The autumn of 1996 was a pivotal period in the lives of Arsenal‘s two most recent managers.
On Sunday, September 22 that year, Arsene Wenger was presented to the media at Highbury as Arsenal’s new manager. That same day, 780 miles to the south, Unai Emery made his fourth league appearance for Toledo in a Spanish second-tier match at Salamanca.
It was not a match that Emery will recall fondly—he was substituted in the 36th minute of a 3-1 defeat—but his arrival at Toledo represented an important staging post in his career.
A technically accomplished but physically undynamic left-sided midfielder, Emery failed to find a regular spot in the lineup at his formative club, Real Sociedad, and joined Toledo in 1996 in search of more playing time. Even at a young age, his understanding of the game stood out.
“That wasn’t common in the squad. Even in the youth team, he was like a coach on the field. What you noticed in training was that he lived with intensity; he was smart, he was alive to things, and he was fully on top of the tactical aspects of the game.”
It was at Toledo, based in the central Spanish province of the same name, that Emery truly became a professional footballer. Over the next four years, he played in 128 more matches for the club, establishing himself as a solid second-tier player.
But following spells in the Segunda Division at Racing Ferrol and Leganes, he joined third-tier Deportivo Lorca in 2003, and it was there, after a knee injury cut short his playing days, that Emery the player became Emery the coach.
It is a role in which he has largely thrived, built upon a philosophy tightly wedded to quick, aggressive, high-energy football. But he has not been without his critics. After successes at Lorca and in subsequent stints at Almeria, Valencia, Spartak Moscow and Sevilla, Emery found trouble selling his system—and himself—at Paris Saint-Germain.
This season he gets another chance at an Arsenal club that was beset by organizational mould and mildew during the final years of Wenger’s tenure. And the extent to which Emery succeeds in transmitting his playing philosophy is likely to define their season.
What awaits Arsenal and their fans should be no surprise. Emery’s notions about how to win football matches have not changed much over the course of his coaching career.
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“If we are very strong in defence, that allows us to be strong offensively,” Emery said in an interview with UEFA’s Champions magazine published in early 2011, three years into his four-year tenure at Valencia. “What do I mean by strong defensively? To be aggressive and intense. A defence that wants to protect and break up the opposition’s play. The moment that happens, my team have to attack instantly.”
The high-octane approach brought Emery huge success at Sevilla, where he won an unprecedented three successive Europa Leagues, but at PSG he found a locker room resistant to his methods.
PSG had become a possession team under Laurent Blanc, Emery’s predecessor, and the new coach wanted to make them more direct, ditching their established 4-3-3 formation and setting them up in a more dynamic 4-2-3-1 system.
The early results were promising. PSG thrashed Lyon 4-1 in the Trophee des Champions in August 2016, Emery’s first official match. But when the team started to stumble in the autumn, players broke ranks and forced him to abandon his plan. The 4-3-3 swiftly returned, along with a more measured style of play.
Damien Degorre has been reporting on PSG for L’Equipe since 2004 and believes Emery was wrong to abandon his principles so quickly.
“There was a meeting with the players, who called for a return of the 4-3-3. And Emery gave way,” Degorre says. “That set the tone for what followed. He went back on his convictions, and I think that even he regretted it.”
While Emery’s first season was scarred by PSG’s catastrophic 6-1 loss to Barcelona in the Champions League last 16, the French side’s superb 4-0 win in the first leg showed what could be achieved when his players were prepared to follow his instructions to the letter.
“We prepared the match so that we would be able to press them at every moment,” Emery told SFR Sport (h/t RMC Sport) at the end of last season. “Marcelo Bielsa told me that the best football he’d seen after [Pep] Guardiola’s Barca was PSG’s victory against Barca.”
Emery’s second PSG campaign brought it with more Champions League disappointment in the form of a meek last-16 exit against Real Madrid as well as a struggle to find common ground with superstar signing Neymar, who was reported to have complained about the length of the manager’s famous video analysis sessions.
“He had a pretty good relationship with [Edinson] Cavani. [Kylian] Mbappe liked him as well. But with Neymar and the Brazilians in general, he failed,” Degorre says.
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“He never got the measure of the changing room, and the Brazilians at PSG have a lot of influence in that changing room.”
After leading minnows Les Herbiers to last season’s Coupe de France final, Stephane Masala is among the most recent coaches to have gone up against Emery in a competitive match, and he says that for all the criticism the Spaniard received, his impact on PSG’s football was clear to see.
“There were things in their play that jumped out at me: the way they spread themselves across the width of the pitch and the way the wide players came into the middle of the pitch, allowing the full-backs to push on,” Masala tells Bleacher Report.
“He’s a coach who’s very precise in terms of coordinating the movements of his players. I was impressed by the way his players moved in relation to each other. That was down to the quality of the players, but also the quality of Unai Emery as a coach.”
Despite a patchy grasp of the language, Emery insisted on speaking French throughout his time at PSG, and although he was mocked by fans of other clubs, it earned him the respect of the rival coaches whose paths he crossed.
“He was very nice, very humble, almost shy—as if he was annoyed that he didn’t speak French so well,” Masala says. “He left a very good impression on me. For amateur coaches like me, we put guys like that on a pedestal. I really wasn’t disappointed.”
Emery has shown a similar determination to adapt to his new surroundings at Arsenal, where his role as head coach will be very different to Wenger’s all-encompassing managerial brief. The club’s new management structure (with Raul Sanllehi as head of football relations and Sven Mislintat as head of recruitment) will allow him to concentrate on training-ground work. And in contrast to PSG, he will find relatively few big egos in the Arsenal changing room.
The 46-year-old has introduced double training sessions in an effort to equip the players with the stamina required to play his brand of football. Arsenal’s social media posts over the summer have pointedly featured the new emphasis on hard work.
“Every coach has their own way of doing things, and for us it’s changed a lot,” right-back Hector Bellerin told Arsenal Player (h/t the Daily Mirror). “He is a coach who wants us to press and to run around a lot during the games, so obviously if we want to be ready to do that in the league, we have to do it in training. That’s one of the things that has impacted most on the players.”
Arsenal’s pre-season schedule—wins over Boreham Wood, PSG and Lazio and draws against Atletico Madrid and Chelsea—has also paid testament to the lessons Emery learned at PSG. Back is his preferred 4-2-3-1 configuration (jettisoning the back three that Wenger belatedly alighted upon), and those who watch the Gunners closely have discerned evidence of greater tactical cohesion.
“There have been signs of change,” says James McNicholas of Gunnerblog.
“The pressing seems to be a little bit more coordinated. It would be an exaggeration to say that we look like a different side and we’re pressing like Liverpool, but there does seem to be more coordination and more strategy behind what we’re doing.
“Arsenal’s big problem has been that they’ve looked like a team who didn’t really have an off-the-ball strategy. The big hope is that Emery can change that.”
In addition to Arsenal’s new signings—among them Germany international goalkeeper Bernd Leno and Uruguayan midfielder Lucas Torreira—the club’s fans are eager to see whether Emery will succeed in coaxing a higher level of performance from players who lost their way under Wenger, such as Mesut Ozil.
Emery has floated the idea of moving Ozil, who has inherited Jack Wilshere’s No. 10 shirt, to a new position on the right flank.
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With a daunting pair of opening games against Manchester City and Chelsea, Emery’s honeymoon period could end before it has even begun. Memories of the bitterness and apathy that characterized Wenger’s final days still haunt the Emirates Stadium, but with a fresh start comes fresh hope.
“If they can start positively—come away with four points, or something like that—everyone will be hailing Emery as a savior and they’ll rally round him,” McNicholas says. “If we lose the two games, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of the unrest return.
“But I don’t think it will result in apathy and I don’t think we’ll see empty stands this season, because people have re-engaged with the team. And that’s got to be a positive.”