How has the two-week break re-energised everyone, and how much was it needed?
We have to try to maximise the time in the best possible way. We had some clear objectives of what we wanted to achieve in that period and I think they’ve been achieved. We are willing to go and we are ready to go and willing to play the first game after two weeks.
Now you’re just in the Premier League how much does the clarity of purpose benefit you in the run-in?
It’s one of the things we’ve discussed, how we’re going to approach the last 17 games, what we need to do to achieve our objectives. The most important thing is that we’re all on the same page, focused and determined with the right belief and going game by game, not getting lost in the things that are too far, [focus on] what we have to do daily, the habits that we need to instill to get the level of performance that we need to win as much as possible.
You had great momentum in December, but how is the mood after some difficult results in January?
For different reasons, we didn’t get the results. The performance against City was very different to the draw we had against Burnley and in between we had the cup games. A lot happened there. We played three games out of five with ten men. If we continue to do that in the next 17 games our chances to be where we want to be will be really low.
The other thing is we missed a lot of players because injuries and COVID, which is another key factor again which is going to be determining where we finish in the season. That’s it because performance-wise I don’t think we dropped the level that much, but here it’s about results.
What sort of challenge do Wolves pose?
They’ve been really consistent and really efficient throughout the season, that’s what the league table is showing and the performances that they put in. It’s going to be a really difficult opponent, we are going to be playing them twice (this month), but we are difficult too.
You didn’t sign too many players in January. Do you think the lack of players in your squad now is something that could work against you?
We did what we believed was the right thing to do. First of all with the players that had to leave, the squad composition and contract situations were catching up and we had to make decisions, be fair, as well, with players who haven’t had a lot of minutes this season. That’s what we did. We had a clear plan of what we could do, but then it has to be doable. Edu and his team have done a great job and they continue to do that.
But we are very clear, we only want the best people and the best players at this club. When we are in a rush, or different pressures, and the reasons to get a player on board are not the right ones we decided not to do it.
Are you happy with where you’re at now and what do you think you can achieve this season?
I trust the players. The quality they have, the spirit and the togetherness around the team. We can achieve what we want, and we’re going to need high levels of performances, we’re going to need our supporters on board – that’s going to be so key. But again, we can only go game by game.
How concerned are you about the lack of a replacement for Aubameyang in the transfer window?
Auba’s trajectory at the club and the importance of his goals is unquestionable. But we have other players and we believe we have other qualities in different areas to try and accomplish what we need in the team. That’s what we’re going to do.
Had the situation between you and Aubameyang got to a position where it was best to move on? Had he become an unwelcome distraction?
You ask me the question directly to me, so I’ll respond. I’m extremely grateful for what Auba has done at the club, for his contributions since I’ve been here. The way I see myself in that relationship is the solution and not the problem.
What are your objectives for the rest of the season and how do you solve the number of red cards Arsenal are getting?
We have to play with 11 players on that pitch. We need most of the players available and fit as much as possible, we have to keep improving our game model and we have to go game by game. To do that we have to be super focused on the day. The rest will become because it’s in our hands, we are in the position. It’s possible and we can achieve it, but only when everybody is in the right mindset.
Is Tomiyasu available?
He’s there. He had a recurring injury in the same place, so we had to be careful with him, but he’s been training hard. Let’s see if he’s available for Thursday.
Given how hard you worked to convince Aubameyang to stay are you a little disappointed with how this has all ended up?
I think it ended in the best possible way for everybody. I think when things change and the context changes this is part of football. What we did yesterday, or a month ago, is not relevant, it’s about what we’re doing today, or what we will be able to do in the future. You have to make decisions and we all made a decision that the best thing to do was to move on and now he plays for Barca.
When did you make that decision?
We have had different kinds of meetings. It’s a decision that we take collectively with the club, with the player and with his agent.
Is it a gamble not bringing in another striker given that you’re in the race for the top four?
Well, we have two strikers. We have Laca, we have Eddie with us and they are both capable of scoring goals. They have shown that over the years with us. Again, when we have to replace or improve the squad it can only be with a player that we are certain, first of all is the right player and the right character to join, and then a player that with his quality straight away can impact the performance of the team and our capacity to build a future around him as well.
Are you saying there wasn’t the player at the right place and quality available this window?
First of all, that I trust the players that I have. This is what I want to say.
Were you disappointed with Aubameyang’s comments saying you were the problem?
It’s his opinion and that’s his opinion. That’s what he said and you have to respect that.
Will you play with a false nine now?
We can play with different kind of nines and we have the option and availability to do it. We can play with two nines as well because we have two. That’s it. Depending on the game, where we are, the stage of the game as well, we have variables.
Have the last two weeks given you a chance to reset as well?
We played in the last five games three different competitions. The Premier League against City, the FA Cup against Forest and then against Liverpool the two-legged tie that were extremely complicated because of the COVID situation and injuries and then the last draw against Burnley where we should have won the game. But it’s what it is. There were many factors there that were a lesson on why we didn’t win football matches and they were in our control. Hopefully in the future we can do better.
Given the incidents at Brentford and West Ham recently, as a manager do you have your heart in your mouth when you send the players away hoping that they behave appropriately?
I think when the culture is so rooted and strong then the manager has very little to do there, because everything can be handled almost in person and that’s the ideal scenario. It takes a while to get that done, but in my opinion here we’re not too far off that.
How do you get across to the players how they have to represent the club?
I think there are a few factors. First of all, how we raise them through our academy and the type of characters that we build. That’s the best way to do it in that pathway. Then in the recruitment with the type of characters and personalities that you’re signing, make sure that they are the right ones to fit in your culture. And the other one is lead by example because when you see certain behaviours daily they become habits and those habits are easy to follow. Once they are integrated I don’t think anybody can escape to do something different because it gets exposed.
You said you saw yourself as the solution with Aubameyang. What was the problem you were trying to solve?
What I’m saying is that I’ve been the solution 100%. I can look in the eye of anybody.
So from your perspective you did nothing wrong?
Wrong, I do a lot of things wrong for sure, but the intention all the time is the best. Not for me, but for the club and the team
With the young squad that you have do you need a captain that sets the right example off the pitch?
We have some exceptional senior players that are really helping. The way the young players are doing so well is because they have the senior players next to them giving an example. Their togetherness, the chemistry that we saw in the last two weeks, a little bit out of competition – we haven’t had time since I’ve been for two years because of COVID to really have any time to spend together – it’s the thing I’m probably most proud of. Not just around the players but the staff. And the real chemistry that is there, that’s something that is going to stay here.
Will Lacazette be your captain for the rest of the season?
Laca is the captain at the moment yes.
Sir Alex Ferguson always set a tone that no one was bigger than the club. Given what’s happened with Ozil and now Aubameyang, are you sending that same message?
I don’t send. It’s not me here guys, it’s we the club. We make decisions and we defend the club, to try and improve the club as much as possible, to respect the values and the traditions of this club. Obviously, you talk much more about the difficult decisions than the positive ones, but there are far more positive ones. Those ones at the end I think they will become very positive as well. But today probably it’s difficult to see.
Would you have let Balogun go out on loan if you knew Aubameyang would be leaving?
Again, with Flo especially and the amount of minutes that he played here, and the level that he shows when he can only play with the under-23s, it was not fair. If we want to develop that player and maximise his potential, which is huge, we have to expose that player as quick as possible to the level he needs to be exposed. I was really confident that for him it was the right option and he was convinced, so when that happens we have to let the player go.
Do you think the club are now in a position where they won’t have to terminate player contracts anymore?
Hopefully. But the turnaround of the squad, when you have many things to do – and we’ve already seen the amount of changes and the contractual situations that are very much attached to those players – it’s really difficult to handle. If we want to thin the squad to have the capacity to evolve and improve it, you have to make those decisions when you have the opportunity. Sometimes you have something that you want but the player doesn’t want to do it. So, we believe it was the right thing to do, but as always only results will tell whether you are right or wrong, that ball has to be in the net.