Spain's affable riser has won Sevilla back-to-back Europa League crowns while keeping in touch with the big boys in La Liga. English clubs take note...
There’s something almost vampiric about Unai Emery. But unlike the old-school Christopher Lee spooking about a dusty, dark mansion in a dinner jacket and tails, the Sevilla manager is all with the nu-vampire vibe: mesmeric, enchanting, intense and more than a little bit sexy. Unai is the True Blood king of La Liga.
Many a club were after the services of Sevilla’s saviour this summer after they won back-to-back Europa League titles and finished a very creditable fifth in the league. The campaign’s work for Emery reflected an ability to fight on multiple football fronts and ultimately prevail.
Although admiration for the 43-year-old had existed in Spain for a decade, Sevilla’s success has now pushed Emery into the international spotlight. Clubs like Napoli and Milan were reportedly elbow-shoving each other aside for his signature, hoping to take advantage of a coach with a reputation for taking clubs chugging around in ever-decreasing circles and steering them back into port.
Started from the bottom
Emery succeeded at Valencia despite a dressing room stuffed with hassle, some of the worst bookkeeping in sports history and stars sold on a regular basis
As so often with managers who bemoan less-than-illustrious playing careers, Emery has had to work his way up from the coalface of football. The former midfielder was forced to retire early with a knee injury in 2004 while with third-tier Lorca Deportiva, who just so happened to have a vacant managerial opportunity. It gave Emery a starting point in a decade of near-constant success.
Lorca were soon promoted into the second division for the first time in their history. In 2006, Emery jumped ship to Almería, won promotion to La Primera and proceeded to guide the southern side to eighth in a debut top-flight campaign.
A desperate Valencia side in all sorts of trouble from pitch to boardroom then came calling, having suffered under the regime of Ronald Koeman. That particular spell had ended with the Dutchman and captain David Albelda facing each other in a courtroom after the midfielder was dropped from the first-team squad.
Despite a dressing room stuffed with hassle, some of the worst bookkeeping in sports history and stars like David Villa and David Silva sold on a regular basis, Emery succeeded in getting Valencia to sixth in his first campaign, followed by three consecutive third-placed finishes.
Champions League income quite possibly saved Valencia from folding under the pressure of near-€500m debts, but that wasn’t enough to prevent Emery from leaving in 2012, having suffered the ire of an infamously impatient Mestalla fan base that were frustrated by Valencia not being able to break into the top two and too much tactical tinkering from their boss.
A blip on the managerial résumé then followed with a short, unsuccessful spell at Spartak Moscow, before Emery returned to Spain in January 2012 on another rescue mission: save a Sevilla side that was hopelessly lost, having previously been one of the most vibrant, attractive sides in Europe.
Since that point, it’s fair to say that Unai has done rather well.
The decision to turn down bigger pay cheques elsewhere also confirmed another redeeming quality about Emery – loyalty
The coach is a mish-mash of other Primera managers; the intensity and dry humour of Diego Simeone; the ire and scowl of Luis Enrique; the shrugging, ‘whatever’ coolness of the now-departed Carlo Ancelotti.
But perhaps Emery’s most obvious managerial twin is Marcelo Bielsa, given his obsession with preparation, tactics and an endless fascination with the mechanics of footballing philosophies.
The pair even have the same trademark pitchside squat and tendency to annoy the heck out of players by urging them to move three or four inches upfield. “There were so many videos I ran out of popcorn,” joked winger Joaquín, remembering his spell with Emery at Valencia.
Fortunately, the Spaniard doesn’t share Bielsa’s inability and complete uninterest in interacting with fellow human beings.
Aside from delivering consistent success, Emery will continue to attract the interests of clubs. He’s a true can-do president-pleaser who doesn’t rock the boat and is able to manage the demands of sides that need to sell big stars before spending – very much the profile of Sevilla, a team to which Unai has committed until 2017.
That decision to turn down bigger pay cheques elsewhere also confirmed another redeeming quality about Emery – loyalty, and the desire to repay a club that put his managerial career back on track. It’s a journey that’s going to see an awful lot more trophies being lifted before it’s over.
Tactics corner (with Michael Cox)
"Back-to-back Europa League victories with Sevilla means Unai Emery must now be considered one of Europe’s foremost tacticians.
"On the face of it, Emery seems like a classic Spanish coach – he likes attractive passing football; he wants quick wingers and intelligent central midfielders; he usually plays a 4-2-3-1 system, with a two-striker formation considered something of a daring alternative.
"But Emery is also an absolute obsessive over detail, particularly studying the opposition. His pre-match preparations have become the stuff of legend – he personally attempts to boil around 10 hours’ worth of opposition scouting into one, 'bitesize' hour-long video that he works through with his first-team squad before matches. Oh, and then there’s the USB drive that he hands to every player, informing him about his direct opponent, and how to exploit his weaknesses.
"Such a demanding, intense manager can be draining for players, but Emery seems to have good man-management skills. He also has a habit of building well-balanced sides, particularly in midfield where the emphasis upon passing doesn’t mean the ball-winning side of the game is overlooked."