The men rebuilding Arsenal
FFT profiles the four men tasked with filling Wenger’s big shoes
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 hoping for an easy post-arsene Wenger ride and having the autonomy to please themselves would do well to read on.
And get ready for questionnaires, training sessions as intense as the North London derby and videos. Lots of videos.
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, scoring 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 Real 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, their 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.”
“HE’S A COLOSSAL PAIN In THE ARSE. THE TEAM TALKS WENT On FOREVER. YOU WATCH VIDEOS FOR HOURS AND HOURS AND THINK IT’S A LOAD OF BOLLOCKS... BUT IT WORKS”
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 FFT. “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 per cent of Almeria’s goals that season came from set-pieces.
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.’”
It all helped. In their first season in La Liga, Almeria finished eighth and beat champions Real Madrid 2-0 at the Juegos Mediterraneos in February 2008. The latter was an Emery masterclass in preparation. “Emery eats Madrid,” cheered El Pais the following morning. Earlier in the week he had done exactly that, devouring a meringue (Madrid’s nickname) on the cover of sports daily Marca.
“Unai sent us onto the pitch knowing that every Real Madrid attack was born with Guti,” recalls Corona, now Almeria’s director of football, “and if we cut off his supply, then we’d have a chance. As a midfielder, my job was to make his life as uncomfortable as possible. Not just that, I got two assists!
“Even then we knew it would be difficult to repeat a season like that. Almeria is a very small club, so to finish eighth above teams with huge budgets and fanbases was exceptional. He did so much for us.”
A strong spine was paramount. Diego Alves, Carlos Garcia and Alvaro Negredo have all gone on to have fine careers, particularly the latter, whom Emery plucked from Real Madrid’s reserves – but Unai’s genius in producing gold from iron pyrite was the bedrock.
In 2007-08, Almeria beat Sevilla home and away, drew 2-2 at home to Barcelona and took four points off runners-up Villarreal.
“I learned so much from him in that season, especially how to take advantage of attacking opportunities,” future Inter midfielder Felipe Melo, who joined Almeria as a winger and left as one of Europe’s most in-demand box-to-box marauders, tells FFT. “‘Well you’ve come to the right place’, he told me when I asked to play as a defensive midfielder to get closer to the Brazil squad. ‘This is the start of your dream come true’. Regardless of your job, a human being must always be sincere. Unai is just that. I’m happy to call him a friend.”
Performing minor miracles with no money, Emery piqued the interest of financially stricken Valencia in 2008. The days of reaching successive Champions League finals or winning La Liga and the UEFA Cup under Rafael Benitez were long gone. Los Che were haemorrhaging money – constructing a new stadium weighed like a millstone – and in the four years Emery spent at Mestalla, the club flogged David Villa, David Silva, Juan Mata and Isco. Champions League qualification was a must.
“He’s such an ‘efficient’ coach, making the best with what he’s got,” explains Juan Carlos Cubeiro, Spain’s foremost authority on leadership, with whom Emery wrote Mentalidad Ganadora (Winning Mentality) on the secrets to his success.
“The president Manolo Llorente told him that he had to sell the best players, make the bad players leave and with the middle ranks you’ve got to qualify for the Champions League.
“It’s all about understanding his players – he’s always said that you have to win over their minds. That’s easy to say, but not so easy to do. That’s his trademark.”
He faced significant scepticism. The club captains Carlos Marchena, Raul Albiol and David Albelda – whom Emery brought in from the cold – were barely on speaking terms, while players were used to matchday lie-ins, getting together for a brunch that was neither healthy nor at the right time of day to prepare for a match.
After limping to sixth in his first campaign, Emery then sealed three successive third-place finishes. Nobody represented the increasingly harmonious squad better than Ever Banega (right). Before Unai arrived, the Argentine midfielder was a law unto himself. On loan at Atletico Madrid in 2008-09, the Crazy Goat’s extracurricular activities included a spot of online onanism leaked to the press, running a red light (while over the limit) and falling asleep in team meetings after one mineral water too many the previous evening.
Banega admitted, “I’ve done nothing to warrant them keeping me” but Emery devised a fitness plan for the midfielder, convinced of the talento and talante inside. Admittedly, Banega suffered something of a relapse by running over his own ankle at a petrol station in February 2012, but the constant video analysis, individual meetings and moral support worked. The Argentine international would continue to thrive under Emery at Sevilla.
“Unai worked a lot with Ever in the early days,” says Cubeiro. “About where he saw himself and his career. Without him, I don’t think Ever would be the same.”
What Banega, along with the rest of Valencia’s squad, appreciated most was Emery’s readiness to front up. The manager admits that his worst moment in football was the press conference after a 6-3 home defeat by Real Madrid in April 2011. Yet in the game’s dying minutes, Emery stood at the edge of his technical area so he could absorb the crowd’s calls of “burro, burro, burro” (donkey, donkey, donkey) instead of his punch-drunk players.
“Football is one of the best metaphors for leadership,” says Cubeiro. “You’re competing all of the time and you get constant results of how well you’re doing. A lot of effort goes into inspiring people every day.”
Despite winning Spain’s league within a league once again, Valencia let Emery go in the summer of 2012. Supporters were unable to accept six wins in 13 knockout matches and seven points from a possible 48
against Real Madrid and Barcelona, despite running the Catalans close on several occasions. “I’ve got a great opinion of Unai,” said Pep Guardiola, who will be Emery’s first Premier League opponent when Arsenal host champions Manchester City in August. “It’s no coincidence that Valencia took on Real Madrid and Barcelona under him.” No matter, Los Che’s fans believed Emery’s pragmatism outstripped his mentalidad ganadora. Six unimpressive months at managerial graveyard Spartak Moscow – including a 5-1 derby demolition by Dinamo – followed, before Sevilla came calling at the start of 2013. The fit, alongside director of football Monchi, was perfect. ‘Comprar bien, y vender mejor’ is the motto on the banks of the Nervion. Buy well, and sell better. With Monchi’s backing, Unai’s method remained the same as ever. A Proust questionnaire to understand his squad – sample questions: your best virtue; what you appreciate most in friends; your favourite poet – and hard work to achieve results.
“IT’S ALL ABOUT UNDERSTANDING HIS PLAYERS. HE’S ALWAYS SAID YOU HAVE TO WIN OVER THEIR MINDS. IT’S NOT EASY TO DO. THAT’S HIS TRADEMARK”
Clockwise from above He’s no dummy: Unai built a reputation in La Liga as a hard worker; he’ll clash with former Espanyol boss Mauricio Pochettino again in the North London derby on December 1; Emery led Sevilla to a hat-trick of Europa League crowns;...
Above Mata was one of many Valencia stars that Emery was forced to flog to relieve the club’s debts Above right “Who’s your favourite poet?” Unai and Sevilla were a perfect fit