Speaking exclusively to Football News in a fascinating interview, French football expert and author of “Unai Emery – El Maestro,” , discussed the Spaniard’s two-year stint at PSG and what he might bring to Arsenal in great depth.
One of your major works is a book on Arsenal’s new manager Unai Emery titled You interview Ever Banega, Sofiane Feghouli, Adil Rami, people from Emery’s entourage, Unai Emery himself etc. Could you tell us a bit about where the inspiration for this book came from, and your fascination for him came?
Well, I don’t actually have any fascination for Unai Emery. Or for any player or coach for that matter. Except Steve Nash because he’s amazing to watch! (laughing)
It was actually a suggestion from my editor (Hugo Sport), after I had spoken with Unai Emery for a project that didn’t ultimately get finalised (book on the secrets of coaches and their methodologies).
But seeing as coming into contact with coaches is very difficult — either you need to be friends, contact their agent, contact their sponsor, or through some form of partnership – it becomes a lot about sponsoring and PR and what is said.
The idea was suggested to me, but I found that writing an autobiography was a bit reductive, and that I risked repeating myself with the amount of pages I had to write. But what motivated me to do it was being able to talk about the South of Spain after Unai passed by Almeria and Lorca.
The South of Spain had been struck by a terrible earthquake and immense poverty. I told myself that I could talk about Southern Spain through Unai Emery, a place that people travel to but aren’t entirely familiar with. Plus the second and third division of Spain really interested me.
I would be able to interview people from the time. It was a real pleasure to interview those who played with and knew Emery 20+ years ago. Being able to talk about Andalusia and Murcia motivated me more than writing about Emery. I’m not friends with those I write books about, but I have a respect for them. But I’m not here to say he’s the best or the worst, or to be his lawyer and defend him.
I based my work off of facts and concrete information. I didn’t work or play under him. I didn’t get to know him or become close to him. I’m just a writer, my opinion doesn’t really matter. Why should my opinion matter more than someone like David Villa or Ever Banega or Jordi Alba? You’d have to be really pretentious to think the opposite, but unfortunately, the world of journalism is like that.
I interviewed over 50 players, and not just players who are close to him. I didn’t contact every single person who disliked him. But when players like David Villa, Juan Mata insist to speak about him, or even players who weren’t as close to him like Sofiane Feghouli, Juan Cala (who was a substitute under him), Almeria top goalscorer who was put to the side or his past sporting directors, they have more credibility and provide real anecdotes.
Even with the PSG staff who compared Emery’s time at the club to Laurent Blanc’s. There’s quite the difference. I also took interest in his assistant coach Juan Carlos Carcedo. You can’t talk about him without approaching his assistant coach.
Most would deem PSG’s season to be a failure due to their failing short in the Champions’ League over both seasons. But more importantly, for many, this is has put Unai Emery into question as a coach. What do you think he failed at? What do you think he managed well in France?
Well to begin with PSG’s coaching job isn’t easy, contrary to what people think. I did hundreds and hundreds of interviews before starting this job. Actual research. But when I hear people who have never spoken to a player or coach in their life, have no idea how clubs function or how the world of football goes, i.e – people who have no credentials, and I ask them why no elite or top class manager decided to come to their magnificent club since Ancelotti’s arrival (PSG have approached Simeone amongst others), they can’t tell me why.
Is it just because of Ligue 1’s level? I doubt it because you have an unlimited budget, you have players who supposedly want to win the Champions’ League, plenty of options. Or is the problem deeper than that? That’s the first point.
Secondly, I think that his results are ultimately pretty positive. Considering that the dressing room was all over the place after Ibra left. People have selective memory in France. They criticise Zlatan, but without him, the club wouldn’t have progressed as quickly as it did. Along with Leonardo and Ancelotti. They also didn’t really replace players like David Luiz, Ezequiel Lavezzi or Zlatan Ibrahimovic who were really important on a psychological level, as sorts of role models and leaders.
Plus, considering PSG’s style of play, which relied very heavily on Zlatan as a focal point, there was a drastic change when switching to Cavani. The whole way your team plays and positions itself has to be re-evaluated. This along with the multiple injuries of players like Verratti, or the poor recruitment from last year. Unai Emery was responsible, but when arriving, he said he didn’t want to take care of recruitment.
When he was at Sevilla, he gave Monchi the types of players he wanted, not names. But when he arrived to Paris, he should have done the opposite and gave and demanded players for the club.
Those who know Emery will tell you that on a human level, he is great. However, with the players that creates an issue in regards to the work dynamic, because Emery relies very heavily on dressing room personalities to manage the squad. At Sevilla he had Coke, Vitolo, Iborra, Rami, Pareja etc. At Paris, he found himself with players that didn’t necessarily talk to each other, even if social media gives the opposite impression.
There was one incident when the President asked Cavani to go to Ibra’s birthday, just so that he could be in the picture. To show people that they were together. It’s not to say that they all hated each other, but a lot of things go unsaid.
So it becomes difficult to transmit these messages, with a captain who doesn’t accept criticism, a friendly vice captain who only wants to play in a three man midfield, who also has a strong influence on Marco Verratti who only wants a three man midfield. When you try a two man midfield (4-2-3-1), your number 10 is injured all the time (Javier Pastore). You could try someone like Draxler, but overall, your team prefers the 4-3-3. It’s not a classic 4-3-3, and you could see with the style of play that it wasn’t up to scratch when he began.
In the second half of his first season, things improved, and was great from a results standpoint. And this year, until Motta’s injury, and prior to Rabiot’s tantrum about playing as a defensive midfielder, the team was working well. In the Champions’ League, everything went well, it was fluid, there was one-touch play, with interesting ideas in place. But more importantly, he was able to adapt the team to not be permanently fixated on a style of play focused on positioning and possession.
The issue was that it was so instilled in PSG’s style of play since Qatar’s arrival, that dissociating from it became difficult. He started the process, but he wasn’t convincing enough in doing it. Then there’s Neymar and Mbappé, who supposedly contributed insufficiently on the wings. But I thought that they moved around well, would switch sides quite often, and were free in doing so. However, the issue lies in that too many guys move centrally. In theory, this is compensated by the full-backs contributing to the attacks, but their defensive transitions weren’t good enough, especially in the first year. So there was a lot to put into place.
Tactically, I agree that he should have tried more things and experimented more in Ligue 1. But plenty of players did progress under him, and you could feel that there was a different style of play, even if he couldn’t fully pursue his ideas due to a lack of persuasion in the group.
Players take many things into consideration. The coach’s CV, if the coach was a great player, how much money he makes etc. He wasn’t able to get leaders in the team on his side. I think that if Emery kept someone like Lucas for example, especially vis-à-vis Neymar, that would have facilitated things. Even though Lucas wasn’t meeting his footballing expectations.
He was also a bit too kind with certain players, like Rabiot and Kurzawa. Plus what are you meant to do when the president makes promises to all the players? There needs to be a clear hierarchy, with the president and coach having clearly defined roles and forms of authority.
Is the PSG coaching job a bit of poisoned chalice? Ultimately, PSG are judged on only one criterion: how far they make it in the Champions’ League. But if you think about it, have PSG’s board really managed to put the club in a position to succeed?
Well last year there were people like Patrick Kluivert and Olivier Létang as Sporting Directors, so that says a lot. The president also loves his players. So much that he promised the captain’s armband to four or five players… He spoke to Cavani, Kimpembe, Rabiot, Marquinhos, considering that Thiago Silva is already the captain. It’s crazy… The club is really all over the place.
You have people from PR calling agents and coaches in the middle of the season to ask what’s needed for the next season. Honestly, when you talk to people who work for PSG or other staff members from other clubs, they don’t take the club seriously. Internally, it’s a circus. There are competent people, but the club is so disorganised, that you find yourself with people trying to decide anything and everything.
Some people also criticise Emery without alluding to the fact that PSG faced the current holder Real Madrid, who won it three times in a row. Likewise, for Juventus and Liverpool. But, he went all in and tried things at the Bernabeu. The second leg was poorly managed overall. So I wouldn’t say a poisoned chalice. I’d say that the club talks too much about the Champions’ League without trying to organise and stabilise itself first. Plus, giving players divine statuses is… It’s a challenge, but blaming everything on the board or the club owners isn’t entirely honest. It’s a collective responsibility.
But, the players also believe that the club needs to be reorganised. If Ancelotti, Blanc and Emery can’t succeed, then maybe it isn’t just the coach that’s the issue.
Could you tell us a bit about Unai Emery’s relationship with the media. Why do you think that Unai Emery was always criticized and made fun of in France, even before arriving to PSG?
Seeing as he was deemed a jackass in France, and because Emery’s brother (his agent) refused to speak to the press in France, it complicated things. If his agent really wanted to, he could reveal all the messages that were exchanged, and show what the imposters claiming to be journalists were blackmailing him and his family with. Not just his brother for that matter. But if you try to have a nuanced opinion on him, you’re put in a camp of his defenders. There are some journalists who are given airtime to speak their mind, who’ll praise everyone else, but call Emery incompetent.
You also have jerks who think that they’re reinventing football because they’ve seen a few games, but have no idea how it works in a club and who makes stuff up about what you say. People like me just say that he has an impressive CV. He was at the head of the best years for a club like Almeria for example.
So I’ve been told that I’m just defending him, which is insulting for me and Emery, as if he needed some independent journalist to defend him. It’s quite frustrating that people deform or make up things that I’ve said. If he does things well I’ll say so, if he doesn’t then I’ll say so too. But again, it’s just my opinion which doesn’t matter for much.
You ended up tagged for something you’re not, but I don’t really care too much. It’s similar to Marcelo Bielsa who is thought to be a fraud and worse than every coach in France. They should maybe see things from the bench every now and then. I’m just trying to have a sensible debate and discussion about him. I do criticise him though. For example, in some of his recent interviews, I feel that he doesn’t own up entirely and take enough responsibility for mistakes he made.
I’ll give you another example. A colleague of mine explained that as soon Thomas Tuchel signed, a journalist shared the information with someone else saying, “The nancy just signed!” Even before arriving! And Unai Emery had a similar issue, which I think is down to his brother not complying entirely with the media.
Plus, Emery came after Laurent Blanc who was well protected in the media. It’s odd because Laurent Blanc was pretty unpleasant in press conferences and argued with certain journalists, but had a strong relationship with key journalists. So I don’t know if they had something against him or whatever. There was a period where the press said positive things about him.
But he was also held responsible for all of PSG’s hardships, even though they had earned a high amount of points, which would have won them the title otherwise. It’s just that AS Monaco were really strong that season, and couldn’t be stopped. But when you have personalities like Raymond Domenech come back with their say over and over, despite having a bad relationship with the media for a long time, there are questions to be asked.
Igor Emery, his brother, helps him with many things. Yet, there are people who call him “the guru.” So much so, that journalists started to think that Paris United was a Twitter account held by Igor and Unai Emery! Igor said in the book, that people said they would trade information, for positive things about Unai in the paper.
If they didn’t, they would bash him. So it’s a form of blackmail with certain toxic journalists. But it’s a good thing that he didn’t give the information. So in France, there are certain journalists who don’t go into full depth about things, and who had certain close questionable relationships with others.
To be quite frank, Unai Emery doesn’t really read the press and doesn’t care, but he knows that the players do and that it can influence his squad. For example, at Valencia, when they were going through a bad period, Juan Mata was able to manage the intense criticism in the media today in part thanks to Unai Emery. Today, Mata doesn’t even care for it.
Do you think that his relationship with the media in England will be different?
It’s a bit difficult to say because there are so many news sources. You have sources like the Guardian, The Times etc. So it’ll depend on him to a certain extent. But I’d say that the people on the other side of the channel know the sport better than those in France.
In regards to the press conferences, I don’t think they will be too important. I think what’s really important is how he will communicate with his players internally. I think that there are perhaps too many press conferences, which don’t really reveal much apart from things like injuries.
And I think that, even for the smallest of remarks or statements, especially in France, get really blown out of proportion, which I find crazy. I think that both the media and the fans need to relax a bit on that kind of stuff. At the end of the day, what the fans really want, is an entertaining team. They pay for their season tickets to see their team express themselves with their feet, not in the press conferences. But, if there are interesting questions, then of course he’ll answer.
In one-on-one interviews, he’s one of the best. He’s really interesting. I’d pay more attention to interviews, rather than press conferences. He speaks really openly. But if you really want to understand what he’s trying to transmit, you have to interview him in Spanish a few times a year, to really understand who he is.
Even though I don’t find press conferences to be very interesting, I think that journalists should perhaps ask better questions. They could also listen more. Perhaps apart from Marcelo Bielsa or Jurgen Klopp or someone like that, press conferences aren’t that revealing. The classic press conference format is a bit restrictive because even the slightest of things gets blown out of proportion. So coaches find themselves saying very little because of how frustrating it gets.
For those who really want to understand what kind of person he is and what he expects, you can read articles on independent websites, read books, or read older interviews. Press conferences won’t really reveal who he is.
Should coaches speak openly in press conferences to potentially cause controversies? Or should they communicate with players privately and as positively and constructively as possible? It’s part of his psychology for how to manage the dressing room.
He’ll never criticise his team in public, but internally, it’s completely different. It can potentially be detrimental to him or to his squad. There’s a difference between the image you’ll see in public and what you’ll see internally. That Emery you see in press conferences has already had players in the past that he was ready to sort things out with in the parking lot!
What changes do you think will be seen at Arsenal? Style of play? Methodology?
I think that he’s taking over Wenger with certain shared principles centred around adaptation and intelligence. Unai Emery arrived to Paris after his failure in Spartak Moscow, where he tried to impose his ideas very suddenly, which failed in part due to cultural differences.
When you first arrive to a club, you need to adapt to the club’s philosophy, the place where you live, and the player culture. It’s a different place, a very international club marked by Arsène Wenger.
You have some managers who ignore what was in place before and instil their own ideas. Then you have guys who are more focused on the continuity and who aren’t as brutal. Unai Emery is more in that logic. He used to have a very fiery attitude, and could sometimes go all out.
For example, there was a game he was losing 2-1 with Almeria with one man down, where he decided to put on a striker for a defensive midfielder. He told his team that they were here to win, but in the end they lost 3-1. Today he wouldn’t necessarily do the same thing. He’ll try to understand where he’s arriving. In regards to the culture of the club, how they work etc.
He’ll insist on videos — both team and individual footage. But he also knows that if the players don’t subscribe to what he’s saying or doing, he won’t persist with it. Similarly to how Benjamin Mendy used to not watch Marcelo Bielsa’s video sessions. Mendy used to fall asleep watching them, to which Bielsa told him, “There’s no need to watch them. The day you’ll be interested, you’ll watch them.” Eventually, that’s what happened. If he forced him to watch it, he would have never developed any interest for it and wouldn’t be invested in it.
So we can expect Emery to be in a form of continuity. He’ll definitely work on high pressing because he loves that. He’ll focus on using the whole length of the pitch, with particular focus on the full-backs. I’d say his trademark is the involvement of full-backs when attacking. His other trademark is set pieces, which he didn’t really succeed with at PSG. But at Sevilla he worked on that extensively. At PSG, he wasn’t able to do the same. Maybe because the players didn’t follow what he had to say on it or didn’t find it useful. But if he has players who love to study the game, along with a few strong characters in the dressing room to help with his message, things will work really well from set pieces.
He’ll also want to revisit the sporting side of things. Seeing as Unai Emery doesn’t manage the transfer window, the Arsenal sporting director will have a role to play. Unai Emery works with types of players, and not specific names. There’s also the defensive side of things to rethink, especially in defensive transitions. Unai loves the idea of fluidity, which is why players rarely stay in fixed positions.
There may be a learning curve before getting to the final product. It may be quite unpredictable for the opponent because there aren’t specific instructions given to attacking players in an Emery philosophy. But if you give more freedom to the attacking players, then you have to restrict others. It’s a balance. He may also need some players who are warriors on the field and willing to sacrifice themselves, which Arsenal don’t necessarily have.
It was also widely reported that Unai Emery has a very specific policy on recruitment. When he was at Sevilla, he worked very well with Monchi. But he is known for asking for specific player types/profiles, instead of specific names. Do you think that he will continue to work like that in Arsenal?
At PSG, he should have demanded specific names instead of working with types of players. Ending up with players that he didn’t really want like Ben Arfa and Krychowiak as a result of club decision. Jese was a mistake on his part. He did ask for Jese, but it was the eighth name on his list. A bit higher up was Henrikh Mkhitaryan. He also wanted dressing room characters and proven winners, which is why Dani Alves ended up joining. Javier Mascherano was also on that list.
He also worked with Pedro Reverte, the Lorca sporting director and Alberto Benito at Almeria. So he has always collaborated with people while giving his feedback and opinions. He doesn’t take care of negotiations, and I don’t think it’ll be any different at Arsenal. He believes that the coach takes care of coaching, the sporting director of negotiations. They need to work as a team.
I also think that Arsenal’s dressing room is a bit less toxic than the PSG one. So it’s a different context. You always want to look at what was done prior, and see for yourself. Maybe the team will be really open to what he has to say. From what it looks like, Arsenal will most likely recruit over the summer. It doesn’t just come down to the coach though. A club is a pyramid, which needs to be held stable.
Which players do you think will benefit from Unai Emery’s guidance?
Nacho Monreal, Ramsey maybe… It’s also important to know who will be leading the Arsenal dressing room. You had players like Mertesacker for example who are important in that environment and delivering the message. But, I think that most technical players at Arsenal will appreciate Unai Emery. And those who are ready to work hard. Also, Özil and Wilshere.
In a recent interview, Unai Emery brought up the notion of hierarchy (e.g – Simeone with Atletico, Guardiola with City, Florentino Perez with Real Madrid). He really stressed the idea of the club belonging to someone being the key to success. And one could argue that at Arsenal, even though it went badly towards the end, Arsène Wenger held that same kind of position. Unai Emery didn’t really have that at PSG. Do you think that Emery will be provided with that same influence and power to help Arsenal succeed?
The club board wouldn’t give in to any player, or let a coach do whatever they want. At PSG for example, there were a lot of issues with organisation and hierarchy. Thiago Silva had a favorite sports doctor, Marcelo. Whenever he had a problem, he would just call the president and say that the French doctors were treating him badly or whatever. Do you think this kind of thing could happen at Arsenal or any big club? They would never call Gazidis for that!
Do you think the Arsenal press officer would censor people in the press or threaten agents over the phone? Or could you see him having to take charge of the youth team or take charge of marketing? Or is it normal that all the players who see how disorganised the club is without the president changing anything? Well at PSG you saw that.
At Arsenal, apart from when Wenger was there, there aren’t any players who are more important than others. Gazidis tries to take that leadership position. But the hierarchy needs to be revisited at Arsenal. But I don’t worry too much, Arsenal took him for a reason. In the beginning, I think people will be happy because it’ll be a change. It remains to be seen how things will actually take place. I’m sure that the club knows what they’re doing. You can’t judge a book its cover, but rather by its content and ending.