As Unai Emery bids to become the first coach to lift this trophy four times, Graham Hunter explores the reasons behind his sustained Europa League success
We live in an age where our smart-phones recognise our fingerprints, where we place our palm on turnstile entrances to the gym, where iris identification will soon supplant passports. So, if Arsenal happen to win this final, we probably shouldn’t be surprised if the trophy recognises Unai Emery when he lifts it to the starlit sky. It’s a DNA thing.
Of course, Chelsea will have something to say about that, and they may have such a firm riposte that this doesn’t in fact become the Basque’s fourth trophy in the competition with which he’s become so indelibly identified. Yet Emery isn’t someone who is outlandish. While victory would taste sweet and defeat bitter, whatever fate has in store for him here in Baku, it is truly the journey he values most. The route, the companions, the worth of working hard to arrive, seeing those around him evolve and grow – the process.
Everyone savours rewards, medals, new contracts, salaries that reflect achievement; to suggest otherwise would be daft. Particularly a guy for whom only five of his nearly 350 league matches as an athletic left midfielder were in Spain’s top flight.
However, this 47-year-old, who freely admits that “the Unai who was a player wouldn’t get in Unai the coach’s teams”, is probably so successful and sought-after because, at heart, he is a superb teacher.
Once you get to know him, or even listen regularly to him expounding on his art, you will hear repeat phrases. “Every day I wake up and know how fortunate I am to be in this career” or, and this is an especial favourite: “The greatest reward a player can ever give me, as his coach, is to say that he’s improved under me, ahead even of having won things together.”
The evidence to back up his self-assessment can easily be found in Emery’s three consecutive winning final performances with Sevilla between 2014 and 2016. Each victory was epic. Penalties against Benfica in Turin, a comeback 3-2 defeat of Dnipro in Warsaw, then a 3-1 win over Liverpool in Basel when Jürgen Klopp’s side had significantly bossed the first half and probably merited more than their 1-0 lead.
In each instance, Emery’s player-group found ways to cope, discover solutions, stuck firmly to his strategies, adapted – particularly against Liverpool – to tactical adjustments. At the end of long, tiring seasons, it transpired that the ‘extras’ he had instilled in them over the previous ten months – character, unity, ambition, belief – were the winning elements when fatigue, a relentless rival, moments of inattention or bad luck seemed ready to snatch final victory away.
Unai Emery celebrates Sevilla’s triumph in 2015
“You have the winning gene,” his new employer at Paris Saint-Germain told him when his brilliance at Sevilla won him the chance to develop the French champions, with whom he won seven trophies in two years before moving to Arsenal. In short, this is a coach who wins his players over as individuals. Then hones, evolves and readies them for the greatest victories, which either means lifting trophies or going on to still more prominent success at other clubs.
“I’m a coach who relies on dialogue, who transmits energy to his players,” is another truism Emery shared, with El País. “Eighty per cent of my work is correctly analysing my squad and the rival team.”
The specifics of how he works at Arsenal, where his values and skills can be clearly seen in this, only their third UEFA final in 19 years, are for him to describe. But one of the methods that brought him success in Seville indicates how his passion for this profession can be all-consuming.
EMERY'S EUROPA LEAGUE RECORD
P73 W42 D19 L12
2016 Liverpool 1-3 Sevilla
2015 Dnipro 2-3 Sevilla
2014 Sevilla 0-0 Benfica
(AET: Sevilla win 4-2 on pens)
In search of the Eureka moment, as both he and Pep Guardiola describe the realisation of how his team can defeat a particular rival after long hours of study, Emery would seek the dark, quiet, solitude of night work. Up at 8am, breakfast at the training ground, a long day’s work with the squad, a siesta-snooze from 7pm until 8pm, dinner then study and the search for inspirational clarity in the challenges facing an elite coach until either 2am or 3am. Every day.
There’s another, slightly undervalued, asset to Arsenal’s Basque leader – his unwavering conviction that the fan matters. He wants his philosophy to be sufficiently flexible that traces of what he taught to his players at Almería or even Lorca remain to this day. And he’s dedicated to the idea that the tuition he gives his squad must take them to personal improvement and trophies. But amid all of that, he wants to entertain, too. “We all seek success, but it’s vital that the football we play transmits emotion to our fans, that they also feel connected to what we are trying to do,” he told a recent Spanish FA coaching conference. “Give the people who love your club vibrant feelings about the football you play and they’ll identify with you and the players. Get that right and you’ve done well.”
So should Emery taste victory again tonight, when you watch the trophy being lifted, by all means appreciate the moment – but just be clear that his joy will be in the work, the process, the means of charting his, his players’ and the Arsenal fans’ long road from London to Baku.