Unai Emery was clear with his message.
“I’m better prepared now to take on a job in the Premier League,” he said en route to the Champions League semi-finals with Villarreal earlier this year.
His resignation from Arsenal in 2019 left Emery with unfinished business in England.
“As a coach, I still want to keep having more experiences and motivations… and I still have this dream (win the) Champions League,” he said.
Take a step forward from Aston Villa to offer the 50-year-old a platform he’s always hoped would come. It takes serious work to drag Villa away from the bottom half of the table before they can even think about entering the European competitions where their new manager has been so successful.
With 12 games now in his belt, he’s expected to start making immediate inroads when he starts work on November 1st, following Saturday’s game at All-Club’s Newcastle United. Emery turned down the job at St James’s Park in November 2021 to stay at Villarreal, citing the Champions League adventure as more appealing than a relegation battle, in which Newcastle were heavily involved at the time.
“I thought a lot about the opportunity to return to England, for a serious project,” he told The Athletic in April of this year. “I liked the idea, but I was also grateful to Villarreal for the opportunity they gave me.”
The decision to stay has been playing on his mind for the past 12 months, which is why choosing Villa was made easy.
When Emery heard what owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens (NSWE) had planned for the club – a push to Europe, the stadium upgrade and continued investment – he knew this was the right opportunity and, after receiving reassurances from his family, wasted no time to accept the challenge.
Several interviews were held and CEO Christian Purslow flew to Spain after Villa’s 4-0 win over Brentford to continue discussions. These final conversations, which involved agent Jorge Mendes, went faster than anticipated. Purslow is known in the industry as a man in a hurry and managed to close a deal, which includes paying Villarreal a £5.25m ($6m) release clause, in time to announce Emery as the new manager four days later. by Steven Gerrard’s brutal but inevitable dismissal.
NSWE and Purslow have shown since taking over Villa in July 2018 that they are serious. High profile appointments are often quick transitions.
Dean Smith was named Steve Bruce’s replacement seven days after he was fired. Gerrard replaced Smith five days after his departure and Johan Lange, the sporting director, replaced Jesus Garcia Pitarch just three days after his departure was confirmed for 2020. Villa always has a plan that is executed in a timely manner.
They assessed whether Mauricio Pochettino would be interested in this job and had a list of others under consideration, including Ruben Amorim of Sporting Lisbon. Emery, however, quickly moved to the top of the pile. With his European pedigree and Premier League knowledge, he was recognized as the perfect fit.
There aren’t many clubs in England outside the established “Big Six” that could have tempted Emery to join, but Villa have serious pulling power under that ownership structure and are capable of acting decisively when closing deals.
Incredibly, when negotiations began, there was a threat of the club holding the table. Had Villa lost to Brentford on Sunday, they could have stayed at the bottom of the division, but caretaker manager Aaron Danks, alongside goalkeeping coach Neil Cutler, gave the club some time by overseeing an emphatic 4-4 win. 0.
The duo will continue to hold the fort until after Newcastle departs, when Emery, who faces a start delay because of work permit paperwork, will begin to put his own stamp on the team.
The makeup of their behind-the-scenes team has yet to be revealed, so Danks and Cutler will be looking for reassurance that they will stay in their jobs for the next few days.
Neither has been told what the future holds and both are in limbo until they are given clarity. Danks, who was signed from Anderlecht in July 2021, is a respected coach who is liked by players, but has not been very involved with Gerrard.
Cutler, recognized as one of the best in his field, has been with the club for four years and has a strong relationship with goalkeeper (and last game captain) Emiliano Martinez. Emery has taken his own goalkeeping coach, Javi Garcia, with him to each of his last four football jobs.
The achievements of the new regime will determine the sentiment in the stands towards Purslow after Gerrard’s failed appointment. For the first time in Purslow’s four years at the club, he was starting to experience some external heat, but the strength of this new appointment offered a timely boost.
Emery – who wants his teams to be physically strong and tactically flexible – is firmly determined to rebuild his reputation in England.
He was a manager with great momentum before moving to London in the summer of 2018, first making Valencia clearly the third best team in La Liga behind Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and José Mourinho’s Real Madrid and then leading Sevilla to an unprecedented three consecutive Europe. 2014 league trophies.
In two years with Paris Saint-Germain, he won seven of the 10 available trophies, but was eliminated in the round of 16 of the Champions League by Barcelona, having won the first leg in Paris 4-0, and then Real Madrid in March 2018. worked with world-class superstars like Kylian Mbappe and Neymar and showed he can deliver titles even if the elusive escaped in France.
Arsenal thought hard about naming him as Arsene Wenger’s replacement. Initially, it seemed like a wise compromise, but things fell apart and unfolded spectacularly.
Within a point of third place in April 2019 and en route to a Europa League final, Arsenal looked set to return to the Champions League in Emery’s first season, only to finish fifth and lose the final in Azerbaijan 4-4. 1 for Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea.
Three defeats in seven days – against Crystal Palace, Wolves and Leicester City – and a draw with Brighton cost them fourth place, before defeat in Baku denied them the Europa League (and a place in next season’s Champions League).
There were difficulties with playmaker Mesut Ozil, while the appointment of Granit Xhaka as captain was controversial among fans and teammates alike.
After 16 months in the job, he was fired. Like Gerrard, Emery’s last job in England ended with vociferous calls for his resignation from the stands.
He became a fun figure, with a particularly unfair focus on Emery’s language skills and accent.
Often in his video sessions with players, he couldn’t be as clear and concise with the instructions he gave in a second language.
Addressing the issue earlier this year, he said: “I had a decent level, although I needed to improve. When the results are bad, it’s not the same. You don’t have the linguistic depth to explain. And look, ‘Bom ebening’: OK, it’s ‘Good night’, but when I said ‘Bom ebening’ and I won it was fun; when we were losing it was a shame.”
Emery’s argument was that he never felt truly supported internally at Arsenal when things got tough and he also lacked the necessary authority to make the decisions to move the club in the right direction.
His single focus on coaching contrasted with predecessor Arsene Wenger’s more holistic approach and left him isolated. Chief executive Ivan Gazidis left six months after Emery’s appointment to take up the same role at AC Milan. The head of recruitment, Sven Mislintat, stepped down after just over a year. Raul Sanllehi, head of football relations, followed after two. Emery had been fired by then, unable to build a power base within the club.
But if he was mocked at Arsenal and left to struggle to rebuild a reputation, then he leaves Spain before returning to England with
In a statement, Villarreal highlighted that Emery “went down in history” with his achievements. The club based in a city with a population of just 50,000 had been overweight for years but never won a trophy until Emery arrived.
As with his other success stories in Valencia and Sevilla, he was immediately given more power over transfers and matters off the pitch than most of his predecessors at Estadio de la Ceramica, dealing directly on a day-to-day basis with Fernando Roig, the practical club president.
His rookie season brought the club’s first final in its 98-year history. In doing so, they surpassed 1987-88 Cup Winners’ Cup winner Mechelen of Belgium (population 86,000), becoming the smallest small-town club to lift a European trophy.
They beat Arsenal in the Europa League semi-finals 2-1 on aggregate before overcoming Manchester United in a dramatic penalty shootout.
He made the best out of underperforming players, many of whom were dropped by English clubs, dismissed as failures or sold to raise funds.
Former Bournemouth striker Arnaut Danjuma has thrived under the Spaniard and has increased significantly in value.
“Unai is someone who works with you to improve,” Danjuma told The Athletic earlier this year. “He’s spent so much time with me, helping me, since the day I arrived. When I arrived, he soon spoke English to me, just so I could understand the system, the tactics, that he wants me to play. He has been a key factor for me in the performance, 100 percent.”
Former Arsenal midfielder Matteo Guendouzi described Emery as “so unique”.
When Villarreal won the Europa League, Guendouzi tweeted in support of his former manager, saying: “What a journey! This football… so smart and elegant! You know how to earn trophies! I am honored and proud to have had the opportunity to evolve by your side. Words will never be strong enough to qualify your personality, your benevolence and your authenticity in human relationships.”
Last season’s incredible Champions League adventure helped re-establish Emery as one of the most discussed managers in the game, leading Villarreal all the way to the semi-finals before losing to Liverpool.
Along the way, there were brilliant performances and tactical masterclasses. Beating Juventus 4-1 on aggregate in the round of 16 was followed by an even more impressive 2-1 victory over Bayern Munich.
Emery spends so much time analyzing the opposition – he said he watched 17 Manchester United games to prepare for the 2021 Europa League final – that every game is different. After beating Bayern 1-0 at home, Villarreal had the difficult task of stopping the German giants at home.
Granted, there were some desperate saves along the way, but Emery identified ways to shock Bayern. He asked his team to play slowly to get out of defense problems, splitting his two defenders on the side and filling the midfield with players. It was daring, some might say too risky, but it worked and Villarreal drew 1-1 to advance.
Emery’s attention to detail and commitment to helping his players and teams are well known in football.
“I like to work a lot on the details, getting to know the players well,” he explains. “Difficult games motivate me a lot. You try to surprise the rival coach, so your team is better than them tactically.”
It’s that kind of tactical thinking that Villa hopes will help them compete in games against the biggest teams in the league. Villa failed to beat an established team in the top six under Gerrard and showed no signs of progression.
Emery will aim to slowly start undoing these issues and trigger the change so that Villa gets on the table.
He leaves Villarreal in seventh position, where he ended last season after an inconsistent campaign that only ended with qualification for the European Conference League.
The fall from the Champions League to the Conference League meant the team’s salary bill had to be cut over the summer and injuries to top strikers Gerard Moreno and Danjuma hurt.
There was also the feeling that Emery had gotten everything he could at the club. He knew about Villa’s interest for a few weeks and the chance to return to the Premier League, while the resources available were very attractive.
“Yes, I’m a better coach now, with all my experiences, the lessons learned, everything I’ve been through,” he said in April. “I still have very important challenges and ambitions. Anyone who works in football has to love football and feel passion. If you love it like I do (then), the good times and the bad times, you accept them with joy.”
At Villarreal, the last week was emotional with the death of the club’s vice-president, José Manuel Llaneza.
For Emery, leaving wasn’t easy considering everything he’d been through together, but in the end, the timing felt right.
Getting a manager of his stature is a huge blow for Villa. It’s as emotional as when Martin O’Neill, the man touted as Sir Alex Ferguson’s heir, arrived from Celtic and took Villa back to Europe.
The hope now is that Emery can emulate the success and restore the feel-good factor to the club.