INTERVIEW WITH UNAI EMERY
AS interview with Unai Emery: Aston Villa boss talks Premier League, European ambitions, Pep vs Arteta...
Emery is happy in England. He has lifted Aston Villa from the lower reaches of the Premier League table to the European places. He took a gamble by leaving Villarreal for Villa halfway through the season and for the moment, it’s paying off - he’s winning.
You have been breaking historic Premier League records with Aston Villa - the most recent, scoring in 20 consecutive games since your arrival - at least one goal in every single game…
The positive statistics show us the path we have to continue on. Even though the process changed a little after we lost three games in a row against Leicester, Manchester City and Arsenal. After that, we worked with the team, focused on tactical discipline and since then it’s gradually started to look more comfortable. We’ve reached this stage of the season looking reliable and gaining results. We’re in the top six. But making sure we stay there with teams like Liverpool, Brighton, Tottenham… That’s the most difficult part.
Why did you choose the Premier League?
As a professional, English football has always been very attractive for me. I was happy at Villarreal, I felt it was a competitive environment, but I was given the opportunity to return to the Premier League and that represented a new impulse for me professionally - it was a new challenge and a new project. I was looking to better myself, reach new boundaries but outside of Spain, where I had been reaching objectives. The Villa project is a process which we are only starting now. It’s a project that we have to build and ensure that within the next three to four years, we have constructed a team that is healthy and solid.
Villa have players like Emiliano Martínez, Diego Carlos, Digne, Coutinho… but the squad was already built, it’s not yours...
Sure. All of the players can improve - or get worse… (laughs). The players have to find answers to what you give them. They should be able to gain something from my knowledge as a coach. My job is to try to make them better players. The best reward for any coach is when you can see a notable improvement, collectively or individually, in your players. In a way it’s a selfish objective, because it’s about improving them so that I can win.
In six months, you’ve taken the team from 17th position to 5th!
If you can do something in six months rather than three years, then even better (laughs)! During those first five months, we were forced to work at breakneck speed out of need more than anything else. Firstly, because we were in the relegation zone; secondly, because we were also involved in the process of building the team. Our performances have exceeded all expectations and, once we were in that dynamic, we’ve tried to keep it going, to not stop. If we can get out of the bottom part of the table and finish in the top 10, great; if we can make our way up the top half of the table and end up in the European places, even better.
Is qualifying for the Champions League a realistic objective?
The objective I’ve set myself is twofold: try to win a trophy and try to get Aston Villa back into Europe. We were knocked out of both of the Cup competitions we played in this season, partly because at the time our priority was improving our situation in the league. But winning trophies is on my mind. Our resurgence in the league has allowed us to bring some processes forward. But I prefer to be cautious. We’ve done really well for a portion of the season, but the most difficult part is still to come.
You’ve set the bar quite high.
My conversations with the players and with the club are the same: that within three years, we have the same excitement and hopes as we have now. In three years, I would like to be here now and able to tell you that we have gained stability, consistency and that things are going well for us. I am not asking that everything should be wonderful right now, I just hope that the outlook is just as good in three years’ time as it is now.
How do you always manage to turn your players into winners?
Basically, we have taken four steps with this squad, with the players - who are all very good players, but who haven’t always managed to achieve good performances - some have, but maybe not on a regular basis: be organised, have discipline, be competitive and have the right mentality. You have to develop a winning mentality. We start out by working with the player and hopefully end up with the player we want him to be. You need to educate them and create a winning mentality.
You know the Premier League well, what did you discover on your return?
A competition which just keeps getting harder and harder. When I was at Arsenal, the top four clubs were very strong and they were already talking about the Top 6 - the clubs we all know about now. But with Newcastle, there is now a Top 7, and we also want to join and be the eighth team in that group, to create a Top 8. Aston Villa should have a place there, among them. There are enough good teams for a Top 8 or even a Top 10 because the economic clout is there.
Your stint at Arsenal - is it a thorn in your side?
I enjoyed a full season at Arsenal and it was a very nice experience. We were fighting right up until the final day to enter the top four places and we lost the Europa League final to Chelsea. We were close to reaching our objectives, the same as I hope to do here at Aston Villa. What I went through at Arsenal served me to come back here with the right people around me.
Can you understand why people were outraged that you left Villarreal, the Champions League semi-finalists, for Aston Villa, and Álex Moreno left Betis to join you in the January window?
It’s really quite natural. All of us need to go in search of challenges at some time or another. I have been fortunate enough to have been at three top level clubs in Spain: Valencia, Sevilla and Villarreal. Obviously, I am very grateful for that, but then the next step in Spain would be to coach Atlético, Madrid or Barça… But breaking through that barrier comes with a lot of difficulties. The Premier League has given me the chance to continue growing. Of course, Sevilla, Villarreal and Valencia did that too, but here, I am confronted with new difficulties. And let’s not forget that the Premier League attracts the highest number of investors, the best managers and players in the world.
Do you think it’s easier for you to progress as a coach in the Premier League than in Spain?
I have grown a lot in LaLiga and have great admiration for the Spanish league, but due to certain situations, I had to leave to work in Moscow and then Paris. I started to distance myself a little from Spain. But those experiences helped me get to the next level, new limits. The next one was the Premier League with Arsenal. The Premier League has always been attractive. It’s the birthplace of football and where there is a genuine feeling about everything that surrounds this sport: the fans, the passion with which they live the game, every city protects its teams, the fans are incredibly faithful…
Why do you think there are six Spanish coaches in the Premier League?
It’s just circumstances, moments in time. Right now, Spanish coaches are in a very strong, cultural process. Back home in Spain, there are lots of ways of being good at your job. Some countries have an advantage over us because English is their second language. That’s why so many Portuguese coaches have worked abroad for so many years. We are doing that now in Spain. We have shown that we are capable of responding to a very demanding competitive level. I am much more qualified now than I was when I was at Arsenal, and better than I was when I was in Moscow and Paris. When I was at Villarreal, I pondered over the Spanish league a lot, but without forgetting that one day I would like the challenge of going somewhere else and being better prepared for the job.
Guardiola and Arteta are battling for the title with a very defined style of football, almost the polar opposite of the classic English game...
(Spends a few moments thinking) Winning makes your opponents respect you. As it happens, both Pep and Arteta are winning. But if you don’t win, they’re not going to respect you. We’ve had references in the past for which I am very thankful for. The first was Benítez and after that, Guardiola. Some say that Pep has done things badly, but I think everything he has done, he’s done really well. He opened a lot of doors for the rest of us with what he has done. He is the best coach I have ever met. Taking some of his methods and using them in your own way helps. Arteta has an advantage because he was a player in England - he knows the culture, and he’s also worked alongside Guardiola doing a job which later came in very useful for him. Then there are prestigious coaches like Lopetegui, Javi Gracia who took his team to the FA Cup final, Roberto Martínez back in the day… All of that helps.
And the successes they achieved of course…
In Spain, we allow foreign coaches as long as they bring something different to the job. I want to learn from what other people show me. I had Toshack, who was welcomed with open arms. I was a player in Real Sociedad’s B team and occasionally trained with the first team. I saw him at work. He had a very distinct personality. He brought something extra to La Real and did the same in LaLiga later with Real Madrid. In England I also hope that I can bring something different. They really appreciate it if you can.
What things can you bring?
I was lucky enough to be at Valencia for four years playing in Europe, at Sevilla and winning three Europa Leagues in a row, that gave me the chance to go to PSG, then to Arsenal, to Villarreal… I think I’ve spent 15 consecutive years coaching sides playing in Europe. That gets you recognised. I am very grateful for that and also recognise my part in it. I tell myself: ‘Unai, they want you here for the successes you’ve had’. At Aston Villa, they want the same success I’ve had, and all of that mixed together is what has allowed me to have this opportunity.
During your career, you have suffered painful episodes - such as PSG’s elimination from the Champions League at Camp Nou. Do you think you have triumphed at many different clubs but stumbled with the big clubs?
I’ve never looked at it that way. Football has many dark sides - like we have been seeing lately… I experienced those things in person and it’s been a factor which affected me negatively. But I live for the present and consider what happened in the past as valuable to me. I’m very happy at Aston Villa, I was happy at Villarreal, at PSG, at Arsenal, I was happy at Sevilla, at Spartak, at Valencia, at Almería, at Lorca, the clubs where it all started, which I will never forget… The responsibility which I have now comes before what went on in the past.
In terms of football, is there anything that you have especially liked in England?
The best coach I have ever seen is here - Pep, who constantly makes me feel that I need to learn. Then there are coaches like Klopp, who give you a very competitive vision of football, a winning mentality; and new ideas about football like De Zerbi at Brighton, and Potter as well… I saw how the process evolved at Brighton. They had a coach who was completely different to their last one, Chris Hughton, and a very offensive team who played a direct style. Nothing like today’s team. The Premier League is becoming more European. The best coaches come here.
You speak very highly of Guardiola, how do you see City getting on against Madrid in the Champions League?
City have found excellence in their game and the results they’ve been getting have been quite striking. It’s a game that you really have to be at the stadium to watch, to feel it. After I left Arsenal, I was at the semi-final between City and Madrid. City dominated and Madrid won. That’s an example of what these two teams are like.
Do Real Madrid present the ultimate exam for any club wanting to conquer Europe?
The relationship which Madrid has with the Champions League is incredible. You have to admire what they did in last season’s tournament. I always defend the Spanish league and I identify with Madrid’s successes, as I did with Barça’s in other years. Those successes open the door and show the way to all of us who are part of Spanish football. I feel a small part of Madrid’s successes as though they are my own, it’s our success. It’s the same whenever the national team is successful or a Spanish club, whether it’s Madrid or Sevilla in the Europa League.
On the subject of Sevilla, there’s another team who is going from strength to strength...
When I first arrived at Sevilla, Del Nido said to me: “Have you won a trophy? Because you are going to find out what it’s like to win them here…”. And that’s exactly what happened. I realised then what Sevilla was about. I understood the sentimental part of football. I will always consider Real Sociedad as my club because that’s where I started out and also a little part of me is with Real Unión because it’s part of my family; and after that, the other half of my heart is divided between all of the clubs where I have been because they gave me the feeling that I belonged. Football is for the fans, not the owners. People want to feel a part of it. Fans don’t want financial gains or profits, they want to live special times with their team.