Unai Emery on saving Aston Villa, qualifying for Europe

Unai Emery enters a room at the Bodymoor Heath training ground and walks over to the computer screen to start our Zoom chat. Dressed in training gear with smooth black hair, the Aston Villa manager looks relaxed. It’s England’s day off, so his calm demeanor can be forgiven, contrasting with his energetic personality off the touchline. But then again, that’s how we almost always see the 51-year-old before and after games. Calm, focused.

This focus is the result of a learning curve and an opportunity for redemption. Emery’s return to the English Premier League is not only a professional challenge but also a personal one. This is a chance for him to right the mistakes he first made as a league coach when he signed for Arsenal in 2018, taking over the job of replacing the club’s legendary manager Arsene Wenger, the man who embodied the north London club for 22 years.

Emery was ready for the challenge, but several factors were not working in his favour. That doesn’t mean he didn’t make mistakes. The removal of captain Granit Xhaka in favor of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the management of frosty relations with Mesut Ozil and the communication problems caused by the language barrier were difficult situations. After all, the time was wrong. It was a club in transition looking to replace its French creator and Emery was not the one to do so at the time.

Fast forward to the present day and Emery’s second season in the Premier League lifted Villa from a relegation battle to a fight for a chance to play in European football the following season. When his appointment was announced following the departure of Steven Gerrard last October, the club were only out of the relegation zone on goals. Now, in the space of six months, Villa is in eighth place (54 points) with three games left.

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

“I come from a traditional football family. From Real Union of Irun in the north of Spain,” says Emery, who also owns Union, which plays in the third tier of Spanish football. “They are one of the founding members of LaLiga. My grandfather was a goalkeeper. Cup winner. My father also carried on this football tradition.”

Emery trained in Spain, Russia and France before moving up to the Premier League. The first chapter in English football was a lesson, after which he won a record fourth Europa League title and reached the semi-finals of the Champions League with Villarreal. This time with Villa, he feels that he not only knows the league better, but also the culture.

“England is England. Every club has its own fanbase and the fans are loyal to their club and 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 amazing atmosphere,” says Emery.

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

“Tell me about yourself,” Emery chimes in. “You are Peruvian, but you immigrated to England and now you live in New York? How did this happen? You’re Peruvian, but your name is Basque, right? echo means “house” and garage means “high” or “hill”. So a house on a hill? tall house? Let’s solve it.

It’s ten minutes before I focus on him again, but it shows that Emery is interested not only in football but also in the people around it.

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Aston Villa’s incredible resurgence under Emery was one of the biggest successes of the season. However, there was a dent in the run as Villa’s derby loss to Wolves last weekend made the club’s path to Europe a bit steeper. And with Liverpool on the rise and seventh-placed Brighton (55 points) with two games left to play, the battle for European football next season is heating up. Villa will host Brighton on the final day of the season, and after the Seagulls’ 5-1 defeat to Everton, Emery’s European dream was rekindled. They will then face Tottenham Hotspur, another team vying for a place in Europe.

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

Villa finally has an identity, plan and design driven by the ambitious co-ownership of Wes Edens and Nassef Sawiris. The project, which also includes ambitious plans to create an innovative inner-city academy, an ever-expanding women’s team and an effective youth development system, is supported by the arrival of Mateu Alemany, Barcelona’s football director and someone Emery knows well. .

“Mateu Alemany is a person with experience, he has worked at a high level and if he comes here because there is an opportunity, it will be a very good opportunity to create a structure with him” he said last Friday.

Since Emery’s arrival, his influence has been felt at the club from top to bottom 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 a 1-0 loss to Manchester United – ending Villa’s 10-match unbeaten streak – and he and his staff are busy preparing for the next game and beyond. “Like most days, arrival at the training ground is at 7am and departure at 9pm,” confirms Vidagany, who has joined Emery to help facilitate his work at Villa.

“I’ve never been around a coach – or staff – who only has someone else’s job of individual improvement,” Tyrone Mings said on the podcast. The defender, along with other outstanding players, has seen a huge increase in quality. “I’m not sure he sleeps at all,” Ashley Young told Sky Sports. “Small details [in his work] helped us and pushed us further up the league.”

The most remarkable thing is that Emery achieved all this with virtually the same squad as Gerrard when he was manager. In fact, for the vast majority of recent appearances, the current team has been without key players such as Boubacar Kamara, Leon Bailey, Philippe Coutinho, recovering Diego Carlos and Matty Cash. Spanish defender Alex Moreno and young Colombian Jhon Jader Duran were the only newcomers, while Bertrand Traore and young Finnish goalkeeper Viljami Sinisalo returned from loan in January.

In addition, the 2022 World Cup saw international players miss practice in the early stages, the goalkeeper and World Cup winner, Argentina’s Emiliano Martinez being a prime example.

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

Villa’s project is ahead of schedule and even without Europe next season, the seeds have been planted. Such optimism has not been seen since former manager Martin O’Neill between 2006 and 2010, when the club finished in three consecutive sixth places. But for Emery, it’s all about focusing on the goal.

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

“When I arrived at Aston Villa we were in relegation form so the first objective was to get out of there. Now that we’ve achieved that, we now have more goals. Now let’s aim for the top ten. we want to be in Europe, so we are. At the end of the day, we’re still under construction. So am I surprised? I could say yes, I could say no, but ultimately I want to be ready first of all, adapt to every game and win every game.”

With three matches left at the end of the season, Aston Villa are considering the possibility of playing in the Europa League or the Europa Conference League next season, which is unthinkable in October. Emery has a more ambitious goal in mind. “I want to build an Aston Villa squad that plays in the Champions League,” he says.

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

“[The aim is] so we can all score goals and be a team that doesn’t concede many goals,” says Emery. “Of course it is with our goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, but even our strikers have to defend well. So when we want to build a team – apart from having great players like Ollie Watkins, Emiliano Buendia or Martinez in goal – it logically makes sense when the team has a mechanism where everyone contributes, that’s how we become stronger.

But that’s just the beginning, and in addition to working off the ball, Emery wants Villa to have a personality with the ball. He wants ownership, especially in the last third.

“The biggest hurdle for me is creating a dominant team with the ball,” says Emery. “To play with an idea and a controlled style of play with intelligent positioning and the ability to hold the ball longer than the opponent.”

In addition to his attention to detail with his squad, Emery is looking to build a connection with the Villa fans which is a hallmark of his time at the club so far. “Emery really tried to connect with fans through his own social media accounts and post-match interviews where he talked about his positive experience at Villa and his ambitions with the club. I’ve had a lot of conversations about Emery with other Villa fans and it’s the most universally positive thing I can remember fans wondering where Villa could go in the Premier League for a long time,” says fan Frankie Maguire.

In his post-game press conferences, before answering a question, Emery thanks the fans – whether the game is home or away – for attending the game and acknowledges their presence and support.

“The fans are the heart of the badge. They are, they were and they will be,” notes Emery, touching the Aston Villa crest on his training shirt. “Those who are professionals in the industry, we are here from different circumstances, so I always have that respect for the fans because I am grateful to them. I am here thanks to them. So the work I do, I know it’s for them. I’ve been to many clubs and felt it strongly. The true owner of the club has always been the fans.

Emery’s commitment to the game, his obsession with detail and his desire to improve are perhaps not unique in a game full of geniuses like Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola and Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp, but what makes Emery unique is his empathy for everyone in and around the game. .

“Football will always go in circles [Emery imitates going round and round] where the fans are the most important part and then there is the rest of us. I always like to remind myself of that because even though I don’t have that direct contact with them – in the stadium of course, but not in everyday life or face to face – I know they are there, they are the heart and I am in that heart too.”

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