Pleasure to meet you.” Unai Emery sits down in one of the media rooms on Paris Saint-Germain’s training ground half-an-hour drive west of Paris. It’s a rare welcoming phrase coming from the manager of one of the top clubs in Europe, but Emery is all smiles a few days before the crucial Champions League game against Arsenal. The Spaniard has been under some considerable pressure since his arrival in the City of Light. PSG, nowadays the perennial winners of the domestic title, started the season with a couple of unexpected defeats and have since had to work hard to find a way back towards the top of the Ligue 1 table.
“Since I’m the manager I’m the one who puts the most pressure on myself,” says Emery, who was born in Hondarribia, in the Basque country of Spain, on the border with France. “To become a good coach you need to win a lot. Being manager means living in the middle of the media attention, through praise and critics. This is something I live with, it’s intense and very demanding.”
Emery’s French is already good enough to communicate with his players in training, but when he wants to make sure his message gets through to the media he switches to his mother tongue in press conferences. His messages are many, and often well articulated and enhanced by hand gestures and firm eye contact.
His appointment as PSG manager stirred some surprise in the French capital in the summer. With Carlo Ancelotti and the former Les Bleus coach Laurent Blanc, the Parisians had established themselves as the undoubted dominant force in French football, winning all the domestic honours in the past two seasons. Emery, hardly a household name to French football supporters, has never collected a single league title in 10 years in Spain and a brief spell in Russia. But he has something else that the Qatari board of PSG crave more than anything: the envious experience of lifting a European trophy three times in a row. Never mind it was not the most glamorous one.
The unprecedented three Europa League wins with Sevilla, most recently outwitting Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool in Basel in May, has earned him a reputation as a “cup coach”, suggesting that the managerial skills for triumphing in a knockout competition are different from being successful in the league landscape.
Emery acknowledges the expectations but refuses to see himself as merely a Champions League talisman. “PSG signed me for my CV, for what I’ve achieved in the Europa League, how I’ve grown as a manager and how I’ve made players grow,” he argues. “I’m essentially here because I have a winning record.. This club has that too but wants to grow bigger in Europe and eventually aspire to the Champions League title. The ambition is doing that, winning more than before.”
Winning was never really a problem for PSG in the last couple of seasons, with a few exceptions. The most devastating setback so far happened in the second leg of the Champions League quarter-final last spring against Manchester City. Worse, it was not a coincidence, according to the club president, Nasser al-Khelaifi. After the 2–2 draw at home – and a missed penalty by Zlatan Ibrahimovic – PSG still had a good opportunity to grab the semi-final spot against a City side that had not looked particularly brilliant of late. Visiting the changing room a couple of hours before kick-off at the Etihad Stadium, Khelaifi knew the game was lost.
“I am very disappointed. I did not feel there was pressure before the City games. This elimination is the worst moment since I have been in Paris,” he said at the time. “Two hours before the return leg I knew we were going to lose. I did not feel the players were ready … Whose fault is this?” Khelaifi responded to his own question a few weeks later by sacking Blanc.
Blanc never managed to make it to the last four of the Champions League. The four consecutive quarter-final knockouts in the PSG-Qatari era remains the main itch in the French capital.
Emery spent the summer signing new players, such as the Belgium full-back Thomas Meunier and his former Sevilla midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak. But while the names of Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo figured in practically every French transfer update, no real replacement of Ibrahimovic’s quality arrived.
Yet Emery aspires to the one quality that saw the Swede triumph in the French League: an unconditional will to win. He repeats the mantra “winning mentality” so frequently throughout the interview you might think he reads self-help books to prepare for his task. In fact, he does not only read, but actually wrote about it himself, in a book called Mentalidad Ganadora: El Metodo Emery (Winning mentality: the Emery method) in 2012.
“I wrote it when I was in Valencia. Back then we played the Champions League and finished third or so in La Liga, but I had never won anything important when I wrote that book,” Emery remembers. “It was very risky and quite courageous to write a book about winning when I was still to win my first title. But for me the one who possesses a winning mentality isn’t necessarily the one who wins in the end, but the one who wants to win the most.”
Born into a family of footballers, Emery was never going to leave the game behind at the end of his humble playing career in 2004. He took his first coaching qualifications in his 20s and by 2003, suffering from a knee injury while with Spanish third division team Lorca, he was appointed player-manager. Why bother to look around, the sporting director Pedro Reverte reasoned, when obviously clearly there was a natural leader in the squad?
Emery immediately achieved promotion to the second division for the first time in the club’s history. A year later he helped Almería reach Spain’s top flight, finishing eighth in their first-ever La Liga campaign. Four years in Valencia were followed by seven months at Spartak Moscow before he was dismissed – “everyone knows that a CV without a flaw is suspicious”, Emery grins – before taking Sevilla on a three-year European joyride. He has managed La Liga stars such as David Silva, David Villa, Jesús Navas, Jordi Alba and Ivan Rakitic, and believes that has prepared him well for life at PSG.
However, his new side have so far struggled to mirror their new manager’s mentality. So what is the Emery style of play? “One of the reasons I wanted to take on PSG is because they already have a well-defined idea of how to play, which gives them comfort,” he explains. “I’ve managed teams that have had a lot of possession, others with less, defending a lot without the ball or practically defending with the ball in your possession. This is the beauty of it. I constantly have to keep looking for new tactical variations with every new team.”
Is this perhaps the essence of Emery’s style and the secret behind his European record: a pragmatic view of the game that offers more options to adapt to different types of opponents? It does sound slightly different from his Spanish counterparts, where the Pep Guardiola school of football stays true to the tiki-taka that helped Barcelona and the Spanish national side conquer the world. Whether PSG are able to apply their new manager’s ideas in a real competitive situation remains to be seen. The game against Arsenal on Wednesday will, however, look nothing like the draw in Paris just over two months ago, according to Emery.
“It’s going to be different simply because they play at home, but the intensity will be similar,” he says. “It’s a game with big actors, great football players, this is the beauty of it. We played a good first game and we could have won it. There are things that we will change from then, mainly because we are a better team now. What [that is] I’m not going to tell you.”
Even without the Arsenal game coming up, Emery, who admits he has rejected offers from clubs in the Premier League, probably would have been able to offer a tactical analysis of any team in Europe. Former players have spoken of a coach almost obsessed with video analysis, tirelessly looking for details to watch out for, or perhaps to copy. The PSG manager is rumoured to watch his own team’s games up to 15 times in the days that follow. He smiles wryly at the subject before correcting.
“I have three assistants working with me, they are my eyes too. I watch the game three or four times usually, there is so much you miss when you’re pitchside,” he says. “The others watch the game as many times and then we do the analysis together. That makes perhaps 12 times.”
That is still a lot, and yet Emery considers another part of his job equally – if not more – important. Having made just a few appearances in La Liga for Real Sociedad, he claims to have had the talent but not the mental strength required for elite football.
“Football players have a huge responsibility and pressure on them. They live off their self-confidence and self-esteem. In a world with such high demand and pressure on each player you need to give them a lot of cariño [a much used Spanish word that best translates into “affection”] but it has to come with hard work. This is a very psychological job. There has to be a strong individual and collective mentality.”
It sounds as though the likes of Edinson Cavani no longer have to look far for a sports psychologist in Paris. The Uruguayan, responsible for a number of astonishing missed chances against Arsenal in September, has since brushed up his stats to roughly one goal per match in the league. Could this simply be the result of Emery’s therapy skills?
“Confidence is an everyday job. You need to prepare your players and get them in the best condition; physically, technically, tactically and mentally, to get the best out of them. At times it works well, at times it doesn’t, Cavani can score one day and then not. The best recipe is being consistent. It’s about sticking to your ideas. When they praise you, follow the idea, when they criticise you, follow the idea. It’s my best advice.”
With “day by day work” and “consistency” his leitmotifs, one wonders if Emery is never even a little bit tempted to look forward to a possible knockout stage in spring 2017.
“No, honestly I’m not,” he says, looking sincere. “When I look back at winning the Europa League, the real pleasure and the success was the road that led us there. Constructing your team, going through difficult moments, seeing the team getting better step by step: this is the beauty. Not the final. It’s the day by day work that renders happiness. The day when you finally lift the cup you enjoy it, of course, but it’s a very ephemeral joy. The real beauty is the road that took you there.”
The Guardian Sport