In the spring of last year, when Unai Emery was facing up to the immense challenge of taking over from Arsene Wenger and steering Arsenal onto a new path, he found himself thinking back to a phrase he had heard many years earlier from an influential Spanish manager named Javier Irureta.
“What he said is that when something changes, it is in order to change something,” Emery tells Sky Sports. It is eight months later, and in a first-floor meeting room at Arsenal’s London Colney headquarters, he is explaining how he has attempted to apply that wisdom since his appointment.
“When a club changes manager, it is because they want something new,” he says. “The challenge is to identify the good things – the things you have to maintain – but also the things that you have to change and improve. Here, obviously, there were lots of things to change and improve.”
The process is ongoing. Emery has overhauled Arsenal’s approach to training and preparation. He has placed greater emphasis on physical intensity with a commitment to playing out from the back. There has been a 22-game unbeaten run, the club’s longest in over a decade, and even a 4-2 win over north London rivals Tottenham at a buoyant Emirates Stadium.
But lately, optimism has been tempered by frustration. The Premier League table shows Arsenal in fifth, six points off the top four. Their defence appears as vulnerable as ever and there are questions at the other end, too. The recent 5-1 loss to Liverpool was reminiscent of Wenger’s final years in charge. Saturday’s 1-0 reverse to West Ham was another heavy blow.
‘We knew there were going to be difficulties in this process’
Plainly, Arsenal are not yet where they want to be. There have been no instant fixes to the issues which undermined them in previous years under Wenger. But Emery, enjoying a welcome opportunity to conduct an interview in his native Spanish, is adamant that they are heading in the right direction.
“The adaptation of the club and team is progressing in a positive way. In terms of getting into the Champions League and finishing in the top four, which is our main objective, it is true that we are not there right now. The competitive level is very high
But firstly, I believe we have time to achieve that this season. And secondly, we knew there were going to be difficulties in this process. The most important thing is to be aware that the difficulties will come, and at that moment still be able to make progress. That is the idea. The idea is to get Arsenal back to where the club deserves to be, but it needs time.”
There is little patience in modern football, little appetite for a project which does not yield immediate results, but Emery insists the culture in England is unique. He has noted how Wenger was given licence to transform Arsenal in the glittering first half of his tenure. He has also seen how Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola have built up Liverpool and Manchester City following difficult starts.
“After my experiences in Spain, in Russia and in France, I believe that here, people see football in a very distinct way,” says Emery. “As well as the teams being more competitive and tougher, I believe the fans feel football from the heart. The question of whether you win, lose or draw is very important, but there is always a respect towards football beyond just the result.
Unai Emery was speaking to Sky Sports prior to Saturday’s clash with West Ham
“That means you can do a more progressive job, a job based on building from the bottom without only thinking about results, because sometimes, a result can hide solid foundations.
“As a manager, I have always put myself under the pressure of the necessity to win. You know that winning will allow you to either continue what you’re doing or to find another project. And you know that if you lose, they will take the project you already have away from you.
“But at Arsenal, it’s maybe the first time I feel that I have the support to build up from the bottom in order to get where we want to be. It allows us to work more for the long-term – or at least, ‘long-term’ in football terms. It supports the kind of work we want to do at this club.
Unai Emery’s vision for Arsenal? Watch their outstanding team goal in the 5-1 win over Fulham
‘We are in a transition where we are looking for a balance’
If the first half of the season is anything to go by, Emery will certainly need time to eradicate Arsenal’s defensive frailties. He has not been helped by injuries, nor, perhaps, by the defensive unit his predecessor left behind, but the numbers are still alarming. Arsenal have conceded more goals after 22 Premier League games than in any of their seasons under Wenger.
“There are things we have managed to improve but there are other things that need more time, and defensive consistency is one of them,” says Emery. “We still have a lot of work to do there.”
How Arsenal’s key statistics compare per game this season and last season
So are the issues down to personnel? Or defensive organisation?
“I think it’s a bit of everything,” says Emery. “When I arrived, we spoke about the Arsenal before Wenger, which was consistent in defence but didn’t have much brilliance in attack. In the transition under Wenger, it was about making the most of that defensive work and adding more quality in attack, which was when Arsenal were a winning team.
Arsenal have conceded 32 goals in 22 Premier League games this season
“But in the last few years it became different. It was a team which always had a great attack, with players who were very good technically, but with a very, very low level of defensive solidity.
“Now, we are in a transition where we are looking for a balance.
“I don’t want to lose all the good things about this team. There are times when defensively we have not been very solid, but we have still won because offensively we have created a lot of chances. So, at the moment, I am still leaning towards making sure the team doesn’t lose what it has. But yes, it’s true that we have to achieve greater defensive solidity.”
‘You have to provoke friction with footballers’
Arsenal’s defensive record presents a considerable challenge for Emery and so too does Mesut Ozil. The German was a certain starter under Wenger, his status reflected by the lucrative new contract he signed in February, but he has featured sporadically this season. His absence from Arsenal’s squad against West Ham added to a growing sense of uncertainty surrounding his future.
Aaron Ramsey has also lost his starting spot since the decision was made to withdraw his new contract offer in September, allowing him to leave on a free transfer at the end of the season, and Emery’s willingness to shake things up does not stop there. His team selections have been unpredictable right across the squad. Half-time substitutions have become regular occurrences.
Unai Emery’s relationship with Mesut Ozil has come under scrutiny
His boldness has been rewarded at times while at others it has left supporters scratching their heads. But could there be a broader strategy at play? Emery, a keen student of psychology who even co-authored a book on the subject, Mentalidad Ganadora (Winning Mentality), during his time in charge of Valencia, clenches his fists and rubs his knuckles together.
“At certain times, you have to provoke friction with footballers,” he says.
“From that friction, you can get something more out of them, something from inside, a greater sense of ambition or maybe even a complaint – a complaint regarding the team can be positive.
“As a manager, you have to be careful because that friction can break a relationship. But I believe in always looking for more, both individually and collectively, with conversations which are comfortable but also with conversations which are less comfortable
Unai Emery suggested that Mesut Ozil did not ‘deserve’ to be in Arsenal’s squad to face West Ham in his press conference
“In the end, the main thing with any footballer is that their qualities are used to benefit the team. As a manager, you have to get the maximum out of that player and at the same time make sure that he fits with the rest of the team so that everyone is better.”
It remains to be seen whether Emery will be able to strike that balance with Ozil, but what’s certain is that the German is not the only player being challenged by the new manager and his staff.
“We know that we have to put pressure on the players, to push them,” says Emery. “So if a player is giving 70 per cent, he gives 80 per cent. Then if he is giving 80 per cent, he gives 90 per cent. There is always another step, another push. Psychology is an aspect which can help to find it.”
‘You have to keep going. You cannot ever stop’
Emery speaks with the same intensity with which he stalks his technical area on matchdays. He is, by his own admission, a football obsessive. Joaquin, the former Spain international who shone under him at Valencia, once joked that he “ran out of popcorn” sitting through his video analysis sessions. This season at Arsenal, a string of players have spoken about his forensic attention to detail.
Emery’s obsessive approach has brought him great success as a manager, including an historic run of three consecutive Europa League titles with Sevilla, and it is borne out of a constant search for improvement which has driven him since his playing career.
Unai Emery pictured during his playing career with Spanish side CD Toledo in 1996
“When I was a player in the second division in Spain, my contracts were never longer than two years, so I was always required to perform, always required to do well in order to get another contract,” he says. “I never called it pressure, I always called it a requirement… I have to do it. I have to win. I have to play. I have to do it well.
“Those messages were constantly in my head. So as a manager starting out with Lorca and Almeria in Spain, it was the same. And that meant dedicating a lot of time to it… I have to do it. I have to win. I have to prepare well. I have to have the best team. I have to have the best job. I have to teach the players this because this is the way to win.
“That attitude has given me a basis for my work and it has also given me the drive to always find new solutions, because football is always changing. For example, at that time, when I said I had to incorporate video into my methodology, which was something I hadn’t done before, I then had to work out the best way to use it to show my players how they could improve or what they needed to do better.
Unai Emery won three Europa League titles in three years at Sevilla
“Everyone uses video now, but at that time opposition analysis was more simple. So it was a case of looking for more because of that need to win and that need to be better.”
His philosophy also explains why, in 15 years as a manager, from Lorca and Almeria to Paris Saint-Germain and now Arsenal, Emery has never had more than a couple of months off between jobs.
“You have to keep going,” he says. “You cannot ever stop. The most important thing for me, I believe, is that I have never stopped coaching. I also have people around me who push me and I still have the capacity to bring great energy to the job. But my secret is nothing more than to work hard.”
‘Every player is a person before they are a footballer’
Emery’s constant drive for improvement applies as much to individual players as it does to himself. His recent admission that Arsenal could not make any permanent signings in January provoked immediate anger among supporters, but it was delivered with the matter-of-factness of a manager who has other priorities. Emery’s obsession is not in transfers but in getting the best out of the players he has already got.
That’s certainly how he worked at Valencia and Sevilla, where key players were repeatedly sold off for financial profit, and it has contributed to an impressive track record for development. Emery counts Juan Mata, Jordi Alba, David Silva and Ivan Rakitic among the players he has helped to improve. Even Kylian Mbappe has been complimentary of his influence at PSG.
“The most satisfying thing about being a manager, I believe, is when you are able to improve a player’s performances,” says Emery. “There is always a risk that by giving more attention to one player you diminish another, but my biggest satisfaction, as well as collective performances, winning and achieving things, is that players, on an individual level, end up progressing and taking steps forward.”
It is what he is now striving for at Arsenal.
“These players have a tremendous desire to work, listen and learn,” he says.
Unai Emery gives instructions to Sokratis Papastathopoulos
“I have a good understanding with them, but as a manager it is important to understand that every player is a person before they are a footballer. That is the same whether it’s Neymar, who I coached at PSG, or whether it’s any one of the players I had at Lorca. What I do is I try to interact with them on a personal level as a means of setting out my objectives and my expectations.”
After that, he says, it is down to the players to take a share of the responsibility for themselves.
“I always say that a footballer only has this profession for 10, 12 or 15 years. To get the maximum out of your career – which is what we want as well – you have to love your job. You have to feel it, and you have to dedicate time to it – all the time you possibly can.”
That is the mentality Emery demands from his players and it is the same mentality with which he is approaching the challenge at Arsenal. Can he shape this team in his image? Can he build the club up for the future while ensuring they do not suffer too much in the short-term? It is eight months since his appointment, eight months since Arsenal took their first steps into the unknown, but the hard work has only just begun.