Unai Emery: The long road from Basque Country to Islington

As the 2018/19 season kickstarts, Unai Emery faces the the unenviable prospect of following in the steps a football colossus. His ability to withstand the pressure of Arsene Wenger’s shadow will define his longevity and legacy at Arsenal, and his CV makes a very strong case on his behalf.
Unai Emery
Illustration by Akshay Narwekar

Jesus, that was a long four weeks without football, wasn’t it? Having watched three games a day during the World Cup, going cold turkey like that…well, it wasn’t good. But not to panic, the Prem’s back, finally, this weekend (yes, I know there’s football outside of the Premier League but honestly, guys, I don’t care). I can already feel the excitement building now; the hope, the expectation, that knot in your stomach, the players stepping out into the bright August sunshine, the roar of the faithful…and Arsenal getting absolutely walloped by Manchester City shattering any early-season ideas that we just, maybe-possibly-might, be able to compete. But still, bloody hell, I’m glad its back.

Of course, this season holds something extra for Arsenal fans. It wasn’t that old steward sitting in the dugout on Sunday afternoon but, with his slicked-back black hair and hawk-like nose, a rather different character altogether – Unai Emery Etxegoien.

It had all seemed like a done-deal. Twitter’s ITKs, the BBC’s David Ornstein, and everyone else and their mothers were all in agreement – Mikel Arteta was to be the man to replace Wenger. It was a brave, bold move. Arsenal have always done things a little differently, always pushing at the boundaries of expected behaviour, and here they were again, about to appoint a man who had not yet managed a single game, anywhere. It felt exciting, if also slightly terrifying. It felt modern and progressive – gone were the days of the merry-go-round of old, grey managers living on past glories. This was the new way and Arsenal, once again, were the leaders of the pack.

And then, seemingly out of nowhere, Unai was confirmed as Arsenal’s new Head Coach (the term ‘manager’ no longer in use following Wenger’s departure). Both men are Spanish, both, in fact, hail from Basque Country in Northern Spain but that’s where the similarities end. Arteta represented a high risk/reward strategy – the next managerial great or Moyes-ian levels of failure. Emery, on the other hand, represents something of a guarantee. Or, as close to a guarantee is you are likely to find in football. In the end, the risk of a Moyes-like appointment must have proved too much for the board to bear.

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Hondarribia, a sleepy coastal town of some 17,000 people, sits on the border of France and Spain, nestled deep in the Spanish Basque Country. Dominated by a 10th century castle, the walled old town is an intricate mix of narrow cobbled streets, crumbling medieval structures and brightly painted wooden houses. On summer evenings the town’s squares become hives of activity. Adults eat and drink while dozens of children play mad-rush games of football. It would have been here, on warm flagstones and cobbles, that Unai Emery received his first footballing education.

The people here are a little different from their Spanish compatriots. Known as tough and frugal, the Basques are an ancient people – the oldest permanent residents of Western Europe – and, genetically, have more in common with Celtic Welsh and Irish. A combination of the gritty Basque determination and rugged and unforgiving landscape meant that the region was almost unconquerable. The Basque language, Euskera, is equally ancient, one of the few surviving pre-Indo-European languages in Europe. Outside of the region’s major cities, it is this language you hear, not Spanish. The distinctive Basque flag is omnipresent in the region. During the World Cup, I found myself in a small bar watching Spain’s penalties against Russia – it was definitely not Spain the locals were cheering for.

If their southern cousins come with the reputation for doing this a little slowly, of long lunches and longer siestas, ofmañana, mañana”, the Basques are a different breed. Stereotypically, Basque people are known as hard and productive workers. The region’s economy is perhaps proof of this – outperforming much of the rest of Spain.

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Unai Emery (Unai means “shepherd” in Euskara) was playing for Lorca, in the Spanish third division, when he suffered a career-ending injury. The club’s president offered him the manager’s job at which he immediately excelled, clearly several leagues above the existing standard around him. The club was promoted that season and achieved an upset against Málaga in the Copa del Rey. Emery then steered Lorca to a fifth-place  finish in the following season. Emery achieved instant promotion again with Almeria into La Liga – and then guided the newly promoted side to 8th in 2007-08.

It was with Valencia, though, that Emery most impressed. At the time, Valencia was facing extraordinary financial difficulties and the club was forced to constantly sell its best performing players – Juan Mata, David Silva and David Villa all left during Emery’s time in charge. When Emery took over, Valencia had just finished 10th. Despite the financial difficulties, Emery took Valencia to 6th, then 3rd and 3rd again, solidifying their position as one of the top teams in Spain, even Europe.

A slightly left-field move followed. In 2012, Emery went to Spartak Moscow where he was, surprisingly, sacked mid-season. Seeking the comfort of warmer climes perhaps, Emery moved back to Spain in January 2013, joining Sevilla, where he won famously won the Europa League three times in a row. He was not, however, able to drag the team into the top four, finishing 5th, 5th and 7th in the three years.

Enter the circus that is Paris Saint Germain. Brought in with the express intention of winning the Champions League, Emery not only failed to do that, but also failed to win the French domestic league – losing it to a young and exciting Monaco side. In his second year, the team was defeated by Barcelona in the round of 16, but came away with three domestic trophies.

During his time in Spain, Emery preferred a 4-2-3-1 formation which allowed his Valencia and Sevilla teams to press and win the ball back high up the pitch, while also transition quickly from defence to attack. Both his Valencia and Sevilla teams were hard-runners – much more similar in style then to Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool or Pochettino’s Tottenham. In typical Basque fashion, Emery is known for his work ethic, putting countless hours into preparing his team. He is obsessed with football and demands an equally assiduous approach from his coaches and players.

In many ways Emery is the antithesis of Wenger. The Frenchman’s Arsenal sides pressed haphazardly, if at all, while Emery’s detailed player instruction also contrasts Wenger’s ‘express yourself’ philosophy. Reports from former players point to a meticulousness that was perhaps missing from Wenger’s managerial style. From preparing specific instructions for his team for big games, to having his players watch videos to improve positioning, Emery will, hopefully, provide the tactical support and instruction that this Wenger team has been crying out for. During a player meeting in March last year, senior players complained about exactly that. As was reported in The Guardian, one senior player was quoted as saying, “we need more help from the coaches”. “It’s not going to happen,” another replied, “we need to find the answers ourselves.” This was a damning indictment of the latter stages of Wenger’s tenure and the leak itself an indication that the players needed change too. The hope is Emery can provide that.

A focus on the defensive side of the game will also be welcome – it always appeared an afterthought to Wenger. And this will no doubt be Emery’s first concern. . None of Arsenal’s current defenders inspire much confidence. Having ruptured his Achilles tendon, the 32-year-old Koscielny has potentially played his last game for the club. Everytime Mustafi goes in for a tackle, Arsenal fans wince. Hector Bellerin hasn’t looked himself for nearly a year, while even the evergreen Nacho Monreal’s performances have been steadily winding down. The acquisitions of the experienced Lichtsteiner and Sokratis add experience to a faltering backline but neither player has the commanding, athletic presence required.

Emery has  a difficult start to his Arsenal career. Following Sunday’s defeat to Manchester City, Arsenal travel to Stamford Bridge next week. Through very little fault of his own, the new Arsenal coach could be facing the prospect of his first two Arsenal games resulting in losses. The pressure will be almost immediate.

However, signs of progress can already be seen. The Manchester City game, was, in my view, a write off from the start. Our season starts in earnest next week. It sounds defeatist, but I think that was the reality. The Pep project at City is into its third year and £800 million deep. In terms of their consistency and technical quality, they are miles ahead of their nearest opposition in the league. Not expecting a result, what Arsenal fans wanted to see was the development of a playing style, a game-plan. I think that was evident at City. Arsenal played out from the back regularly: the centre backs split, and Petr Čech was used to create 3v2 situations. It would have worked were it not for poor execution.

At the other end of the field, Arsenal harried at times in frenzied style, forcing errors and winning possession in dangerous positions. Again, it was poor execution, rather than the system, that let us down with Arsenal’s forward players taking it in turns to give the ball away. But importantly, this game was far more of a contest than the whimpering defeats last year.

The plan here is long-term. There is no quick fix. Arsenal does not have the resources to parachute in top class players like Manchester City and Liverpool have been able to do. Beyond that, the hope is that Emery will light a fire under these players in a way that Wenger had not been able to for years. If Arsenal’s players are able to take away even some of that Basque fight, their determination, their work effort…well, we might have a bit of a team on our hands.

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Harry Becker-Hicks

Fan of Arsenal, Wenger-ball and Dennis Bergkamp. Good at watching football, bad at playing it.