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Unai Emery hoping to silence Arsenal mockers in Europa League reunion – and dispel an unfair reputation

Unai Emery
(Image credit: PA Images)

Good ebening. It is a phrase you may well hear used mockingly this week. You may have seen the montage of clips, a kind of Unai Emery megamix, that BT Sport produced and, according to taste, may have found it either amusing or disrespectful.

Either way, the Villarreal manager’s reunion with his former club is likely to prompt mentions of his catchphrase. And while some felt that, actually, Emery did pronounce the ‘v’ in evening, he nonetheless became the Spaniard most associated in England with well-meaning linguistic haplessness since Manuel in Fawlty Towers. His first meeting with Arsenal since his sacking nevertheless ought to prompt serious analysis of both Emery’s and Mikel Arteta’s reigns. The successor is far superior in one respect: his English is much better.

It is undeniable that, in one country anyway, it colours perceptions of Emery. He may well be the greatest manager in the history of the Europa League, in its various guises – a three-time winner with Sevilla, a runner-up with Arsenal – and, if he is not yet, he could assume that role if Villarreal reach the final or go on to defeat Roma or Manchester United there. Only Giovanni Trapattoni has also won this competition three times, but he did so with Serie A superpowers, in Juventus and Inter. And if that came in an era when more elite teams entered the Uefa Cup, Emery has prevailed without any of the world’s best players. 

But the paradox in his record is that, for one who is so accomplished on the continental stage, his managerial career can be split into two halves: home and away. He has been an outstanding manager of Spanish clubs, taking Valencia to a hat-trick of third-place finishes, Sevilla to their Europa League treble and Villarreal on their longest unbeaten run in their history. Factor in promotions with Lorca and Almeria and he ranks as a consistent overachiever. 

Yet while the majority of his silverware has come abroad, he feels an underachiever outside his native country. His spell at Spartak Moscow was brief and unsuccessful, he won Ligue 1 but made early exits from the Champions League with Paris Saint-Germain and his tenure at Arsenal began well but ended wretchedly. A common denominator was linguistic issues. Emery struggled to get his message across in Russia, France and England; sitting baffled through one of his press conferences, the thought occurred that it might not matter if the attendees had no idea what he was saying, but it was a problem if his players did not know.

Emery was damned by comparison with the multilingual. The reality is that many of us could not do our jobs in a second or third language; most would not even try. The globalised nature of football management has helped produce a breed of highly-skilled coaches who can communicate brilliantly in other tongues. The Premier League has been spoilt. Perhaps the ubiquity of English helps, but the fluency of managers like Jose Mourinho, Jurgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel, Arsene Wenger, Carlo Ancelotti, Slaven Bilic, Ralph Hasenhuttl and Pep Guardiola remains remarkable.

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There are many English managers who are less eloquent, less capable of producing a memorable phrase or reacting as quotably to a question. Then there is a select band of others – Marcelo Bielsa, or the Southampton-era Mauricio Pochettino – who can prosper purely because of their coaching skills, while maintaining some mystique by using an interpreter. Emery belongs in a different group, alongside Maurizio Sarri and Claude Puel, of the misunderstood, who seemed to struggle to communicate with their players and the fans alike. 

It did not make them appear inspiring figures but in the broader scheme of things, it feels forgivable. It is logical that Emery is a lesser manager when the message is diluted or harder to comprehend. He may be confined to his homeland from now on, yet while tormenting the rest of the continent in the Europa League.

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