After 22 years, a new manager will grace Arsenal’s technical area when the club begin their Premier League campaign at home to champions Manchester City at the Emirates Stadium next Sunday. Arsene Wenger is out and Unai Emery, formerly of Paris Saint-Germain and Sevilla, has been anointed as his successor. For Arsenal supporters, there will be a tinge of nostalgia for the Wenger era but also excitement as the new regime gathers pace.
Here Adam Crafton reveals the secrets of Emery’s revolution, underlining where the Spanish coach could shine and why he could yet be undermined by the uncertainty festering in the boardroom.
Emery’s dependance on lengthy video analysis sessions is legendary among his former players. The Spanish winger Joaquin once joked Emery made him watch so many clips that he ran out of popcorn — and the meetings have started in earnest during Arsenal’s pre-season tour. Emery and his coaching staff spend a combined 12 hours editing information that is then presented to players in a condensed 30-minute format. David Villa, who played under Emery at Valencia, has also been managed by Vicente del Bosque, Pep Guardiola and Diego Simeone.
‘I always liked Emery’s approach,’ Villa said, in El Maestro, Romain Molina’s authorised biography of Emery. ‘Unai always wanted to make a player better and analyse the opposition point by point so that players have all the information they could wish for. I am grateful for everything he did for me.’
New Greek defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos said that remedial work on the team’s ‘organisation’ began from the very first day, after Arsenal contrived to concede 73 goals in all competitions last season. Emery has also renewed the focus on set-pieces.
Juan Mata, his former Valencia player, says Emery is the manager with the highest concentration on set-piece routines and when you consider that the Manchester United playmaker has played for Rafa Benitez, Jose Mourinho and Louis van Gaal, it is a statement that speaks volumes for Emery’s attention to detail.
Curiously, Emery’s assistant Juan Carlos Carcedo has also plucked certain routines from basketball during his career, in a manner reminiscent to Gareth Southgate and England this summer.
The intensity of Emery and his coaching staff is not to everyone’s liking. In France last season, it was reported that superstar Neymar found the video sessions too gruelling, while Hatem Ben Arfa was caught on camera telling Carcedo: ‘You yell too much! Just let us play.’ French newspaper L’Equipe also suggested that the assistant’s criticism on the training ground lacked ‘human warmth’ and became too ‘virulent’ for some players.
Yet, as Hector Bellerin pointed out last week, a new-found structure may be just what Arsenal require. The defender said: ‘Arsene Wenger was a manager that led a lot of inspiration from the players. He gave you a lot of freedom. Unai Emery is a bit more tactical. We are going to be more organised on the pitch.’
During their week in Singapore, Arsenal only had one high-intensity tactics session, with the focus predominantly on building fitness and conditioning. But Emery is now accelerating the squad’s development to instil a fast pressing system that will bring his side up to speed with the Premier League’s most modern and progressive sides, such as Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham.
Goalkeepers Petr Cech and Bernd Leno will be asked to take higher starting positions, while the team will be expected to press as a pack to recover possession. Arsenal will likely line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, but it becomes a 4-4-2 without the ball and Mesut Ozil in the No 10 role will be told to lead the pressing along with the central striker. The early reaction from the players has been positive and Emery has also held repeated individual talks with players. They know they have a modern manager who has three Europa League titles to his name — and a fourth this season would represent a mightily fine first season.
The personal touch
Under Wenger, the Arsenal squad became accustomed to learning the team’s starting line-up in the days leading up to the game. It was usually the day before, but sometimes even earlier. Emery is more determined to keep players on their toes, taking the view that every player must be ready on match-day. For pre-season matches, players have been informed of the starting XI on the day of the game.
Throughout his career, Emery has striven to develop close personal relationships with players. He has been buoyed by having the vast majority of his star names at his disposal for much of pre-season, while the likes of Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino stagger through to the campaign with patchwork sides. Those early devilish fixtures against Manchester City and Chelsea now represent an opportunity to catch their opponents cold.
Emery’s command of English is improving with regular lessons and he is also encouraging his Spanish-speaking staff to talk among themselves in English. His female language teacher has even sat pitchside during training sessions to offer support to Emery if he feels it is required.
The manager is determined to succeed in the Premier League, having bided his time for the correct offer and previously resisted approaches from West Ham and Everton. Emery has also been known to focus on individual players during pre-match team-talks, where he lists bullet points on a whiteboard but livens it up with stories plucked from the arts. On one occasion at Sevilla, he even invited the club kitman to speak.
Emery has a record of recommending books to his players, with Mata often asking for tips when the pair were together at Valencia, while Molina’s biography also reveals that Emery gave his Sevilla goalkeeper Sergio Rico the autobiography of Victor Valdes to aid him through a difficult phase. Rico’s father later thanked Emery for the intervention.
The coach also reveals himself to be an admirer of Daniel Goleman’s work on emotional intelligence and Terry Orlick’s volumes on psychology and leadership. He has also read recent books about Guardiola and Diego Simeone, while he still keeps tactical works on Mourinho from the Manchester United manager’s time in Portugal.
Following the long-awaited departure of Wenger, the new concern at Arsenal is the increasingly doubtful future of chief executive Ivan Gazidis. The CEO has an offer from AC Milan and informed the Arsenal board at the end of last month that he is considering a change. The suggestion in Italy is that Gazidis will link up with Milan at the end of the transfer window.
It is peculiar timing. Gazidis won his long-running power battle with Wenger and has placed himself at the front and centre of this new Arsenal era. When Wenger departed, Gazidis attended the press conference in the immediate aftermath. The executive then sat beside Emery, his choice as manager, at the Spaniard’s unveiling. Gazidis has shaped the club’s new structure, with Raul Sanllehi lured from Barcelona as head of football relations and Sven Mislintat brought in as head of recruitment from Borussia Dortmund.
At the club’s London Colney base, Gazidis made a speech introducing the new manager and, on the tour of Singapore, Gazidis addressed staff, players and coaches at a club barbecue in a passionate defence of Ozil after the German retired from international football. He has spoken to Emery almost on a daily basis since the coach arrived and the Spaniard will now be keen to make a strong start in the Premier League if one of his strongest advocates is to depart so rapidly.
Unai Emery has had plenty to work on since replacing Arsene Wenger with defensive frailties uppermost in his thinking. The side he inherited were the leakiest of the Premier League’s ‘Big Six’, conceding 73 goals.