The long way round: How Unai Emery became a self-made obsessive – and Arsenal's chosen one
Emery watches every match four times; once live, again in full, then smaller highlights and finally in a conference with his players, each of whom brings his own snippets to the table. Information, the manager reasons, is power. Even on his rare days off, he’ll watch football.
“I was born like this – the day I go and play golf, somebody should come and take me away because I’ll be good for nothing any more,” he said when questioned about a matchday video at Sevilla in which he’d shouted individual instructions at every player with 10 minutes of the game gone, including the goalkeeper.
“That’s how I live for football. Training is no different. I’m on top of the players. My assistant is the same. Calling us pesados I believe to be something positive.”
Emery also listened. Frustrated that playmaker Ivan Rakitic couldn’t create from defensive midfield in a 4-2-3-1 formation, fans persuaded their manager to deploy the Croat off Colombian striker Carlos Bacca for the November 2013 trip to Espanyol. “I’m not going to die with my ideas,” he reasoned after the 3-1 win. Rakitic stayed there, becoming the creative fulcrum of the first of Sevilla’s three Europa League titles before joining Barcelona.
While players came and went, the counter-attacking, zonal system remained in place. The 2016 Europa League Final against Liverpool in Basel was the definitive Sevilla display under Emery. Trailing to Daniel Sturridge’s fine effort at half-time, Emery reminded his team that the only way to beat Jurgen Klopp’s press was to sit deep and counter-attack, exposing their limited backline of Nathaniel Clyne, Kolo Toure, Dejan Lovren and Alberto Moreno. The Andalusians roared back to win 3-1.
If there’s one thing that concerned Arsenal supporters about Emery’s appointment, it’s his two years at Paris Saint-Germain. In his first, PSG lost a one-horse Ligue 1 race to Monaco and let a 4-0 first-leg lead slip against Barcelona in the Champions League. His attempts to install a zonal system failed, as did trying to advance Marco Verratti a la Rakitic, but it was Neymar’s £200m arrival in his second campaign that spelled trouble.
The poster boy of the Qatari owners’ project wouldn’t conform to Emery’s team-centric dynamic; the Brazilian’s on-pitch squabble with strike ‘partner’ Edinson Cavani proving the size of his manager’s task in the French capital. The coach naturally sided with the Uruguayan, but knew he couldn’t call out the world’s most expensive player in public.
“What any team needs is an on-field general – a second manager who you can trust to talk to his team-mates and they will all listen,” says Cubeiro. “A Mascherano, who united Messi, Suarez and Neymar on the pitch more so than Luis Enrique or any other coach.
“Management has to be more horizontal than vertical. It can’t just come from the top, from Unai. That doesn’t exist in Paris and that’s where any problems came from.”
Despite winning a domestic treble, a 5-2 aggregate defeat to Real Madrid in the Champions League last 16 – the side noticeably devoid of belief without the injured Neymar – meant the end for Emery.
“People say it’s easy to win those trophies with PSG... come on, it’s never easy to win anything in football,” says Melo. “You say he didn’t win the Champions League. Did Barcelona? Did Bayern Munich? Did Manchester United or Manchester City? No. Only Real Madrid.
“Emery made history in Paris. I just hope he can replicate it now at Arsenal – I’m sure he will. He’s not only an expert in tactics, he’s also fantastic at managing people, uniting a squad and bringing them all together.”
A new chapter
What Arsenal have, then, is a football geek who prides himself on squeezing the maximum from his players, if only they’ll listen. Like Parisian flatulence professionals who’ve gone before him, he will stop at nothing to ensure constant improvement of himself and his team.
However, unlike La Petomane, he still manages his own Twitter account and website; one which used to dish out prizes to people who guessed his starting XI at PSG each week.
“He’s one of the best coaches in Europe,” says Cubeiro. “He has never been unemployed since joining Lorca in 2004, which tells you everything. The Premier League will admire Unai, you’ll see how much work goes into each game. The rewards will come. Arsenal will be one of the best teams in the league next season.”
Former Almeria midfielder Corona is no less certain, citing the huge improvements he knows the north Londoners will inevitably make at set pieces under Emery. “Unai is the best coach I’ve ever played for – it’s that simple.”
There’s a quote you may have read when Emery took the Arsenal job, a ‘pesado’ stick with which the 46-year-old is frequently beaten. “Emery put on so many videos that I ran out of popcorn,” quipped Joaquin, who played under the Spaniard at Valencia, before the winger’s Fiorentina faced Sevilla in the 2014/15 Europa League semi-final second leg. “He’s obsessed by football, it’s practically an illness. I worked with him for three years. I couldn’t handle a fourth.”
Yet context is everything, and nearly every report left out the pay-off: “He’s one of the best managers I’ve had.” Sevilla completed a 5-0 aggregate win in which Joaquin barely touched the ball. “We’d spent three days working on how to stop you,” Emery told Joaquin at full time, “first with videos, then on the training pitch.”
“Yeah, yeah,” replied Joaquin. “I know.”
This feature originally appeared in the August 2018 of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!