NEW YORK — It’s been over three years now, but Unai Emery still remembers the moment as if he had just witnessed it. Bringing it up brings all the frustration he felt on that day in March 2019 back.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has just claimed the ball, the clock is ticking past the 90th minute and the referee has brought calm to the chaos. Arsenal have won a penalty, one last chance to win the match. It’s also an opportunity for Emery, in his first season as Arsenal manager, to drag his team into the Champions League at the expense of the club’s bitter north London neighbour, Tottenham Hotspur.
But Aubameyang, usually a lock from the penalty spot, fails to score. That shot, that missed opportunity, was the moment, as far as Emery is concerned, that ended not only Arsenal’s hopes of playing alongside European football royalty, but also his hold on his job as Arsenal manager.
“We had a good season, and we were very close, but this moment…”, Emery said, as he let the penalty expire. He has made his point.
For Emery, now two seasons into what most statistics say was a wildly successful attempt to rebuild his career at Spanish club Villarreal, it’s not just football games that are defined by moments: a missed penalty or a late save, a failed lead or a match-winning goal. Entire careers, he knows as well as anyone else, can also be turned upside down by a single moment here or there – or sent on new, unexpected trajectories.
Emery, 50, didn’t quite fall off the ladder after firing at Arsenal. He was out of work for just a few months before landing at Villarreal the following summer, where he led a golden run that he believes has reaffirmed his credentials for one of the sport’s top positions. At least one Premier League club has called. (He said no.) More big clubs will follow. Emery sounds like a man willing to listen.
“I think I’ve recovered my level to keep my challenge high, high, high in the future,” he said, raising his hands above his head. “I am very ambitious.”
After all, he has already been to great heights in football: victories in three European finals with Sevilla, coaching Paris St Germain for two seasons in the Champions League, and then that call-up to go to London to manage in the Premier League .
In 2018, Emery was given the task of leading Arsenal into the future and managing the 24-year transition under Arsene Wenger. The Emery era started well enough, with 11 consecutive wins, the club’s best form in over a decade. But then came the failed penalty, the failure to pass Tottenham in the standings, the bitter loss to Chelsea in the Europa League final. Emery survived the summer, but in November, after a long scoreless run, Arsenal showed him the door.
His morally undermining departure has been traded for a two-year adventure in western Spain, a thrilling ride that has seen Villarreal’s first major trophy, moments of glory against some of football’s most powerful teams and proof, at least for Emery, that he continues to be considered one of the best coaches of the game.
His most notable successes came last season when he took his team – a mix of tough veterans, layoffs from big clubs and promising youngsters – on an unlikely journey through the Champions League. Villarreal knocked out Juventus and Bayern Munich and threatened a comeback of cinematic proportions against Liverpool in the semi-finals.
That journey, Emery said, was built on players who rose to the occasion when their moment came. Much of Villarreal’s success was forged on the training ground, he said, by practicing set pieces and counter-attacks, teaching players to dig in and stick to a plan.
“That’s the difference you can narrow with other teams,” Emery said. According to him, coaches can improve their players and their teams by 10 or 15 percent. The rest is up to them, a mix of preparation, faith and balance in critical moments.
“How can I explain it?” he said. “Last year we were worse when we played against Arsenal in the semi-finals of the Europa League. We were worse than them. They were better than us. But our work before we arrived to play against them – we created a very good mentality , and that’s when a coach can make his team better than one that has better players.”
It was a formula that he put into practice again last spring in the Champions League. For every two-legged draw in the knockout round, Emery said, he told his players to expect to suffer and be outplayed for big periods, but to believe their chance would come to upset the opponent. either defensively or offensively. “If they start to suffer,” Emery said, “then you can win.”
The moments were unforgettable. A 3-0 win at Juventus. A stunning first leg victory over Bayern Munich in Spain, then a goal in the 88th minute to knock out the Germans at home. Against Liverpool, Villarreal reversed a 2-0 deficit in the first leg within 41 minutes, leaving the opponent shocked and shaking the stadium.
Liverpool regained their footing and survived – other teams also get their moments – but the Champions League run has raised the profile of Villarreal’s best players. Some will go further. Their coach admits he probably will one day.
He has already reversed advances from some suitors, including an approach to Newcastle United after the Premier League club was taken over by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. “It wasn’t the right time,” Emery said of his decision last November. Newcastle, for all his newfound wealth, was last in the table at the time and Villarreal was in the Champions League.
That competition, he and his players knew, could change perceptions in a way that success in the Spanish League could not.
At the start of his tenure, Emery said, he planned to focus on the league. “But when we beat Atalanta and when we played Juventus, the Champions League was more important to me,” Emery said. The club gained recognition for its successes, and for players and coaches alike, the achievements could catapult their careers in new directions. “I know I have individual challenges too,” Emery said.
Emery had arrived at Villarreal bruised by the nature of his departure from Arsenal. Those wounds haven’t fully healed. He described the departure in Spanish as a golpe – a blow. By the time he was fired, Emery faced criticism that at times felt more personal than professional: Long before the end, former players and sections of the news media focused on his command of English.
That criticism is still smart: When a fan recently urged Emery at a preseason game in England by asking him, “Good ebening,” the coach responded with an obscene gesture that went viral.
At Villarreal, the team’s wealthy owners have provided Emery with a platform to find balance in his life, as well as a space to re-believe in his coaching style. But Emery said he was sure his success had nothing to do with a coach finding his level, or a leader being most comfortable among the elite. “I’m in a very good environment to feel strong, to feel confident again and add confidence in my work,” he said. “And then, a new challenge.”
His determination to get back to the top is perhaps best demonstrated by his extracurricular activities: while he’s restored his credentials in Spain, he’s also worked hard on his English. He described his summer vacation to New York as a learning moment as a vacation with his son Lander. It is perhaps a tacit admission that not all criticism during his time at Arsenal was fierce.
He has reflected on those moments at Arsenal when he couldn’t quite get his message across, or those crucial early conversations with key players when language barriers made it difficult to create the type of coach-player bond that is essential for winning teams.
“Next time I will arrive with better English,” he said.
That time may come soon. For now, however, Emery is willing to bide his time, to wait for the right moment.