh in with goals himself. But the squad will need balance.”
David Luiz and Kieran Tierney should help but with the latter still on the injury list alongside Hector Bellerin and Rob Holding, Keown has sympathy for Emery as they head to Anfield – the scene of the Spaniard’s biggest defeat yet, the 5-1 thrashing that Liverpool served up over Christmas that undermined the idea that this longstanding flaw had been rectified.
“I have watched Emery with great interest,” adds Keown. “He has been working, urging, cajoling these players to be at the Arsenal level that you would expect. He wants them at boiling point and they lost that in the latter years under Wenger. There is a lot of pressure on him but I think the manager was inheriting a fairly difficult situation.
“It looked for a while like he had solved those defensive problems away from home but then they fell away at the end of the season and the problem returned. It probably cost them fourth place and the Champions League. That pops them into the Europa League and makes life much more difficult with the calendar and the regular Thursday night football.
“If I was still a competitor I would be thinking that fourth place is up for grabs. Frank Lampard is a talented manager but he’s a novice and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer isn’t much more experienced at this level. From that point of view, Emery looks a much better bet. But are the players good enough? Can he get them to be more defensively resolute?”