Unai Emery on rescuing Aston Villa, European qualification

Unai Emery enters the room inside Bodymoor Heath training ground and approaches the computer screen for our Zoom call. Dressed in his training gear with slick black hair, the Aston Villa manager looks relaxed. It is a day off in England, so it’s forgivable to excuse his calm demeanor, a contrast to his energetic touchline persona. But then again, this is how we almost always perceive the 51-year-old before and after matches. Tranquil, focused.

This focus is a result of a learning curve and a chance for redemption. Emery’s return to the English Premier League is not only a professional challenge, it’s a personal one, too. It’s a chance for him to amend the mistakes from his first time coaching in the league when he signed with Arsenal in 2018, taking over the job of replacing legendary club manager Arsene Wenger, a man who embodied the North London club for 22 years.

Emery was up for the challenge, but several factors did not work in his favor. It’s not to say he didn’t make mistakes. Removing Granit Xhaka‘s captaincy in favor of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, managing a frosty relationship with Mesut Ozil and communication issues due to language barriers were all difficult situations. In the end, the timing wasn’t right. It was a club in transition, looking to find a successor to their French auteur, and Emery was not the one to do it at that time.

Fast-forward to today, and Emery’s second stint in the Premier League has lifted Villa from a relegation battle to fighting for a chance to play European football next season. When his appointment was announced after Steven Gerrard’s departure last October, the club was out of the relegation zone due only to goals scored. Now, in the space of six months, Villa sit in eighth place (54 points) with three matches remaining.

Over our conversation, Emery’s obsession with personal stories and how football fans are connected to the game comes to the fore, not least because of his family’s relationship to the game.

“I am from a traditional football family. From Real Union of Irun, in the north of Spain,” says Emery, who is also the owner of Union, who play in the third tier of Spanish football. “They are one of the founding members of LaLiga. My grandfather was a goalkeeper. A cup winner. My father also followed this footballing tradition.”

Emery coached in Spain, Russia and France before coming to the Premier League. The first chapter in English football served as a lesson, after which he won a record fourth Europa League title and reached a semifinal appearance in the Champions League with Villarreal. This time around with Villa, he feels he doesn’t just know the league better, he knows the culture, too.

“England is England. Every club has its fan base and the fan base is loyal to their club and they go to see their team every Sunday the same way a religious person goes to mass. They are dependent on their team and they love their team. Every match has an incredible atmosphere,” Emery says.

How about the English food and weather? “If we want more sun, we need to go to Spain. If we want a paella, we go to Valencia. If we want a good ribeye steak, we go to San Sebastían,” he says with a smile.

“Tell me about yourself,” Emery interjects. “You’re Peruvian but immigrated to England and now a New Yorker? How did that happen? You’re Peruvian but your name is Basque, yes? Eche means “house” and Garay means “high” or “hill.” So house on a hill? A high house? Let’s figure that out.”

Ten minutes pass before I turn the focus back on him, but it shows that Emery is interested not only in football, but in those around the game.

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Aston Villa’s incredible resurgence under Emery has been one of the major success stories this season. There’s been a dent in the run, however, as Villa’s derby loss to Wolves this past weekend made the club’s path for Europe slightly steeper. And with Liverpool‘s surge and Brighton occupying seventh place (55 points) with two matches in hand, the battle for European football next season is heating up. Villa will host Brighton on the last day of the season, and after the Seagulls’ 5-1 loss to Everton, Emery’s European dream has been reignited. Next, they’ll face Tottenham Hotspur, another team vying for a European spot.

“The result is disappointing but, overall, we have to be excited, and the position we are in, we could not have dreamed of three months ago,” said Emery on Saturday after the loss to Wolves. “We have to play three matches but the next match against Tottenham is our final.” Europe or not, the upward trajectory has been remarkable given Emery’s short tenure.

Villa finally has an identity, a plan and a project, which is led by the ambitious co-ownership of Wes Edens and Nassef Sawiris. The project — which also includes ambitious plans for an innovative inner city academy, a women’s team that continues to grow and a successful youth development system — is supported by the reported arrival of Mateu Alemany, Barcelona‘s director of football and someone Emery knows well.

“Mateu Alemany is a person with experiences, he has worked at a high level and, if he’s coming here, because it is a possibility, it will be a very good opportunity to create a structure with him,” he said last Friday.

Since Emery’s arrival, his impact has been felt from top to bottom at the club as he instilled an obsession with detail and development. “It may be a day off, but not for Unai,” says Damia Vidagany, Emery’s right-hand man and assistant.

It’s the day after the 1-0 loss to Manchester Unitedending Villa’s 10-match unbeaten run — and he and his staff are busy at work, preparing for the next fixture and beyond. “Just like most days, it’s a 7 a.m. arrival at the training ground and 9 p.m. departure,” confirms Vidagany, who joined Emery in order to help him facilitate his tenure at Villa.

“I’ve never been around a coach — or staff — that solely has somebody’s job on individual improvement,” said Tyrone Mings on a podcast. The defender, alongside other notable players, has seen a tremendous rise in quality. “I’m not sure he even sleeps,” said Ashley Young in an interview with Sky Sports. “The small little details [in his work] have helped us and propelled us further up the league.”

What’s most remarkable is that Emery has accomplished all this with practically the same squad as Gerrard when he was manager. In fact, for the vast majority of the recent run, the current team has been without key players such as Boubacar Kamara, Leon Bailey, Philippe Coutinho, a recovering Diego Carlos and Matty Cash. Spanish full-back Alex Moreno and the young Colombian Jhon Jader Duran have been the only new arrivals, while Bertrand Traore and young Finnish goalkeeper Viljami Sinisalo returned from loan in January.

Also, the 2022 World Cup caused international players to miss out on training during the early stages, goalkeeper and World Cup winner with Argentina Emiliano Martinez being a perfect example.

Should we be surprised at Villa’s “new manager bounce”? Justin Hawthorne of UTV Podcast thinks so. “I think even the seemingly unflappable Unai Emery might be a little surprised as to just how well it’s gone so far, a lot of credit also has to go down to the players who have bought into the message the manager has bought with him,” Hawthorne says.

Villa’s project is ahead of schedule, and even without Europe next season, the seeds have been planted. Not since the days of former manager Martin O’Neill from 2006 to 2010, when the club earned three consecutive sixth-placed finishes, has there ever been such optimism. For Emery, though, it’s all about staying focused on the goal at hand.

“As a manager, I always think like this: ‘Better to start things now than tomorrow,'” Emery says. “When I was at Almería, now it’s in La Liga, but back then it was in the second division, the club’s president said to me, ‘Unai. Let’s sign a two-year contract and the objective will be to earn promotion in the second year.’ So I said, ‘Well, if we can do it in the first year, even better!’ So we did.

“When I arrived at Aston Villa, we were in relegation form, so the first goal was to climb out of it. Once that’s achieved, well now you have more objectives. Let’s now aim for the top 10. Once that’s achieved, let’s now aim to be in Europe, so here we are. At the end of the day, we are still in the process of building. So am I surprised? I could say yes, I could say no, but in the end I aim to be ready before anything else, adapt to every match and win every match.”

With three games left in the season, Aston Villa are eyeing the opportunity to play in the Europa League or Europa Conference League next season, something unthinkable in October. Emery has his eyes on a more ambitious goal. “I want to build an Aston Villa squad that plays in the Champions League,” he says.

In order to build this Champions League squad, Villa will need reinforcements. Reported targets such as Juventus and Serbian star Dusan Vlahovic and Barcelona’s Ferran Torres show the club’s ambition in the market. But it’s equally important for Emery that new players build on the foundation set by current players.

“[The aim is] for all of us to be able to score and to be a team that doesn’t concede many goals,” Emery says. “So obviously that’s with our goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, but even our strikers have to defend well. So when we look to build a team — aside from having great footballers like Ollie Watkins or Emiliano Buendia, or Martinez in goal — it logically makes sense when a team has a mechanism where everyone contributes, that’s how we become stronger.”

But this is only the beginning, and aside from working without possession of the ball, Emery wants Villa to have a personality with the ball. He wants ownership, specifically in the final third.

“The biggest obstacle for me continues, which is to create a dominant team with the ball,” Emery says. “To play with an idea and a controlled style of play with smart positioning and a capacity to have the ball longer than the opponent.”

Alongside the attention to detail when it comes to his squad, Emery makes an effort to foster a connection to the Villa fans, a distinctive feature of his time at the club so far. “Emery has genuinely tried to connect with fans through his own social media accounts and postmatch interviews, where he had talked up his positive experiences of working at Villa and his ambitions for the club. I have had many conversations about Emery with fellow Villa fans and this is the most universally positive I can remember the fans being about where Villa could go in the Premier League in a long time,” says supporter Frankie Maguire.

In his postmatch news conferences, before responding to a question, Emery thanks the fans — no matter if the match is home or away — for attending the game and acknowledges their presence and their support.

“The supporters are the heart of the badge. They are the ones who are, have been and will be,” remarks Emery, touching the Aston Villa badge on his training top. “Those who are professionals in the industry, we are here because of different circumstances, so I always have this respect for the supporters because I am indebted to them. I am here thanks to them. So the work I do, I know it’s for them. I have been in many clubs and I have felt it strongly. The true owner of the club has always been the supporters.”

Emery’s dedication to the game, his obsession with detail and desire to improve are perhaps not unique in a game full of masterminds like Manchester City‘s Pep Guardiola and Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp, but what makes Emery special is his empathy for all those in and around the game.

“Football will always go round and round [Emery imitates going round and round] where the supporters are the most important part and then there’s the rest of us. I always like to remind myself of this because even though I don’t have this direct relationship with them — obviously at the stadium, but not in everyday life or face to face — I know that they are there, they are the heart and I am inside that heart as well.”