Unai Emery is back for more

NEW YORK — It’s been over three years now, but Unai Emery still remembers that moment as if he had just witnessed it. When he talks abo...


NEW YORK — It’s been over three years now, but Unai Emery still remembers that moment as if he had just witnessed it. When he talks about it, all the frustration he felt that day in March 2019 comes back.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has just claimed the ball, the clock has passed the 90th minute and the referee has calmed the chaos. Arsenal won a penalty, one last chance to win the game. It is also a chance for Emery, in his first season as Arsenal manager, to lead his side to the Champions League at the expense of bitter north London neighbors Tottenham Hotspur.

But Aubameyang, usually a lock from the penalty spot, fails to score. That shot, that missed opportunity, was the moment, as far as Emery was concerned, that not only ended Arsenal’s hopes of playing alongside European footballing royalty, but also his grip on his job as manager. of Arsenal.

“We played a good season and we were very close, but this moment…” Emery said, letting the pain drag on. He made his point.

For Emery, now two seasons on from what has by most measures been a hugely successful effort to rebuild his career at Spanish club Villarreal, it’s not just football matches that are defined by moments: a missed penalty or a late save, a blown lead or a winning goal. Entire careers, he knows as well as anyone, can also be turned upside down – or sent on unexpected new trajectories – by a single moment here or there.

Emery, 50, didn’t fall all the way down the ladder after his shot at Arsenal. He was out of work just months before landing next summer at Villarreal, where he led a golden run which he says has once again established his credentials for one of the best jobs in the sport. At least one Premier League club came calling. (He said Nope.) Other big clubs will follow. Emery sounds like a man ready to listen.

“I think I got my level back to keep my challenge high, high, high going forward,” he said, raising his hands above his head. “I am very ambitious.

He has already reached the heights of football, after all: victories in three European finals with Sevilla, two seasons as Paris Saint-Germain coach in the Champions League, then this call to go to London to lead in the Premier League.

In 2018, Emery was tasked with leading Arsenal into the future, managing their 24-year transition under Arsene Wenger. The Emery era started well enough, with 11 straight wins, the club’s best form in over a decade. But then came the botched penalty, the failure to overtake Tottenham in the standings, the bitter loss to Chelsea in the Europa League final. Emery survived the summer, but in November, after a long run without a win, Arsenal showed him the door.

His morale-sapping departure was traded for a two-year adventure in western Spain, a thrill ride that delivered Villarreal’s first major trophymoments of glory against some of the most powerful teams in football and proof, at least for Emery, that he can still be considered one of the best coaches in the game.

His most eye-catching successes came last season, when he led his team – a mix of tough veterans, big club scum and promising youngsters – on an unlikely jaunt through the Champions League. Villarreal knocked out Juventus and Bayern Munich before threatening a comeback of cinematic proportions against Liverpool in the semi-finals.

This journey, Emery said, was built on players who knew how to seize the opportunity when their time was right. Much of Villarreal’s success was forged on the training ground, he said, practicing set pieces and counterattacks, instilling in players the idea that they had to dig in and stick to a plan.

“It’s the difference you can reduce with other teams,” Emery said. According to him, coaches can improve their players and their teams by 10 or 15%. The rest is up to them, a mix of preparation, conviction and balance in critical moments.

“How can I explain it?” he said. “Last year we were worse when we played against Arsenal in the semi-finals of the Europa League. We were worse than them. They were better than us. But our job before we got to play against them – we We created a very good mentality, and that’s when a coach can make his team better than another that has better players.

It is a formula that he took up in the Champions League last spring. Before every draw in the round of 16, Emery said, he told his players that they should expect to suffer and be overpowered for big spells, but should believe their chance would come from destabilizing the opponent, whether defensively or offensively. “When they start to suffer,” Emery said, “that’s when you can win.”

The moments were unforgettable. A 3-0 victory at Juventus. A stunning first-leg win over Bayern Munich in Spain, then an 88th-minute goal to eliminate the Germans on their home turf. Against Liverpool, Villarreal overturned a 2-0 first-leg deficit in 41 minutes to leave their opponents shaken and their stadium rocked.

liverpool recovered and survived – other teams have their moments too – but the Champions League run has raised the profile of Villarreal’s best players. Some will move on. Their coach admits he probably will too one day.

He has already rebuffed advances from some suitors, including an approach from Newcastle United after the Premier League club were acquired by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund. “It just wasn’t the right time,” Emery said of his decision last November. Newcastle, despite all their newfound riches, were bottom of the table at the time, and Villarreal were in the Champions League.

This competition, he and his players knew, could change perceptions in ways that success in the Spanish league could not.

Early in his tenure, Emery said, he planned to focus on the league. “But when we beat Atalanta and when we played against Juventus, the Champions League was, for me, more important,” Emery said. The club was renowned for its successes, and for players and managers alike, performances could catapult their careers in new directions. “I know I have individual challenges as well,” Emery said.

Emery had arrived at Villarreal bruised by the nature of his exit from Arsenal. These wounds are not completely healed. He described the start in Spanish as a golpe – a blow. At the time he was fired, Emery faced criticism that sometimes seemed more personal than professional: Long before the end, former players and members of the media had targeted to his command of English.

These criticisms are always smart: When a fan at a pre-season match in England recently pushed Emery and asked him to say ‘Bon ebening’, the coach responded with a lewd gesture that went viral.

At Villarreal, the team’s wealthy owners provided Emery with a platform to find balance in his life, as well as a space to rebuild a belief in his coaching style. But Emery said he was certain his success was not because a coach had found his level, a most comfortable leader one rung below the top flight. “I’m in a really good environment to feel strong, to feel confident again, which adds confidence to my work,” he said. “And then, a new challenge.”

His determination to get back to the top is perhaps best demonstrated by his extracurricular activities: while he restored his credentials in Spain, he also worked hard on his English. He described his summer trip to New York as a learning opportunity as much as a vacation with his son, Lander. It is perhaps a tacit admission that all the criticism during his time at Arsenal fell short.

He ruminated on those times at Arsenal when he couldn’t quite get his point across, or those crucial early conversations with key players when language barriers made it difficult to create the kind of manager-player bond essential to winning teams.

“Next time I will arrive with better English,” he said.

That moment could soon come. For now, however, Emery is willing to bide his time, to bide his time.

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