The long way round: How Unai Emery became a self-made obsessive – and Arsenal's chosen one
The French-Catalan flatulist Joseph Pujol boasted impeccable bowel and sphincter control. Better known by his stage name Le Petomane – a neologism meaning ‘the farting maniac’ – Pujol enthralled late-19th century crowds across France with his ability to break wind tunefully.
Not only could he fart La Marseillaise, Pujol could also perform vignettes from Offenbach to Verdi; from an elephant’s deep bass to the domineering snarl of a French president. Pujol could even sit, like a yoga instructor, in a bowl of water and draw the liquid up inside himself, before squirting it out up to five yards across the stage.
Many people believed Le Petomane’s prodigious gifts to be a genetic anomaly, but they were the result of meticulous practice and relentless discipline. Pujol dedicated hours every day to refining his act, one which fascinated packed Moulin Rouge audiences and counted the future king Edward VII among its celebrity admirers.
Unai Emery is no different, intestinal workings and royal approval aside. The Spaniard is both a football obsessive and avid reader, someone whose success is as much a result of his relentless hard work and quest for self-improvement as any innate tactical awareness. Sevilla’s coaching staff used to joke that Emery spent so long working at the training ground, he’d end up eating three meals a day there.
Emery’s motto is simple and applies to both his players and himself:“Con talento y sin talante no llegamos, pero con talante y sin talento tampoco.” With talent but not the will, we won’t get anywhere, but neither will we with the will and no talent.
Any Arsenal player who hoped for an easy post-Arsene Wenger ride with the autonomy to please themselves would do well to read on. Instead, they’ll be facing questionnaires, training sessions as intense as the North London derby and videos. Lots of videos.
In the blood
Unai Emery Etxegoien hated playing football. Born in Hondarribia, the picturesque port town on Spain’s northern Basque border with France, he soon realised that the family business may not be for him.
His father and grandfather were both goalkeepers of distinction – the latter, Antonio, conceded La Liga’s first ever goal in February 1929, a 3-2 defeat for Real Union at Espanyol. But young Unai increasingly allowed his worries to consume him, and instead paid more attention to Spanish comics such as El Jabato (The Wild Boar) and the slapstick Mort & Phil than football.
“I was something of a wimp,” he later admitted. “When I didn’t get picked, I’d breathe a sigh of relief – I felt so under pressure.”
Emery’s silky left foot brought five appearances for Real Sociedad in 1995/96, and he scored in an 8-1 thrashing of Albacete. However, he slowly drifted down Spain’s football pyramid, sucked onto “a hamster wheel which you can’t get off” with a series of short-term deals at Racing Ferrol, Leganes and Lorca Deportiva in his early 30s.
Unable to shake off a persistent knee injury at Lorca, Emery began taking his coaching badges. Once told by Sociedad boss John Toshack that “a good coach must be the opposite of what they were as a player”, Emery realised that to ‘reach’ a player, you had to understand them as people in a way that “none of my managers could overcome my deficiencies as a player”. Yes, he was talented and read the game well, but no coach had ever lit the fire to get the best from Emery the player.
But over Christmas 2004, Emery the manager got his first chance to shine. With Lorca mid-table in third-tier Segunda B, director of football Pedro Reverte replaced manager Quique Yague with the injured midfielder, so impressed was he with Emery’s tactical brain from the stands. Yague thought his senior player had stabbed him in the back. The pair haven’t spoken since.
“We had seven days’ holiday over Christmas and I said goodbye to my team-mates like any other player,” Emery later recalled. “I came back and said: ‘Hi, I’m your new coach’. It was difficult, but I got so involved in my role from the start that I didn’t think about it – I knew the players so well that it all flowed fairly easily.”
The long walk home
Resembling a hyperactive vampire, Emery’s enthusiasm revitalised Lorca’s season. When Juan Carlos Ramos scored an extra-time winner from the halfway line to secure promotion in a play-off at Real Union, Lorca’s new manager ran onto the pitch to celebrate with his players. Overcome with emotion, Unai walked the 10 miles back to hometown Hondarribia to try to calm down.
When little Lorca were just a game away from sealing promotion to La Liga the following season, the vultures began to circle. “We were living the dream,” said captain Antonio Robles. “We were so well prepared for games and he injected us with a moral backbone necessary to think of ourselves as better than our opponents.”
Almeria was more famous as the setting for Sergio Leone masterpiece The Good, the Bad and the Ugly than anything its modest football team had achieved, before a new sheriff swaggered into town in 2006. The 35-year-old achieved immediate promotion for the Andalusians and made no effort to hide his ambition. Or his name.
“Emery’s desire to improve in every training session was contagious, everything was at match intensity,” former Almeria midfielder Miguel Angel Corona tells FourFourTwo. “We knew we were competing against better teams, so we had to be better without the ball and more clinical with it, because we’d have fewer chances.
“We’d spend half the week working on dead-ball situations because we knew they were our best route to goals – ball in the box. Unai was very quick to realise that and changed training accordingly. It was the intelligent way to go and Unai is so intelligent.”
More than 50% of Almeria’s goals that season came from set pieces.
Video killed the football star
It was with Los Rojiblancos that the Basque’s love of video analysis came to the fore. He once gave a player he suspected of not watching his weekly video an empty flash drive to test his response a few days later. “Oh brilliant, boss,” said the slacker. “Spot on as ever.”
From then on, Emery has dedicated a dozen hours a week to going through videos he prepares with assistant Juan Carlos Carcedo – who has followed him to north London – with each player.
“He’s a colossal pesado [pain in the arse] and the players hate him,” revealed one unnamed player. “Team talks went on forever, players fell asleep, video sessions were interminable, as was dead-ball practice. You watch videos for hours and hours and think it’s a load of bollocks... but it works. It’s so relentless that in the end every single player knows exactly what he wants.”
Emery maintains that his proudest moment as a coach came in that season, after then Zenit Saint Petersburg manager Luciano Spalletti had eulogised about his Almeria side. A few weeks later, “Zenit scored a goal from the exact move we practise every week”.
“You’re often faced with the scariest thing as a footballer – yourself,” laughs Corona. “You have to see your own mistakes, brutally in front of you. However, if you want to improve, there’s no problem in watching a few videos of yourself.
“Emery never stops. I went on a family holiday and my dad got me a book to read, except he’d already been tapped up by Unai to get me to read it. Apparently he told my dad: ‘Buy him the book and read it to him if you have to.’”
NEXT: “I learned so much from him in that season, especially how to take advantage of attacking opportunities”