Unai Emery: Arsenal’s boss is ‘football obsessive’ who ‘makes or breaks you’

Have Gunners fans got their Arsenal back?

At Fifa’s football awards ceremony in London in September, two men met away from the red carpet and the camera flashes.

Arsene Wenger and Unai Emery shared only a brief conversation and a handshake on the sidelines, despite having so much to discuss.

This summer, Emery stepped into Wenger’s shoes as manager of Arsenal, after the Frenchman moved aside following 22 years in charge.

The day before they met in London, Emery’s team had beaten Everton 2-0 for a fifth consecutive victory, having started the new season with defeats by Manchester City and Chelsea.

They remain their only losses of the season so far, and the Gunners go into Sunday’s north London derby with Tottenham now unbeaten in 18 matches.

In recent weeks the club’s fans have been chanting: ‘We’ve got our Arsenal back.’

But just who is the man leading this new-look Gunners side forward into their next era?

BBC Sport spoke with some of the people who know Emery best. The picture they paint is of a football obsessive, a man spurred on by his failure as a player and who lives now for just two things: family and success.

Beginnings: The Basque Ryan Giggs?

“Other players would spend their free time going to the cinema, for us it was always football.”

Alberto Benito is looking back on a time when he played in central midfield for Toledo in the Spanish second division. Out on the left wing was Unai Emery.

“On our days off, we’d go to see all the matches and training sessions we could, especially at the nearby Madrid clubs: Rayo Vallecano, Getafe, Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid,” he adds.

“We both were obsessed by football.”

Emery and Benito became great friends at Toledo, the club Emery represented most during his playing career, with 126 league appearances between 1996 and 2000.

He joined at the age of 25 from top-flight Real Sociedad, Benito says he was “a rapid left-winger like Ryan Giggs, with skill on the ball, although of course Giggs was better…”

He adds: “Whenever we were training, running all together as a team, we’d be together at the back, talking about football, the last goals, the games we’d played, exchanging ideas.

“We were both studying for our coaching licences. It wasn’t really usual for players to do that before retiring, but for us it was another way to fill our lives with even more football.”

However, Emery has always said he was a failure as a player. Despite having what many would consider a good career, 14 years in mostly the Spanish second tier, he describes his former self as “a coward”.

Where he fell down most – in his own words – was the mental side of the game. He lacked confidence, lacked the desire to question himself and improve.

He is more than making up for it now. His experience as a player seems to have defined his approach to management. He refuses to let others make the same mistakes he did.

Sometimes the message can be delivered rather forcefully.

One of Emery’s former players at Almeria, Laurent de Palmas, told France Football: “We clashed several times. But if Unai has a problem with you he will always tell you to your face.

“He either makes you or breaks you. Most often he makes you.”

Benito says: “Unai will never criticise a player in public, but in the dressing room yes he will. He can at times put a lot of pressure on them, but it is all to bring out their best. He motivates them to fulfil their full potential.”

Lorca: The start of success

Benito and Emery would meet again, at Almeria, in Emery’s second job in management. Benito was appointed the club’s director of football on Emery’s recommendation in 2007.

But Emery’s career in the dugout began in remarkable circumstances, three years earlier, at a different club.

It was Christmas 2004. Emery was back in Hondarribia, in the north of Spain. His home town is a small place in the Basque country, right on the border with France. He had just become manager of Lorca Deportiva, a team from Murcia struggling in the Spanish third division.

He got the job largely on the influence of the club’s sporting director Pedro Reverte, who had signed Emery as a player the previous season.

As Reverte recalls: “The team were still 10th in the table but they weren’t doing well and we decided to change the manager.

“Unai knew the team, he knew the rivals, we had a conversation and I had a good feeling about it. I told the president he seemed like the ideal person to take over.

“Unai passed from being a team-mate to being the boss. It’s a difficult thing to do, but the team reacted well, and he took on the responsibilities really quickly.”

Emery transformed Lorca. A modest side, they punched above their weight for the rest of the season and reached a play-off final for promotion to the second flight.

The crucial tie came against a team very close to Emery’s heart: Real Union.

His grandfather Antonio, a goalkeeper, is a legend at the Irun club, having won the Spanish Cup with them two times – in 1924 and 1927. He conceded La Liga’s first ever goal, in 1927.

Unai’s father Juan – a goalkeeper too – also played for Real Union. Now, Lorca had to beat them over two matches to win promotion, and they had lost the first leg 2-1.

Away from home, on 26 June 2005, Juan Carlos Ramos scored the decisive goal in a 3-1 victory with an astonishing 40-yard lob in extra time.

Emery was so high on adrenaline he walked the 10 miles back to the family home in Hondarribia.

Coursing through his veins was major success at the first time of trying. It had been built on hard work, research, tactical innovation. All of these things still define his approach to the game.

“He dedicates an enormous amount of time to preparation,” Reverte says. “He likes to know exactly how every team plays. At Lorca we spent hours driving around the country together in our free time, scouting.

“Maybe the opposition can surprise you but he’s not a person who leaves anything to chance. And that hasn’t changed.”

The next season, Lorca pushed on again. They finished five points off the play-off places for promotion into the Spanish top flight. It was a remarkable achievement for a club that had risen from the fourth tier since their formation in 2002. They would fall back down to the fourth tier before folding altogether in 2012.

Almeria – a far bigger club in the same division – came calling.

In the 2006-07 season, his first there, Emery brought them up to the Spanish top flight. They had never reached that level before.

A maiden La Liga campaign ended in an impressive eighth, eight points off a Uefa Cup spot. At home they drew with Barcelona and beat Real Madrid 2-0.

Now the really big clubs were taking notice, and Emery stepped up again to Valencia. More success followed, despite money problems, and the sale of key players such as David Villa, Juan Mata and David Silva over his four years in charge.

In his first season, the 2008-09 campaign, Valencia finished sixth. In the next three consecutive campaigns they would finish third – only behind Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Emery’s record made for impressive reading. Success, success, success. But that was about to change.

Failure in the wild east

Kim Kallstrom speaks highly of Emery. Very highly. The former Sweden midfielder played under him at Spartak Moscow, where Emery arrived in May 2012. He had left Valencia to test himself with a new challenge – in Russia.

Having played under both Emery at Spartak and Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, Kallstrom’s is a unique perspective on the only period in Emery’s career that can be described as a failure.

“Unai made a very good impression on me straight away,” he says.

“I liked his human side very much. He took the time to sit down and talk about life, from the first day you got the feeling that he was a good man, not just a good football coach.

“I think he could have been really successful at Spartak but there was a lot of politics that made the whole thing kind of impossible, and I actually think he quickly realised that.”

The biggest obstacle appears to have been the language barrier – Emery is a great communicator but lacked the tools to effectively drill his side as he wanted. At that point he did not speak much English, and knew no Russian. Relying heavily on translators slowed his usual machine-gun delivery to a stuttering crawl.

Then there was the Valeri Karpin issue.

A former Spartak player, Karpin had stepped aside as manager when Emery was appointed, but he retained an influential role as sporting director. He was said to have been manoeuvring a way back into power behind the scenes, and would replace Emery when he was finally sacked.

The decision came following a 5-1 home defeat by city rivals Dynamo Moscow in November 2012, just over six months after his arrival.

Republic of Ireland winger Aiden McGeady was also at Spartak during Emery’s time. He claimed the club’s owner came down to the dressing room, surrounded by bodyguards, and told Emery he was fired.

“He is very different from Wenger but in one way they are similar,” Kallstrom says.

“They both see their job as a labour of love. They just love being football coaches, it takes up all of their energy.

“But Unai is more active on the training field. Some coaches might just stand on the sides but Emery was always in the middle of everything, always demanding focus, and he is more into the tactical side too.

“I think his mind is more or less all the time thinking about football, problem solving, considering what you can do better. He loves the small details, he loves to have short videos where you can improve, he was really passionate about this.

“His way of coaching is based on communication, a lot of energy and hard work. He’d come in very early every morning and would leave late every day.

“For him it is more than a profession, it is an obsession.”

Failure in Moscow would spur Emery on.

He spent two months out of the game before bouncing back at Sevilla, where in January 2013 he began his most successful period to date.

In his three seasons in Andalucia, Emery led the club to three consecutive Europa League titles. After the third, secured with a 2-1 victory over Liverpool in 2016, he stepped up again – with Paris St-Germain.

That 6-1 defeat…

It is hard to avoid the 6-1 defeat by Barcelona. In March 2017, in the Champions League last 16, an inspired Neymar helped destroy the team he would go on to join that summer in a world record £200m transfer.

For French journalist Romain Molina, author of El Maestro, a biography of Unai Emery published in the UK in November, PSG started that match at a severe disadvantage, despite their 4-0 aggregate lead.

“After the first leg at home, PSG directors were already booking hotels in Cardiff for the final. That is why they are not prepared for success at the highest level.

“Emery was the lone voice saying it was not yet over, he was trying to make everyone realise they could not afford to relax. If we are too arrogant Barcelona will use it, he said. And in the end that’s exactly what happened.”

PSG also missed out to Monaco for the Ligue 1 title in that season – Emery’s first in charge of the French club. His second ended with a clean sweep of league, cup and league cup, and defeat in the Champions League quarter-finals.

Molina defines Emery’s time in charge as “not worse, not better” than previous managers Carlo Ancelotti and Laurent Blanc. They too dominated the domestic game but fell down in search of the prize most coveted by the club’s powerful and wealthy owners.

“If all three failed to achieve what the club is looking for in Europe then the responsibility has to lie elsewhere,” Molina adds.

“But Unai left PSG with better organisation and a proper way of working. If current manager Thomas Tuchel had arrived after Laurent Blanc it would have been far, far different for him. Emery has done the groundwork.

“For example there used to be one club employee whose job was to organise shisha pipes for the players – it’s crazy. Emery put a stop to all of that.

“The other interesting factor about his time at PSG was there was a hostility towards him from the media, which is often the case with foreign coaches in France. I don’t know why. One person on TV compared him to a monkey.”

Perhaps it is the exuberance on the touchline? That is certainly a trait we have seen him transfer to England.

The decision to end his spell at PSG was a mutual one between manager and club. When the announcement was made, in late April 2018, Wenger had already said he would be leaving Arsenal at the end of that season.

In early May, Arsenal got in touch. Emery was called over to London for an interview where he impressed then-chief executive Ivan Gazidis. He got the job.

Emery is now living a new life, but a familiar one, in a city he has not yet had time to fully discover.

He chose his new home on the outskirts of London because it is close to Arsenal’s training ground, where he sometimes will eat three meals a day. He continues to arrive for work very early and leave very late. Even during the international break there is little let up – other than to visit his teenage son in Valencia.

“In every team Emery left with it improved, and with every job he has improved too. He is not the same man who was at Valencia, Sevilla, PSG,” Alberto Benito says.

“Unai listens a lot. He’s not someone who surrounds himself with people who just say yes and agree with him. He wants to discuss, listen, he does not dictate.

“But his success comes from his own hard work.”

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