Unai Emery: He’s not Pochettino but Aston Villa have still failed upwards

Will Ford
Emery Villarreal

Unai Emery was mocked out the Arsenal door, but his time with the Gunners has done little to sully the reputation of one of the world’s best managers…

“Truth is, I felt alone,” Unai Emery said when looking back on his time at Arsenal.

Emery did some things very well in his first stint in the Premier League, including handing first opportunities to Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli, and getting the very best out of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who scored 31 goals in his one full season in charge.

In fact, had Aubameyang scored one more, the penalty against Spurs, Emery would have taken the Gunners back into the Champions League after a two-year absence. Had they not rather fallen apart in the Europa League final against Chelsea, that same feat would have been achieved.

But he was mocked for his ‘Good ebenings’ and criticised mostly for his misuse of the by that point unusable Mesut Ozil, and for is failure to get the best out of £72m summer signing Nicolas Pepe, who has shown nothing since Emery left to suggest his manager had anything to do with his poor displays. William Saliba was also signed that summer by the way, but Emery wasn’t allowed to reap that particular reward.

Since his dismissal by Arsenal in November 2019, Emery’s done what Emery does, adding his fourth Europa League title to his personal trophy cabinet with a penalty shootout victory over Manchester United in 2021, before taking the Spanish side to the Champions League semi-finals last term.

With a greater say on transfers, as was the case at Sevilla before having to bend to Edu and Raul Sanllehi’s will at Arsenal, Arnaut Danjuma, Juan Foyth and Giovani Lo Celso all arrived and thrived under his watchful, tactically astute eye. Let’s get this right, even if you think he failed at Arsenal, which is up for debate despite things going very sour towards the end, Emery remains a world class manager; this is a real coup for Aston Villa.

The ambition of the Villa owners means they’ve arrived at Emery via Mauricio Pochettino and Thomas Tuchel, which may lead some factions of the Villa support to feel slightly disappointed, but the Spaniard’s appointment is still an incredible example of the club failing upwards.

Aston Villa sound out Emery

The 4-0 win over Brentford on Sunday illustrated that things had gone rather stale under Steven Gerrard, but also served as a reminder that theirs is a squad full of Champions League-level players. And perhaps Emery’s greatest skill among many, is setting his teams up to get the best of those top players, with strikers typically prolific under his watch.

Edinson Cavani and Neymar both had their most productive seasons at Paris Saint-Germain under Emery, just like Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette at Arsenal. And that bodes very well for Ollie Watkins and Danny Ings, whose potential to score goals outstrips their actual production significantly.

Another criticism aimed at Steven Gerrard’s Aston Villa was the number of players seeming to be spare parts, both in terms of those on the pitch and those almost always watching from the sidelines. Gerrard had clear favourites, most of whom grew more and more comfortable to the point of becoming ineffective.

It was particularly evident through Villarreal’s Champions League run last season that all of Emery’s players were painstakingly aware of their equal role in the smooth running of the team.

“I can assure you Unai is a tactical mastermind,” Danjuma said after their win over Bayern Munich. “His strategy always seems to work for us. We are confident in our manager and our manager is confident in us. And it goes hand-in-hand.”

Emery got Villarreal to a point where they knew, or at least thought, that if they adhered to their manager’s plan they could beat anybody. It never felt like that was the case for Villa under Gerrard, who achieved a significant new manager bump as his footballing kudos carried him through his first six months in charge, before his tactical nous was found wanting.

Emery has the coaching cache to earn immediate respect at Villa, where he’s already got a very good group of players and billionaire owners ready to invest further. It’s an excellent appointment by a club that’s shown its ambition in landing a manager at a station they hope to reach.