Modern football is dominated by charismatic, main character managers. Your Klopps, Your Guardiolas, even Your Mourinhos. Unai Emery is different.
There was a very good piece in The Guardian this week about the overwhelming importance of charisma as a character trait for a top, top manager in your modern game.
Taking the various tributes and anecdotes and stories that followed the death of Terry Venables as a jumping-off point, it circles through the current elite managers and their various charismatic ways. The effervescent oomph of a Jurgen Klopp, the molten brain of a Pep Guardiola, the endlessly cutting deadpan humour of a miserable clown like Jose Mourinho, Ange Postecoglou saying ‘mate’ a lot.
Even Mikel Arteta has a vague sort of steely-eyed charisma, behind the weird rants and staring, accusatory eyes. Anyway, it’s good and you should read it if you haven’t.
But there’s currently one massive and obvious exception barrelling along marvellously at the top of the Premier League: Unai Emery and his absurdly good Aston Villa team. He’s mentioned and then glossed over in a single sentence in the Guardian piece, which makes sense. He’s an inconvenient outlier for that otherwise solid theory.
He’s worth a closer look, though. Because he really is nothing like any of the other top managers. There are other charisma-free managers doing well, but their lack of charisma is almost in itself a studied and deliberate part of their schtick. Think Thomas Tuchel’s big-brained anger, or Julian Nagelsmann’s self-conscious clobber, or Eddie Howe’s High Performance, serial-killer earnestness. They may not have charisma, but there is still main character energy there. Emery has none of that.
Emery’s schtick is to not have a schtick whatsoever. He has a haircut that sits somewhere between good and bad, between bland and showy. It’s just some hair, neither perfectly coiffed nor consciously messy. He wears suits that are clearly expensive but also somehow just not quite perfect. He is either the most well-groomed scruffy person ever or the scruffiest smart person. We can’t decide. Is there a difference? Does it matter?
But that’s sort of the thing. He’ll go bananas on the touchline occasionally but beyond that there just seems to be nothing remarkable about him in any direction.
Except, and this is the thing, being a really good football manager. There is some much-needed revisionism now taking place about his doomed Arsenal reign. It wasn’t remotely as bad as people remember it to be, and there is every chance he could have replicated Arteta’s success if indulged and given the same opportunities and allowances the current Arsenal manager was granted in shaping his project.
But he was never going to get that time, and again that all feeds into the whole charisma element. There was no buy-in from the Arsenal fans, but no real attempt to sell it from Emery either. Maybe nobody could have come in post-Wenger and succeeded, but the best chance certainly lay with someone more overtly compelling at selling themselves and the idea rather than a manager just trying to quietly get on with the taxing task of building a new football team.
Maybe Aston Villa – and Villarreal – are therefore just a much better fit for a manager like Emery. Villa are the classic sleeping giant. Their history puts them in the top bracket of English clubs. While we don’t much care for ‘big club’ dick-swinging contests where the criteria used to decide these things happen by pure chance to always correlate to a metric that favours a specific club, it’s hard to build a truly compelling case for anyone else as the biggest football club in the Midlands when everything is taken into account.
It had been shit for a very long time, though, culminating in a three-year spell outside the top flight. The top flight without Villa is barely more ludicrous a concept than the top flight without Everton; frankly we’re astonished that whatever dark and powerful ancient curse has been put in place to prevent the Toffees ever slipping into the Sky Bet wasn’t also in force for the Villans. But there we are.
Down they went, and when they came back up it wasn’t really all that much better. Some lower mid-table floundering gave way to the very real prospect of further disaster under Steven Gerrard, who a lot of us were really quite wrong about as a manager. Turns out he really wasn’t any better than Frank Lampard, their careers forever and unavoidably intertwined no matter what they do or where they go.
Then along came Emery, the coach who had overachieved wildly with Villarreal. They’re not quite Villa. Aston Villa is a football club that has everything going for it and should have been more successful in recent years than it has been; Villarreal are a team that based on underlying numbers has no business being anywhere near La Liga, never mind European silverware. There’s barely a club in the world that punches above its weight like Villarreal. Half the town can fit inside El Madrigal.
Half of Birmingham cannot fit inside Villa Park. But there is a similarity in stature brought about by modern football’s landscape. Villa are one of English football’s traditional heavyweights who rather missed the boat when the big money started rolling in and have been striving to catch up ever since.
There was no expectation of instant success when Emery arrived. Avoidance of instant disaster was the first task. When he achieved that, the prevailing mood among Villa fans was initially to look down on the massive relegation bunfight unfolding beneath them and to take comfort in a short spell of quiet, untroubled mid-table life.
Then without telling anyone – again in keeping with Emery’s unshowy, unfussy quiet excellence – they eased through the gears and out of mid-table into the European places. The total collapse of Tottenham’s season under Antonio Conte (charismatic) and Cristian Stellini (not charismatic) certainly helped, but Villa’s form was stunning.
And it’s continued. They’ve now won 14 home Premier League games in a row, most recently with a thoroughly deserved 1-0 win over the reigning three-time champions Manchester City. It’s a win that lifted Villa above City in the table and into third.
Are they title contenders? Probably not, but if they were managed by Ange Postecoglou or Jurgen Klopp you’d be reading plenty about how they are. Instead, we’re all only really just now discovering their home form is quite that good. We knew it was good, but they’d already won 10 games in a row before anyone was even talking about it. Impossible to imagine that scenario if we were talking about the Etihad, the Emirates, Anfield or WHL2.0 as the location of such a record.
And the fact it’s Villa should make it more remarkable rather than less. But that’s what Villa are, and that’s what Emery is: unremarkably remarkable.
Even now, Emery is playing everything down and insisting there are ‘seven teams’ with a better chance at the title. We’re not saying Emery’s Villa are about to pip Arsenal to the title, although that would be quite the narrative, but we’ve had a good think and come up with only three teams at best.
Emery has been able to transform Villa outside the spotlight. It’s an opportunity he could never have been afforded at Arsenal or any of the other Big Six clubs. He clearly wants to keep his team out of the conversation with his ‘seven teams’ efforts. A more charismatic manager might have managed to make it sound convincing; but just as he could never really play up his Arsenal achievements, nor can he play down Villa’s.
Bad luck, Unai and bad luck, Villa. You’re proper good now. And people have started noticing, despite your best efforts. Make it 15 home wins in a row this weekend against Arsenal and there will be no hope at all of remaining under that radar.