Terrible player, great manager: Unai Emery is obsessed with success
They met as two hopefuls, one a little more advanced on their chosen career path as he had already risen to become Valencia’s coach, though it was early days and the going was tough, with the fans unconvinced.
The other was in that netherworld, between playing and coaching.
Both were in their mid-30s, infants in coaching terms and still unsure as to where their vocation would take them: a workmanlike career if they caught some breaks, or perhaps they would end up on the coaching scrapheap.
Unai Emery may not have been much of a player, but he’s brilliant in the dugout as a manager
Unai Emery appears to be having more success as a manager, as Arsenal are doing well so far
On Sunday, they meet in the north London derby. Unai Emery was the one who was comparatively senior then, as Valencia coach.
Mauricio Pochettino was the former player who had not been wanted by Ernesto Valverde at Espanyol. And in November 2008 he came to Valencia and found himself alongside Emery trying to accumulate knowledge to become a coach.
Emery was not the draw. It was Marcelo Bielsa, now at Leeds and then the Chile national coach, whose magnetism had attracted them.
Chile were playing Spain nearby and using Valencia’s facilities. Emery might have used an international break to take a well-earned rest from Valencia’s famously relentless fans. But with Bielsa in town he stayed for a pop-up coaching symposium.
Bielsa is possibly the most influential coach working in the world right now. Almost every Spanish-speaking coach will make a pilgrimage to Bielsa at some point.
Pep Guardiola, on a sabbatical in Argentina in 2006, spent 11 hours at his villa, picking his brain for ideas he would later incorporate into his distinctive style of football.
Pochettino had already worked under Bielsa as a young player at Newell’s Old Boys in Rosario where Bielsa gave him his chance, at Espanyol and as part of Argentina’s 2002 World Cup squad, which Bielsa, ‘El Loco’ managed.
‘Every coach can learn from different coaches,’ said Emery recalling that time last week. ‘But with Bielsa I think all coaches learn something.
‘Pochettino was coming because he was player with Bielsa in Argentina. We were learning with Bielsa in this moment.
‘Pochettino wanted to be a coach and a few months later he would start at Espanyol. We sat with Bielsa after training and spoke about football. I respect Bielsa a lot. For me he is a special coach. It’s difficult to train like Bielsa. But I like a lot when I can look at different coaches how they are working.’
And in those few days a fraternal bond was formed, enough for Emery to recommend Pochettino to the Valencia directors as his successor in 2012.
Those that know Emery well will tell you that studying other coaches is an obsession with the Basque.
He analyses colleagues more than he does players, even viewing their press conferences to see how they communicate.
One of Emery’s players at Almeria, his second club as a coach where he made his name in La Liga’s top flight, told The Guardian: ‘He is a colossal pesado [pain in the arse]… training sessions are long and unbelievably boring. He goes on forever … you think it’s all bollocks … but it works. It’s so relentless that in the end every single player knows exactly what he wants.’
UNAI EMERY FACTFILE
Born: Hondarribia, Spain, November 3, 1971.
1990-2004 midfielder with Real Sociedad, Toledo, Racing Ferrol, Leganes, Lorca Deportiva.
Apps: 339 Goals: 18
Lorca Deportiva 2004-06
Spartak Moscow 2012
Paris SG 2016-18
2013-14, 2014-15, 2015-16.
Paris SG —
Ligue 1 2017-18.
French Cup: 2016-17, 2017-18.
French League Cup: 2016-17,
2017-18. Trophee des
Champions: 2016, 2017.
And they weren’t complaining when they beat Real Madrid 2-0 and finished eighth, unprecedented heights for the tiny Andaluz club.
It is why Emery has a love of a set pieces, which feels a little irreligious for a Spaniard.
But this is a man who was honed in the Spanish lower leagues and who started out his managerial career with Lorca in Segunda B, the regional third tier of Spanish football.
He appreciates Gareth Southgate’s England team given that matches are decided by tiny details, Southgate’s ability to exploit set pieces something Emery admires.
He is particularly fond of the long-throw routine at Sevilla which led to Stephane Mbia’s headed goal in the fifth minute of added time in the 2014 Europa League semi-final against his former club Valencia.
Having won the first leg 2-0, Sevilla looked set for the final but returning to his old club, where the reception was not entirely welcoming, a nightmare unfolded, with Valencia racing into a 3-0 goal lead.
Mbia’s late, late goal thus meant victory on away goals, a sweet moment of ‘morbo’ or revenge. It led to the first of his three Europa League titles.
More than anything, the obsession with details, which will see him locked away with his assistants at London Colney for hours on end, is perhaps driven by his failures as player. Injuries held him back at his local top-flight club Real Socieded, where he made just five appearances. He then had a satisfactory if unremarkable career with Toledo, Racing Ferrol, Leganes and Lorca, where he became player-manager.
Several of his former coaches have suggested he became too nervous in big games to fulfil his potential. And Emery has spoken of how he struggled with mental side of the game.
Unai Emery has admitted he has struggled with the mental side of the game in big matches
‘The pressure a footballer lives with is huge,’ he said. ‘It’s more the pressure you put on yourself than the external pressure. My shortcomings as a player have helped me to understand all that.
‘When I had a game and it made me nervous, nobody gave me guidance. I didn’t find the balance between mentality and my football qualities to reach my maximum.
‘Without trying to point the finger, I lacked qualities that I did not have and nobody could give me or I could not find. As a coach I recognised them all. I try to be the coach that I did not have, with all the qualities I had and identifying the bad ones.’
His friends say his first job is to get to know a player, to understand him emotionally, before improving him technically. Yet he is not afraid to challenge, as he has done to Mesut Ozil in training.
Those close to him say that is merely a quest for improvement. Even if Ozil is exceptional in the amount assists he provides, there is always room for more.
Emery will be as rigorous with each player. Alexandre Lacazette is one with whom he and his assistant Juan Carlos Carcedo, who harks back to Emery’s playing days at Leganes 16 years ago, have worked hard. They knew all about his quality from their time in France with Paris Saint-Germain when Lacazette was with Lyon. They worked hard to re-produce that form this season, after his stuttering start last term.
Alexandre Lacazette is one of the players with whom Unai Emery is working hard at Arsenal
For now Emery is settling well in London, living a 15-minute drive from the training ground at London Colney in one of the plusher London suburbs.
He uses the gym but tennis and the Basque sport padel — roughly analogous to squash — have had to take a back seat for now.
He enjoys a meal out after a game with his assistants and families, the Turkish fusion restaurant Ruya in Mayfair a favourite.
Any spare time is spent on his English, which has undergone a steep improvement since his unveiling. The TV series Peaky Blinders is partly responsible, though he keeps the subtitles for the Brummie accent.
It is too soon to say whether he will become as integrated into the English game as Sunday’s opposite number Pochettino has become in his six years here.
But 18 games unbeaten at least gives him a decent foothold. And he won’t fail for want of work.