The men re­build­ing Arse­nal

FFT pro­files the four men tasked with fill­ing Wenger’s big shoes

FourFourTwo - - CONTENTS -

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.”


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.


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

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