Managers in the media: Arsenal’s very handsome Unai Emery

Matt Stead
<> at Emirates Stadium on May 23, 2018 in London, England.

Johnny starts a new series this week looking at managers in the media. First up is a man who many are rather glad isn’t Arsene Wenger. That’ll be Unai Emery, then.


Who Are Ya?
Unai is from Hondarribia which is in the Basque country of Northern Spain. You can get some lovely full-bodied Riojas from around those parts, y’know. His maternal surname is Etxegoien which sounds like the name of an alien on Star Trek Deep Space Nine, or an antacid tablet.

He was described as a ‘modest’ player which, as we know, means he was no good. But then, that’s rather fashionable for managers these days when actually being any good at managing beats being A Big Name.

When it came to management, from the get-go he was rather excellent. He began at Lorca Deportiva CF, where he achieved promotion to the Segunda División at the first attempt. Then he joined Almería and got them promoted to the top flight for the first time. This took him on to Valencia, a brief terrible spell at Spartak Moscow and then Sevilla, where he won the Europa League three times on the spin: a huge achievement somewhat disregarded in some quarters of the English press who believe the competition is nothing but a distraction to clubs that are trying to qualify for the Europa League.

However, more broad-minded souls at PSG saw this as a sign he was actually an excellent manager, so snaffled him for two seasons where he won all the domestic cups and a title. So far he’s got 10 major trophies to his name in 13 years in the dugout/perspex shelter and so was an obvious choice for Arsenal to approach. Or at least he was unless you were an ex-player in the media, in which case you used this as an opportunity to bemoan the fact that whichever English manager they are pals with didn’t get the job. They sneered, feeling that anyone could win Ligue Un with PSG, but you have to be a really good manager to finish 20th in the Premier League and get relegated, Jeff. That’s an actual fact. Any fule kno that.


Cunning Linguist?
Speaks pretty good English already, even though he was reported as not being especially fluent in the summer. Rarely seems to struggle for too long to pull out the right word from his vocabulary. Seems hard to ruffle, or perhaps like many of the brightest managers, finds the questions he’s going to be asked by the press so predictable that he already knows what he’s going to say.

Sometimes has an intense semi-squint when asked a question as he tries to understand it accurately, which does briefly make it look at though he is weeing out of his eyes. Will occasionally turn to an interpreter to better understand a question posed to him. Or because it has come from Sean Custis.

Can cleverly turn a question against the questioner by saying something along the lines of “You will know that better than me.” This is crafty way of not answering a question you don’t want to answer.

Seems a very self-aware chap. In a new biography, he refers to how scared he was as a player and how damaging this was to his career on the pitch. “I got my diplomas, and when I became a coach I read a lot more about psychology, group management, pedagogy, leadership, in order to overcome all the weaknesses I had as a player.”

Is obviously a quite intense guy with an all-consuming passion for football. Laurent de Palmas, who played for him at Almeria, once said: “We called him enfermo de futbol (sick with football) because that’s what he is. He drinks football, eats football, sleeps football, and we wondered whether he didn’t f*ck football.”

That would surely be exhausting, especially if you had to go to extra-time and penalties to get the job done.

However, he does have a playful side which was on display when he answered a journalist’s phone during a recent press conference.

There’s a touch of Fawlty Towers Manuel about that, isn’t there? Easy to imagine him saying “eez not rat, eez hamster”. Who could not love him for that?

If you watch him for any length of time, you’ll notice his eyes are constantly shifting through different emotional gears: one moment smiling, then looking worried, then hard and staring, softening back to worry, then progressing amusement. It’s quite fascinating to watch.

Not the alpha male type at all. Indeed he has quite a boyish sort of tone to his voice. Not light as such but it’s not a basso profundo big bollocks brown voice.

Does a very good pitchside celebration, letting all his emotions out as the ball hits the net, arms aloft, giving it the big ‘un. All in all, seems a very rounded individual.


Fashion Icon?
Has a really lovely, genuine smile which lights up his face and makes him very attractive.

Sometimes he looks like a cool, tousle-haired, rugged and rather handsome chap, other times like a plain but friendly physics teacher. Still comes over as quite boyish and much younger than his 47 years.

Not an especially sartorial clothes horse of a man, favours the blue suit and white shirt. He has been spotted wearing some sort of zip-up sports top/cardigan over a shirt and tie but under a tailored jacket, which always makes you look like you got dressed in the dark and have no idea what clothes you’ve actually got on. Lovely. I live in hope one day a manager may once again turn up for work dressed like this:

Now obliged to always wear a red tie which almost no-one actually suits nor likes. Can’t help but be suspicious that there’s a drawer full of them in the manager’s office at the Emirates which Arsene was glad to leave behind. Also wears one of those nice short coats that go just above the knee, the sort Andres Villas-Boas made his own fashion statement. Sexy.

Owns admirably lush black hair without a hint of grey and a flat stomach anyone approaching 50 might look upon with jealousy.


Media Hit or Miss?
It’s been very interesting in his first few months at Arsenal to see how he’s played things. After a lot of grilling in Spain and France, he is clearly not intimidated by the self-regarding English tabloid press pack. The boys won’t like that.

The results being good – first two weeks aside – has helped, of course, but he’s given few hostages to fortune and by all accounts has managed to keep the media at arm’s length outside of basic pressers.

The tabloid press instinct is to downplay a foreign manager’s achievements is a given. One can’t help but feel if Eddie Howe had got the results Emery has to date, he’d have already been hailed as a superhero, but Emery will be held to the always tougher Foreign Standard, as his opening two losses, even though it was to two of the best sides in the league, well illustrated.

Tony Adams was already kicking him after the opening day loss to Manchester City, saying: “I don’t know what he has been doing for the last five or six weeks.” Which was a bit rich.

Talking of not knowing what you’ve been doing, Paul Merson was very eager to tell us after three or four games that nothing had changed from under Wenger. Last month he said that they’d take a hammering at some point – as soon as the upcoming Liverpool game – because they’re defensively “all over the place”. A month later, we’re still waiting for that to happen.

We were also told that he could be the first manager to be sacked this season, while Neil Ashton had a strange rant at him on Friday. The need to make snap judgements is one of modern media’s worst traits.

There’s no way an English manager would’ve been talked about in such a way. And lest we forget, we’re only three months into his reign and he’s unbeaten since mid-August. Lord knows what a beasting he’ll get if he loses some games.

He appears to be employing an increasingly popular tactic for non-British managers, which is to basically not indulge the press. You don’t grant them any more access than you are contractually obliged to and basically ignore them and their byzantine ways while saying you respect everyone’s opinion. Excellent.

There have been very few UK newspaper interviews with him. In fact, extracts from a biography in the Telegraph apart, I’ve not found anything. If he continues to do this, at the first opportunity history suggests some in the press will turn on him as payback for not being toadied to.

The boys demand respect, Unai. They’ve got vast amounts of paper and website space to fill, they’ve got to write ‘revealed’ in capital letters, they’ve got to report on what footballers are eating, how they have styled their hair, which cars they drive, and then they’ve got to objectify and dehumanise their girlfriends and wives. It’s busy, busy, busy, Unai, and if you’re not helping them fill space with trivial nonsense, nor giving them a chance to twist your words to mean something totally different, then you’re a problem, Unai. Get it?

Look at how some of them were quick to be so sad, sorrowful and headshakingly disappointed in Pep Guardiola when he didn’t instantly sweep all before him in his first season at City. But then he didn’t know the league, did he? And the Premier League is so hard and regardless of what the stats say, anyone can beat, anyone, Jeff.

This sort of bullshittery awaits Emery. It is only a matter of time. You know it. They know it. He knows it. But for now he’s a hit, though I have a strong sense that this will not last very long.


Proper Football Man Rating: 0%
We all know the PFM, though diminished in his importance these days and rarely working in football at the highest level, is still an important voice in the media, where his simple thinking, based on assumptions and not facts, are often popular with people who fear knowledge is just a trap to make them look stupid.

Will never be pushed through the hallowed PFM hall of heroes, wedged in a shopping trolley, wearing a leather flying helmet, drinking Reidy’s Vapour Rub, tequila worm and fermented mice wine largely because …

  1. Foreign.
  2. Doesn’t drink pints of wine.
  3. Won Europa League three times.
  4. Worked in France AND Spain.
  5. Will not refer to the tabloid press as “the boys”.
  6. Name cannot be shortened into a pun or nickname.
  7. Has used the word ‘pedagogy’. (Is that kiddies or feet, Jeff?)
  8. Once said “I’ve always offered my players books to read.”
  9. Is interested in psychology.
  10. Still foreign.


What The People Say

‘He’s been a breath of fresh air, nice to see him make bold changes during matches, even better when they pay off.’

‘Has an incredibly squeaky voice and I had to do a comedic double-take when he first appeared on MOTD.’

‘Enthusiastic new Headmaster at minor public school in the Home Counties. Still in the first term, but the boys seem happy, he’s joined the Masonic Lodge and The Governors are hoping they have made the right decision.’

‘It makes me laugh when the way he says eesssssssssplain. He’s been very uncontroversial so far, which is unlike a top 4/6 manager. Usually they piss someone off.’

‘Has a funny way of starting every TV interview with ‘good afternoon/good evening’ before answering the first question. Quite endearing really.’

‘Have to give him credit for trying to speak English from the off. He’s obviously still learning so difficult to judge his media skills so far. Don’t detect much humour. All very no frills football speak. Touchline antics show a more interesting side. Very animated with some interesting facial expressions. A touch of an Iberian Alan Partridge about him I’d say. Like him so far.’

‘Looks like he’ll be a gravelly voiced Spanish lothario but speaks like Lee Evans.’

‘The phrase “Arsenal manager Unai Emery” doesn’t stick in the throat/brain in the same way that “Manchester United manager [not Alex Ferguson]” does, for some reason.’

‘I admire his consistent ability to say nothing memorable without being offensive. He might be onto something – being interesting increasingly looks like a bad career move for managers.’

‘I liked it when he answered that journalist’s phone at the presser. I’m a sucker for manager press conference lightheartedness. Plug it into my veins.’

‘His spoken English is now excellent and conducts himself well, the players are buying into his hard work ethos. H/T team talks are usually working a treat, happy to hand younger players plenty of responsibility & treats every opponent with the respect they deserve.’

‘His grasp of English, considering he spoke none (or at least very little) when he first arrived, has been remarkable.  Always comes across as polite and well-mannered.’

‘Comes across as a thoroughly nice chap. Has a nice, open brand of football.’

‘Not afraid to make bold subs to change games & they’ve usually worked. Stuck to principles of playing out from the back even when costly errors were made. Seen improvements already in scapegoated players.’

‘It’s weird. Like…Wenger left after a 2000 year reign of terror/gormlessness and the new bloke should be a much bigger deal, but it feels..normal. The opposite of Moyes in every way. Which is probably a compliment.’


How Long Has He Got?
He’s been lucky to the extent that there are three brilliant sides in the league this year and that Spurs are rather good too, as it has taken the pressure off coming much higher than fifth . So barring any catastrophes he’ll have at least a couple of years to bed in. After that, all bets are off as per usual. Needs to build up some capital now and is going about it the right way with a lengthy unbeaten run. A Europa League win would help too.

He will obviously be subjected to the usual PFM moaning about why a Brit isn’t in charge, and the first sign of any loss of form will be greeted with exaggerated eye-rolling from the usual suspects. But thankfully, such voices have never had less power and resonance with all but the most medicinally sedated phone-in crowd.

There’s a chance he may prove too cerebral, certainly for the tabloid press, and perhaps for some fans too. He may need to keep the fun factor to the fore because it’s worth bearing in mind that the Klopp effect means that all other managers can seem a bit dull on TV and in post-match interviews by comparison. That doesn’t have much importance when you’re winning, but in tougher times it can actually matter.

But so far, he’s largely cut a studious, rather beta male figure in our media and many of us already love him for that. Keep on trucking.

John Nicholson

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