BREAKING GROUND: UNAI EMERY’S JOURNEY FROM SPAIN TO ARSENAL

It was never going to be easy for anyone to follow Arsène Wenger as Arsenal manager, much in the same way as it has been a difficult task at Manchester United after Sir Alex Ferguson stepped away in 2013. In order to succeed at the Emirates, the Gunners wanted an individual that is completely dedicated to their craft and confident in their abilities to lead a team forward. It is in that sense why Unai Emery has arrived in North London.

The 46-year-old coach understands that he has an immense challenge in front of him, but he has shown that he is capable of delivering amidst high expectations. Emery has captured titles with the likes of Sevilla and Paris Saint-Germain, but it was in the prior years that Spain saw the true depth of his abilities as a football manager and as a guiding force in the game.

Born in the town of Hondarribia in the Basque Country, Emery had the sport in his blood from the very beginning. His father and grandfather were professional footballers, and naturally that had an effect on him as a child. After progressing through Real Sociedad’s youth system and appearing with the senior team, Emery’s playing career featured various stints throughout Spain including Racing Club de Ferrol and CD Leganés. His final stop as a player would also bring his introduction as a manager, with Lorca Deportiva in Murcia.

A knee injury forced Emery into early retirement during the 2004-05 campaign with the third-division side. It is a unique period for any player, thrust into a complete change in terms of life and profession. At the age of 32, Emery certainly had much on his mind as he contemplated the future ahead. A transition took place quickly, taking over immediately as Lorca’s manager. It would not be long before the club would see the benefits of that decision.

Emery achieved promotion to the Segunda Divisón, and in the following season made a run at promotion to the top flight that fell just short. Several clubs were interested in the young coach’s services at this point, but it was UD Almería and their president Alfonso García that were able to secure his signature in 2006. Lorca, however, were not as fortunate. Their first campaign without Emery would end with relegation back to the third tier of Spanish football.

Located in Andalusia along the country’s south coast, Almería are a relatively young club with a bit of a complicated history. Founded in 1989 as Almería Club de Fútbol, they were re-born as Unión Deportiva Almería in 2001 and, in many ways, some even look at that year as being their true beginning. Playing their home matches in the Estadio de los Juegos Mediterráneos, they had yet to play in LaLiga during their history. That would change thanks to Unai Emery.

Still in his 30s, it is with Almería where he truly cultivated his style and philosophy. Never content with what has been accomplished or what can be done, Emery rapidly developed a reputation as someone completely obsessed with football. He has said that he keeps a notebook near his bed so that he can take notes when thoughts come into his mind. That is really the starting point of Emery’s dedication.

Los Rojiblancos were ready for their next challenge, and they had the right leader in Emery to enter a brave new world. In his first season at the helm for the 2006-07 campaign, Almería won automatic promotion and would enter the Spanish top flight for the first time. Emery and club president García knew that they would require reinforcements to survive in LaLiga, so they worked to get in the players that could deliver results.

Emery has made a habit of being able to adapt his system to his players, utilising different formations based upon the skills of his squad. His video sessions have reached levels of the legendary: sometimes multiple hours as the team focuses on various aspects of the game that they will see from their opponents. Preparation is the key, and understanding how positioning and passing can offer the best opportunities for success. There were also full scrimmages without the ball, to ensure that all players recognised where they should be at all times.

Quality needed to be added up front, and Almería brought on Álvaro Negredo to be their main striker. Potential was displayed with Real Madrid’s reserve side, but he was unable to break into the senior team. A chance with La Unión would allow him to showcase his abilities in the first division, and Emery was essential to his overall development. Negredo would eventually return to Real Madrid, with moves to Sevilla and Manchester City soon following. But his two seasons at Almería represented a statement of intent, and it certainly grabbed attention.

At the back, a young goalkeeper named Diego Alves was signed as a second option, but the Brazilian would not keep that particular role for very long. Alves would capture the starting spot within his first campaign with Almería, and was a crucial part of the club’s stint in the top flight even after Emery left. The keeper signed for Valencia when Almería were relegated in 2011.

The first signing of that summer before their La Liga debut was Felipe Melo, and he enjoyed a break-through campaign under Emery. In a recent interview with The Independent, Melo spoke of his former manager’s talents. “He really, really understands football. Tactically, he’s brilliant, and he has the patience to work on all these movements, to come up to you when you’ve misplaced a pass and say, ‘No, look, you have to hit the ball like this.’ These are the strengths that have taken him to where he is today.”

Emery’s patience would soon pay off, as a special season was ahead for Almería supporters. Favouring a 4-2-3-1 formation, movement in the midfield was always going to either bring success or completely stop it. Placed in a central role, Melo controlled possession and linked up well with the attack. The manager’s long video analysis sessions also provided Almería with an advantage on free-kicks, and these situations were often the difference between a victory and a loss for the squad.

August 2007 was an important moment for the club, with Almeria travelling to face Deportivo de La Coruña in their first-ever La Liga fixture. With his plans in place and quality additions made during the summer transfer period strengthening the line-up, nervous energy had morphed into confidence, and Emery displayed this feeling with an act that has gone from myth to fact over the years.

With the strongest of trust in his players, he chose the starting XI with fate as his compass. Emery rolled dice to decide the selections, an almost unbelievable move that has been confirmed by various individuals involved in that spectacular day. Meticulous in his preparations, this was a clear and obvious risk. Almería’s young squad responded to the gesture in the form of a 3-0 victory at the Estadio Riazor, and that definitely would not be the only remarkable result of the term.

There was a hard fought goal-less draw versus Atlético Madrid, with home victories against the likes of Villarreal and Espanyol that helped to bring critical points. A 4-1 win at Sevilla stands out as one of their top overall showings of the campaign. But it was against Spain’s two giants that Emery was able to catapult himself into the conversation as one of Europe’s best young coaches.

In February 2008, Real Madrid visited the Mediterráneo full of swagger and skill. Manager Bernd Schuster would lead Los Blancos to a La Liga title that season, and they would do so in dominant fashion. Real finished eight points clear of second-place Villarreal, with 18 points separating them from Barcelona in third. Raúl González, Robinho and Ruud van Nistelrooy combined for 58 goals across all competitions. Wesley Sneijder and Guti controlled the midfield and provided quality service. At the back, Iker Casillas was arguably the world’s best goalkeeper, with defenders such as Fabio Cannavaro and Sergio Ramos in front of him.

Emery needed the right plan to slow Almería’s powerful opponent down, and he was able to do just that with an organised and disciplined approach to the fixture. Negredo made life difficult for Madrid’s back-line, as his movements and runs caused confusion and opened up space. Alves would have an extraordinary match, consistently making important saves throughout the 90 minutes. Early in the first half, midfielder Juanito gave Almería a 1-0 advantage, and along with it valid proof that their tactics could work against the elite.

Negredo would add a second strike, and Los Rojiblancos secured a famous 2-0 victory. Emery was being hailed as a genius, but he was not finished yet. Barcelona’s visit the following month ended in a thrilling 2-2 draw, featuring a second-half goal from Nigerian international Kalu Uche that delivered a point for the home side. Almería would impressively finish eighth that season, within shouting distance of European qualification. Not bad for a top-flight debut.

It was nothing short of a magical ride for supporters that had only seen constant change in terms of their local club. Now in the top half of LaLiga’s table, the future was extremely bright for Almería and for Emery. However, the success may have been too great too soon, as the demand for Emery’s services was always bound to lure him away from La Unión.  

In the summer of 2008, he signed on to be Valencia’s new manager, and led Los Che admirably during a period of great financial instability. Although stars like David Villa and David Silva would be sold during his stint, Emery kept the squad consistently competitive and in the UEFA Champions League thanks to three consecutive third-place finishes.

A disastrous run at Spartak Moscow saw Emery return to Spain with Sevilla in 2013, and he would begin an incredible run with the club in the UEFA Europa League. Sevilla lifted the title three consecutive times under Emery, the first club to do so in a European competition since Bayern Munich in the 1970s. In the summer of 2016, Emery took on the unique challenge of managing Paris Saint-Germain.

Domestic triumphs would follow, although he was unable to guide them on a deep run in the Champions League. At all these stops in his career, Emery has kept several aspects of his coaching style the same. His players will study an immense amount of video, both of themselves and of the opponent. Accurate passing and smart positioning will ultimately bring victories, and his ability to connect with his players provides the motivation to carry out his plans.

At Arsenal, Emery must replace a club legend, and that will require belief from all involved. He has the talent at his disposal to build something special, and has a record of going above and beyond with expectations. A fierce competitor who will never be out-worked, Unai Emery’s rise as a manager has been the story of an individual who views the game a certain way. That vision was formed a decade ago with Almería, and could be seen again successfully at Arsenal in the near future.

BY ROY EMANUEL