The making of Unai Emery: From Almeria's dice roller to Arsene Wenger's anointed heir at Arsenal

Profile: Emery is a man characterised by his seriousness and relentless drive. But dig deeper, and a far more complex man begins to emerge

Jack Lang
Tuesday 14 August 2018 09:53
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Who is Unai Emery?

It was, by any metric, the biggest game in the history of Unión Deportiva Almería. And while that history was – and remains – both fairly short and decidedly modest, the cluster of fans who schlepped up to Galicia that evening were hardly concerned with that kind of deflationary context.

Deportivo La Coruña, 26 August 2007: Almería's first ever game in the top flight and reward for a slow, circuitous trawl through Spain's jumbled divisions. Finally, the big time. Cause for celebration, but perhaps also a slither of self-doubt before taking the stage. Were they... you know... good enough for this?

One man knew the answer to that question and was not about to let the occasion get to him. He was dreaming bigger, already plotting greater conquests. And he wanted to use this opportunity to ram a point home to his players.

So Unai Emery, the young coach who had guided Los Rojiblancos to the promised land in his first season in charge, plucked a dice from his pocket. This, he told his wide-eyed charges, was how he was going to pick the team. Not because he hadn't spent months planning and tweaking every last detail in preparation for the campaign – the devil, for Emery, has always resided in the details – but because his trust in every single one of them was unshakeable. So he rolled.

"I wanted to show them that I didn't care who was going to play," he later revealed in an interview with French magazine So Foot. "It didn't really matter which players were on the pitch, because we were going to win anyway. I was that confident."

He had every right to be: first-half goals from Álvaro Negredo and Fernando Soriano silenced the Riazor before Albert Crusat lent the scoreline some extra sheen after the break. It was, in the words of Marca's Álvaro Roca, "an exhibition of style and speed" from the primera novices.

The dice story sounds apocryphal, but Emery isn't the only one to confirm its veracity. Felipe Melo, who came off the bench against Depor and went on to be one of Almería's brightest lights that season, also recalls his coach delegating team selection to Lady Luck. "That's true," the Brazilian tells The Independent with a chuckle. "He really did that."

That the stunt had its desired effect on opening weekend probably owed to the fact that it was so out of character. For this was one of the only occasions that Emery left anything to chance during a two-year spell that proved to be his making as a coach.

The Basque arrived at the Estadio Mediterráneo in the summer of 2006, fresh from taking Lorca, a club about the size of York City but with precisely none of the tradition, to within a whisker of the first division. Almería were not the only club interested in his services, but president Alfonso García, a businessman with ambitious plans for the seasiders, was not to be denied. Not to be disappointed, either: the squad embraced Emery's studious, hands-on approach wholeheartedly and sealed promotion with four games of the season to spare.

It would have been easy for him to bask in the glow of that achievement, but instead Emery doubled down. It wasn't enough for him to survive in primera; he wanted to thrive. Bankrolled by García, he made a clutch of new signings: in came Melo and Negredo, plus Brazilian goalkeeper Diego Alves and defenders Mané and Juanma Ortiz. And as the quality in his squad went up a level, his obsession with his chosen profession – this is a coach who has admitted to keeping a book by his bed so he can jot down football-related thoughts during the night – followed suit.

Emery on the touchline during his days as Almeria boss

It is no secret that Emery places a burden on his players. There are the 11-a-side training sessions without a ball, the video sessions that last hours and hours... it's a lot. Yet the 46-year-old is not chasing new fads: these have been the pillars of his work for over a decade now, and crucial to his vision of how a team should function. His personal trophy cabinet would suggest the approach has its merits, and while there have been whispers of frustration from some players over the years, Melo fully bought into Emery's methods during his time in Spain.

"He's very demanding, but you have to be," explains the midfielder, now playing back in his homeland with Palmeiras. "During the season, us players had to watch a lot of videos. Really: a lot. We watched our rivals, then watched our own games, Unai stopping the tape to comment on the things we did well and show us what we were doing wrong.

"He really, really understands football. Tactically, he's brilliant, and he has the patience to work on all these movements, to come up to you when you've misplaced a pass and say, 'No, look, you have to hit the ball like this.' These are the strengths that have taken him to where he is today.

"There are two coaches today who work so hard on their tactics and dead-ball routines that facing them is a shock. One is Unai and the other is Diego Simeone. Simeone also prepares his team well, keeps things tight and then beats you with a set piece. Unai is the same, and the videos are a big part of that. He asks a lot of you, but [the work] is important."

The Spaniard is a disciplinarian on the training field

It helps that Emery also has a knack for connecting emotionally with his players: he is just as adept with the arm round the shoulder as he is with a PowerPoint clicker. At Almería he had yet to start giving players books to read, as he later did at Valencia, but his pastoral side instantly won over Melo, to the extent that there is still clearly an emotional bond between the two 11 years later.

"I arrived at Almería after a tough time with Santander," the 35-year-old recalls. "I wanted to play in central midfield, which is my natural position, but the coach at the time said that I didn't have the quality for that role and put me out on the left. I told him my dream was to play for Brazil and he just laughed. But when I spoke to Unai, he promised that if I signed for Almeria, I would play in the middle.

"The way you treat players is so important in football, and he knows how to manage people. It's not just about technique or tactics. Footballers are human beings who do their best but sometimes make mistakes: that's normal. Sometimes you feel down, for one reason or another. Unai knows how to deal with all of those situations.

"He'll call you over for a chat, share some experience from his own life, or show you a video he's made specifically for you. He's like a father to his players. And when you're treated like a son, when you feel like that's your dad watching from the touchline, you'll do anything for him."

Emery is an astute tactician

That commitment was shared by Melo's colleagues, who built on the victory over Deportivo in sensational style in the months that followed. There were home-and-away wins over Sevilla, a narrow success at Valencia, an improbable four-goal draw with Barcelona and – best of the lot – a 2-0 victory over Real Madrid at the Mediterráneo. Widely expected to struggle in the elite, Almería finished eighth.

"That was such an important season," continues Melo. "It's a small club, but we challenged the big boys and made history. Even guys like me, who were only there for one season, are remembered with such fondness by the supporters. That's gratifying and showed that we did a good job there. It also allowed us to take big steps forward in our careers."

Melo, his stalling career revived, was snapped up by Fiorentina and then moved to Juventus. Emery was poached by Valencia. And they weren't the only ones to use that season as a springboard: Negredo stayed for one more year before joining Sevilla; Alves and Bruno Saltor, now of Brighton, later joined their old boss at the Mestalla.

Almería are now back in the second flight and have spent the last three seasons battling against relegation, the glory years seemingly in the rear-view mirror. But Melo's testimony will make for comforting reading for a different set of fans who have grown frustratingly accustomed to a different sort of ennui and drift. Emery's Arsenal reign may have begun with a chastening defeat to reigning champions Manchester City, but there is reason to be hopeful that better times lie ahead.

His Arsenal reign began in a 2-0 loss to Manchester City

If Arsène Wenger let the job get away from him, as many felt, the seriousness and relentless drive of his successor should be just the tonic. And while the project must be judged over the long term, the Basque is competitive enough to demand an instant improvement in his first away game, against Chelsea on Saturday. Even if he leaves the dice at home this time on this occasion.

"I have such vivid memories of him," adds Melo. "When someone comes into your life and helps you improve, helps you reach your objectives and really teaches you things, it's hard to forget them.

"Unai has so many qualities and I never doubted that he would reach the level of the top clubs. He's won almost every trophy there is, and he'll show at Arsenal that he's one of the best coaches in the world."

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