Arsenal’s appointment of Unai Emery in May was met with uncertainty, but he has quickly shown English football what he is all about by reviving the Gunners’ fortunes.
The Spaniard is as animated on the touchline as he is meticulous on the training ground – so it may not be a surprise to learn that he takes a different and sometimes off-the-wall approach to each team-talk.
From citing passages from his favourite books to using whiteboards to illustrate his points and even staring at his players one-by-one in the dressing room, the 47-year-old has some unusual tricks up his sleeve when it comes to trying to inspire his team.
It’s a tactic he has used since he first became a coach at third division side Lorca in 2005 and is detailed in a new biography, “Unai Emery: El Maestro”.
“I try to find something new for each game, to change a few things,” Emery says. “The aim is to make the talk interesting. At Seville, where I would read out passages from the books I was reading; sometimes I also used to tell them more personal anecdotes.”
Former Manchester City striker Alvaro Negredo recalls how, at Sevilla, Emery played a video of the opposing team and without talking, began staring at each individual player. They all stared back in silence until one player questioned him.
“This went on for a long while!” says Negredo. “Then Unai told him straight out ‘Alvaro is concentrating, he’s already thinking about what he has to do... but you’re not focusing on the game.’ The next day, coincidence or not, that player was sent off.
“Those few words have stayed in my mind because simply by looking at us, he knew what people were thinking.”
Emery confirmed it was Chile hardman Gary Medel, once of Cardiff City, who saw red, reasoning that Medel had been on the defensive in the team-talk and was the same in the match. Following that incident, the pair worked on Medel’s ability to control his emotions.
On other occasions he is more light-hearted. At Valencia, where Emery caught the eye of Europe’s top clubs by leading them into the Champions League, he recounts using one team-talk to ask the kit man what tactics he should employ.
Whiteboards and metaphors
It isn’t just what Emery says during his talks that make him stand out from other coaches. His use of a whiteboard to write down points he wanted to discuss was a new method for most players.
“Sometimes it was five phrases or metaphors he was going to explain,” says Manchester United’s Juan Mata, who played under Emery at Valencia.
“I’ve never seen that with my other managers. They usually revolved around phrases about positivity, camaraderie, the values he wanted to create in his team. His talks could go on and on because he didn’t notice the time and carried on talking, but what he said was always intense, and he would ask you questions.”
Emery’s passion for building his players’ confidence stems from his own weaknesses as a player. He spent the majority of his career in the second tier and those who knew him say he had talent but lacked confidence and was prone to coming undone when the pressure was on.
“He was a rapid winger, good with the ball at his feet. But mentally, there was something lacking. He was weak on that level. As soon as there was any pressure, he couldn’t take it,” says former team-mate Alberto Benito.
It might be why Emery has spent a lot of time reading about sports psychology and self-confidence – wisdom he tries to impart to his players to give them the freedom to express themselves on the pitch.
Caring for his players’ well-being is a key part of his management technique and his back-room team play a vital role in that process, working on making the conditions right for each player to be the best they can.
“The former PSG kit man told me the coaching staff is like the A-team,” Molina explains. “Each person has a different personality. For example if you’re shy, eccentric, a player who likes to talk or not, you are going to find someone in the staff who will be your confidant.”
Videos and motivation
Not everyone has been a fan of Emery’s long team-talks and fondness for exhaustive analysis sessions. “I spent three years with Emery, but I couldn’t stand a fourth,” quipped former Valencia winger Joaquin Sanchez. “He played so many videos I was running out of popcorn.”
Emery admits his talks have not always been appreciated, but insists he will continue to do them because he considers them worthwhile even if they only make an impression on a minority of players.
He refers to a game with Almeria when promotion was close, but he elected not to give a team-talk out of fear of being repetitive. They lost 3-0. The captain, Jose Ortiz, asked why there had been no talk and said he had missed it.
“Some players couldn’t care less, they just relax during the team-talk but there are the others, the ones who listen, who want to hear it and like it,” Emery says.
“What I want is to see my players react, and for them to talk, because they too have feelings and ideas. I like to learn, to share, with my players and with people in general. At Almeria, my talks lasted from thirty to forty-five minutes or even an hour, because the squad participated as well.”
The book’s author, French journalist Romain Molina, says the willingness of Emery’s former players and colleagues to praise him is testament to the esteem in which he is held.
“Almost everyone wanted to talk about him, not because of who he is as a manager, but as a human being,” Molina says. “Normally it’s very hard to get all those interviews, but I made 50 almost without any problem, even with the Russian people from when he went to Spartak Moscow.”
It’s a method that seems to be paying dividends at Arsenal too. They will aim to extend their Premier League unbeaten run to 10 games when Wolves visit north London on Sunday and are well positioned in both the Europa League and Carabao Cup.
Emery arrived at Arsenal following a mixed spell at Paris Saint-Germain, where he won the French title but found his collegiate style undermined by the autocratic and superstar-fuelled culture.
“He is more suited at Arsenal than PSG because as he told me, it is a pure club, there is no interference, and he has a group of players who are not superstars, but are willing to get better,” Molina explains.
“He needs people who are hungry. Maybe it is one of his weaknesses. If they weren't hungry it would be a problem. They have a team spirit, that’s what he’s trying to bring.”
Unai Emery: El Maestro is an authorised biography by Romain Molina, available now from www.talesfrom.com.