“Football is a process of constant natural selection. Relentless. Those who don’t understand that end up being found out”
Unai Emery has recently been appointed manager of Sevilla, is a former manager of Valencia, and was still in charge there when interviewed here. He was a great success at the Mestalla, finishing sixth in his first season, followed by two in third place finishes in the proceeding two seasons, behind only Real Madrid and Barcelona. In June 2012 he moved to Spartak Moscow and was sacked in November 2012 after losing 5-1 at home to rivals Dynamo Moscow, managed by Dan Petrescu. Alexander Mostovoi, who, having himself played in Spain and therefore able perhaps to lend a certain opinion as to the reasons for his sacking, has since claimed that, just as with Michael Laudrup previously, Emery failed to win the trust of the players.
Before becoming a manager, you had a career as a player. What kind of player were you?
I played at Real Sociedad for 10 years. My idol was Lopez Ulfarte. They called him ‘the little devil’. It was Prince Rainier who gave him the nickname after having seen him play at a Tournament in Monaco. What a guy! I played the same position as him, left wing, but, alas, I never had his talent. I was technically gifted; I had a good left foot and a reading of the game, but I was mentally weak – I’d put too much pressure on myself. And also I wasn’t great physically either. When I look back, I see a lot of weaknesses.
Do you have any regrets about your career as a footballer?
My career was what it was, and I accept that. But one thing is for sure – it’s helped me in my work as a manager. A manager who was once a player, even at a mediocre level, understands the soul of a footballer. The stress, the fear, the feeling of not wanting to let people down or to make a mistake. All these things that restrain a player in his game, I know them well. I understand too, the rivalry between two players of the same team.
Was it perhaps your frustration at not having made it big as a player that drove you to becoming a manager?
Perhaps subconsciously it was that….but I always wanted to be a manager! If I’d had a glorious career, that wouldn’t have changed my plans. The majority of players who, once they’ve hung up their boots, take their coaching badges do so out of no real interest. Not me. At 23 I was already in charge of a group of teenagers in my village, at 24 I passed my first badge, then at 28 and 29, I passed the last ones. And I’d spent my entire career as a player, listening, watching, analysing what was going on on the pitch. It’s stupid but I didn’t make use of any of all that until after I’d stopped playing and became a manager.
It’s a little unusual no?
Yes. I’m incapable of taking pleasure in the present moment, I’m too cerebral for that. Surprising eh? When I was little they called me ‘nervy bottom’. Football didn’t knock it out of me.
Do you often experience, as a manager, feelings you had as a player?
Sometimes yes, when I go out onto the playing surface. When I was a player I used to love to come out and wander around the pitch before a game, it was a time for valuable reflection. Today I do the same thing, I treat myself to a sort of calm before the storm.
What do you think about?
They’re moments of intense reflection. ‘We should do this, I should tell them to do that…’ I try to visualise the match in my head. A few times I’ve changed the plans I’ve made for a game out of intuition, alone at the last minute out on the pitch. Without wanting to blow my own trumpet, it’s never let me down.
You started out as player-manager, at Lorca. What’s the difference between the Emery of that time and that of now, at Valencia?
The divisions between them. I’ve had a meteoric rise. Football, it’s very difficult…… Being a manager, even more so. You battle each and every day so that in the eyes of other people you’re indispensable. You’ve got to be constantly at the top of your game, if you let up, you’re gone. Every manager has to prepare for periods of difficulty in the same way as you prepare for matches. Until now I’ve been on the way up, but I know that one day there has to be a down. I only think as far ahead as tomorrow. I work only for the next match to come, and when that match is finished, it’s training the next day. There’s nothing else.
You first emerged onto the scene with Almeria, in 2006. A team that seemed to need no time to adjust at all after promotion to La Liga. How did you prepare for that transition from 2nd to 1st Division?
I learnt a lot from teams we played in the 3rd and 2nd Division. And also I spent my free time watching hundreds of matches, ‘This team won. Who’s the manager? How does it work? This other team lost. Why? Ah,well no surprise if that’s what they do…’. In Football, you have everything you need to learn before your eyes. I love going to watch other teams. It’s unfortunate that some managers will only go to look at players. That’s the least interesting thing on show. What interests me isn’t the players but the group, the collective. That a midfielder should do dozens of stepovers has no interest for me whatsoever. I watch the link up play, how a team defends or attacks. I’ve got notes on over a hundred different teams, a resource I use like a supermarket ‘Yeah I’ll take that one that looks good, and that too that’s always useful’.
Do you go as often now that you’re at Valencia?
Of course. I like going to Levante or to Villarreal, or if I don’t have the time, I’m in front of the TV. There, if I’ve got the choice between, say, four matches, I pay for the one with a team that has grabbed my attention in the past. I’m an experienced channel hopper. Over time I’ve imposed one golden rule; if there’s a team that I didn’t enjoy watching, they won’t be any better a second time round so I delete them from memory. That way I save a lot of money on pay per view. Anyway, today a manager can’t concentrate solely on strategy. You’ve also got to take an interest in psychology, finances, nutrition, communication, the image you present. Personally, I work very hard on the mental aspect.
Like I said, I was a weak player, and I don’t want my players to have the same problems as me. We can lose a match for any reason other than our mentality. I don’t want my players to be overawed or caught out by anything that happens on the pitch. That would mean I did a bad job.
How does one work on mentality?
I’ve never brought in a psychologist, because I think it’s something that scares footballers. I prefer instead to make use of my own personal experience. I read a lot too, on leadership or the cohesion of a group. At the moment I’m very interested in emotional intelligence, it allows me to manage a group of people who don’t all share the same language, culture or education.
And day to day, how exactly?
I do everything I can to foster competition within the squad. When I have two players for the same position, I make sure to keep the one who isn’t playing on his toes. And those who are in the starting line up must demonstrate both the physical and mental advantage they have over those with whom they compete during the week. At Valencia we don’t want divas, we want players who are totally committed.
When you arrived at Valencia, the club was going through the worst period in its history. That didn’t scare you?
The paradox is, that crisis confirmed Valencia’s status as a big club; in a similar situation others would have folded. For us, not having any money meant buying in young players and selling on the stars like David Villa and Silva. It’s an exciting challenge for me. Nobody saw us finishing towards the top of the table this year, but the statistics don’t lie – we have four points more than at the same stage last year. And without Villa, or Baraja, and David Silva.
Why is it…..
(Interrupting) On my first day at Valencia, the newspapers were announcing the arrival of Luis Aragones as manager. I hadn’t even taken charge of one training session and already I was being kicked out, can you imagine?
How did you react?
Calmly. I called Villalonga [the former acting president] and told him I wanted to see him. I waited six hours to talk to him. When finally he met me, I was direct: “Am I the manager of Valencia, yes or no?”. I knew that Aragones coming wasn’t just press talk, and I didn’t see how I could stand in front of my players without ultimate confirmation of my role. After a quarter of an hour, Villalonga told me, “I’m going to kiss you very hard just to show you that it’s you who I want as manager”. We did it old style.
And that gave you strength?
Yes. I’ve had three different presidents and four different sporting directors since I’ve been here, and I’ve always worked in the same way. For me, the dressing room is a refuge. (he gets up and makes large gestures) “Unai, there’s someone over there who says you’re gonna get fired!”. I don’t care, I carry on working. “Unai, everything’s going wrong!” I don’t care, I carry on working. You know Sancho Panza? The fat guy with Don Quixote on his donkey?
(he recites theatrically) “Don Quixote, the dogs are fast behind and barking! Don’t pay any mind Sancho Panza! Don’t look back, keep your eyes on the skyline and let’s ride!”. At Valencia, I do as Don Quixote does; I trace my journey without looking back.
Did you make use of the economic crisis within the club to motivate your players?
When I arrived, the new Mestalla stadium was being built. Three years on, it’s exactly the same as how I saw it that first time. The works haven’t progressed, and I know it because I go past there everyday on my way home. There you have it, the crisis at Valencia, we decide to build a stadium and can’t finish it. While waiting for the facelift, we do as best we can. We’ll have to sell players? Then let’s sell them! We’ll have to buy young players on the cheap and sell them on for profit? Let’s do it! We have to qualify for the Champions League to bring in extra revenue? OK no problem! Right now, we’re at the limit of our capabilities. We can’t do better. It’s very stressful (smiles).
Do you think that you can manage a team like Valencia in the same way as an Almeria or a Lorca?
I don’t really think about that. At Lorca, they told me we had to go up to Segunda A, I did it. At Almeria, they told me we had to go up to the first division, I did it. At Valencia, they told me to target the Champions League, and that’s done too. I make a distinction between external pressures and what you demand from yourself. ‘You have to win’ is very different from ‘I want to win’. There’s no use in telling me that we have to win, I already know that!
Does a player understand the difference between these two pressures? External and Internal?
You have to instil it into him. In this room, there are usually 25 players sitting and listening to their manager. Those who are afraid or who want to hide always go to the back. When I see that they’re weak, I make them come to the front. I want them to take part. When you’re at the back of the class you do nothing. I’m in a good position to know, because in my school days I was always there – you could watch the girls. Here, there’s no girls to eye up so I don’t see the advantage in being at the back. Football is a process of constant natural selection. Relentless. Those who don’t understand that end up being found out.
That can also be indicative of a different problem can it not?
Certainly. The other day, we beat Villareal. The players who really shone, like Soldado or Mata, they made the front page. Those who didn’t play, it bruises their ego, they were ashamed. But when a player is left out of the side and the team loses he feels less depressed. That’s what I find strange. If the player feels liberated from responsibility I say it’s cowardice. If I kick a player I want the whole team to cry out. Defeats, like victories, are collective. That’s why I rotate the squad so often, so that each player feels involved.
Barcelona is a team whose philosophy is widely recognised, Real Madrid has its history. And Valencia?
We cannot fight against these two monsters. The budgets of Barca and Madrid are four times greater than our own, they get more TV rights, they’ve got bigger stadiums… Valencia can beat them both over one or two games, but over a whole season it’s not possible. They may be out of reach for now, but when either of them have a bad year, which will happen again, we’ll be ready.
What makes a good manager?
For me a manager is a confidence-building machine. He who can get the best out of the players at his disposal. When I see one of my players walking with his head lowered, I come to him straight up, “Hey what you doing?”. I take him by the neck and straighten him out, “That’s how you walk”. I’m an optimist. Active, proactive! You understand? When a player lets his head go down I’ll let him have it – bam! I want lively, proud players, not a bunch of victims.
Which manager has the best relationship with his players, in your opinion?
For me, the number one has to be Guardiola. Also Mourinho, but he’s disappointed me a little because you get impression he doesn’t practice what he preaches. With Porto, he did an extraordinary job. The way his players pressed high up the pitch was really remarkable, while at Inter, they defend from much deeper. In any case, what’s interesting about Mourinho isn’t what we see on the pitch but the bit of the iceberg that’s still under water. I like the his idea of putting up videos of his team’s rivals at the training ground. I think it’s a great way to motivate.
What is it that you like about Guardiola?
Everything. At Almeria we played Rijkard’s Barcelona. A very good side. But Guardiola has transcended that, he’s brought true quality to the club. OK, he’s got some great players. But if Barcelona are the reference side of this age then its thanks to his attention to detail. Tactically and strategically, they’re the strongest. Barcelona weren’t like that before. You could hurt them. Now it’s almost impossible.
Like Guardiola, you like to watch teams in the lower leagues. What do you find there that isn’t at the higher level?
That’s where you find innovation. Because there’s such a level playing field, the only way to make the difference comes down to free kicks. Miguel Alvarez, the manager of L’Hospitalet [third tier Spanish side], is one of the best strategists in Spain. Conversely, managers in La Liga tend to be more conservative, they’re happy to use ideas that are known to work, almost as if they were afraid of change.
Are there any other managers that interest you?
In football there are two ways to defend. You can defend so as not to concede, or you can defend so as to be able to attack. I want to attack. I think you can catch out your opposition not only when they’re attacking but higher up the pitch too. Defending well doesn’t mean having to be defensive, it’s about being well organised. I want my players to take be ball as soon as possible. That’s why, for me, Bielsa is a big influence.
He’s a real force of nature isn’t he?
I had coffee with him once. You get the impression that he’s constantly thinking very deeply about everything, a philosopher.
Is that what you aspire to?
No I don’t want to be a philosopher, I don’t want people to think I’m pretentious. Everyone talks so much about football but the problem is that they really know absolutely nothing about it. Football writers, for example…well…what do you want me to say? They’re terrible. They talk about systems about strategies, but what do they know, in the end? Nothing. The philosophy suddenly becomes the system of play.
Which is more important?
What a question! The philosophy of course! For years it was the system that took precedence, but that was wrong. It’s like putting the plough on the front of a horse. When you have the correct philosophy of play, each system is correct. And my philosophy, I’ll say it again, is to defend to attack. I get criticised for too often changing the system- “Unai you’re obviously not sure what you’re doing“. Nonsense! I’ve got more than 20 players, and there are hundreds of possible combinations. Why restrict myself?
I forgot to tell you something.
There are a lot of managers who go and play golf, to improve their swing.
Well, it’s terrible! If a football manager is good at golf it means he’s not working enough. Do you realise how much time you have to spend out there before you’re any good? An eternity! It’s not professional. The day I start playing golf will be the day I give up this job.
The interview appeared in So Foot magazine #86, in May 2011, and was conducted by Javier Pietra Santos.
Previous editions of the magazine can be purchased here: http://www.sofoot.com/anciens-numeros.html