Exclusive: Unai Emery on positive Arsenal spell, Ozil issue and brilliant Bukayo Saka anecdote – Football.London

Exclusive: Unai Emery on positive Arsenal spell, Ozil issue and brilliant Bukayo Saka anecdote – Football.London

Now that the dust has settled on Unai Emery’s year-and-a-half at the helm of Arsenal he remembers his time in north London fondly.

There were memorable moments. The run towards the Europa League final with wins over Napoli and Valencia, a 22-game unbeaten run which included a 4-2 derby victory over Tottenham and a fifth-placed finish in his first season which Emery describes as “a very good season.”

And there were less memorable moments. The seven-game winless run, defeats in quick succession to Crystal Palace, Wolves and Leicester, and fan disgruntlement towards the end of his reign which culminated with the Arsenal board deciding to call time on his 18 months in charge in November 2019.

The former Sevilla and PSG coach was appointed head coach of Spanish side Villarreal in July 2020 and recently set a new club record after going 19 games unbeaten in all competitions. Currently fourth in La Liga and through to the knockout stages of the Europa League against RB Salzburg in the round of 32, things are looking bright again for ‘El Maestro’ and his impressive overachieving Yellow Submarine.

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In an exclusive interview with football.london , the 49-year-old looks back on his Arsenal career and opens up on his feelings towards the club, comparisons between his current team Villarreal and the Gunners, why he still watches every Arsenal game and gives insight into Bukayo Saka, Mesut Ozil and the Premier League signing that could have been.

“We’re waiting for the vaccine and in a few months we hope we’ll come out of this period,” Emery tells football.london when asked about how the coronavirus pandemic has affected Spain.

“We’re training normally now and playing matches, but maybe we have less problems with the virus within the teams here [compared to the Premier League] and I read about the Aston Villa vs Tottenham match being changed because of the virus. We play the matches as normal, some players have one or two players with the virus but no more than that – the league isolates them to protect everyone else.”

Emery signed a three-year contract with Villarreal last summer and beams with pride when discussing the project he’s looked to instil at the Estadio de la Ceramica.

“Villarreal has a strong recent history. Over the last two decades they have a president Fernando Roig and have invested in important players like [Diego] Forlan, [Juan Roman] Riquelme, [Santi] Cazorla, Robert Pires and others.

VILLAREAL, SPAIN - DECEMBER 22: Unai Emery, Manager of Villarreal CF reacts during the La Liga Santander match between Villarreal CF and Athletic Club at Estadio de la Ceramica on December 22, 2020 in Villareal, Spain. Sporting stadiums around Spain remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
Emery has bounced back in style from his Arsenal spell
(Image: Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

“The president and club hierarchy wanted to have a very good team every year. I accepted the offer because they could sign some important players for us like [Dani] Parejo, Etienne Capoue from Watford, [Francis] Coquelin.

“It’s a very good club in a small town close to Valencia, but they have very good facilities and very good training pitches. The style historically has been to sign skilful players with strong technical ability, playing with combinations on the pitch and trying to play well. I’ve always tried to have this style in my career and here I found it.”

Over the years many have labelled Arsenal as underachievers considering the status of the club, while Villarreal have traditionally overachieved on a tight transfer budget. When Emery was at division two side Almeria he guided them to to their first ever promotion in 2007, an achievement which catapulted his managerial career into the top flight.

“They are two different teams, of course.

“They’re playing in the same competitions such as the Europa League, trying to achieve the top four and we’re trying to do the same in Spain.

“I think now it’s very difficult for Arsenal because of Liverpool, Manchester United and other teams but I think Arsenal is going to get back in the top four and recover as there’s stability in the club.

Unai Emery the Arsenal Head Coach with Kieran Tierney of Arsenal during the Premier League match between Arsenal FC and Southampton FC at Emirates Stadium
(Image: David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

“It’s the same here in Villarreal where we are consistent and I like the style we play here, the club also try to be in the top six and also to achieve the top four and it’s a good season for us if we achieve that.

“The difference is also that as a coach for me, I am here and I am very happy in Villarreal.”

Emery rarely grants interviews with English media but he speaks positively throughout the interview, both about his exciting project at Villarreal and being “grateful” for the opportunity he had at Emirates Stadium.

“I was in Arsenal for a year and a half and first year I think was a very good season.

“We achieved the Europa League final, we were at the last moment with the possibility to be in the top four and I think last year when I was there we recovered a lot of confidence for the club and the fans and for the players and I think we finished well that season.

“I was very happy, enjoying it and working very well. The club supported me and I was happy with the players, the atmosphere and the supporters – only the second six months of the second year when I finished in November I think we made some decisions not good for the club, but not for me, the decisions of the club.

“When the results were a little bit bad the situation changed but my first year in Arsenal I remember a lot of positive things, on the sidelines the same. I enjoyed being a coach of Arsenal and I’m very grateful for that moment I had in Arsenal.

“For me it’s not negative, it was a positive experience and after I left the club the first month was not easy for me because I was running out of things [to do] but now I am very grateful to the owners, the club, the supporters, the players, the workers in Colney. I now only remember the very good things there and the first year for me was a very good performance for us.

“I worked well with Mr Kroenke, Raul [Sanllehi], [Ivan] Gazidis during the first months there. The results towards the end were the main problem but for me it was a positive experience and I’m grateful to Arsenal for the opportunity.

“This is football. Now I want the best for Arsenal and Mikel Arteta, the supporters and everyone at the club.”

Arsenal manager Unai Emery looks on during a Europa League clash with Eintracht Frankfurt.
(Image: (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images))

Language and communication are key traits in the best coaches and Emery made a conscious effort to learn English when he joined Arsenal, revealing that watching television series Peaky Blinders had helped improve his grasp of the language.

Others suggested that the language issue was one of the reasons behind the poor results towards the end of his time at the club. Emery however, believes the problems were not related to a perceived difficulty in communicating his ideas.

“The problem in Arsenal the second year was only the results, not the language.

“I could speak English and communicate in my press conferences, with the players. The message was not perfect but it was good and little by little I was progressing. If I continued at Arsenal I would have got better, of course.

“I respected the likes of John Toshack and Howard Kendall when they came to Spain. They tried to learn Spanish and didn’t speak particularly good but the communication was enough.

“I think in England there are people who respect me rather than speaking about my English, but my English wasn’t the problem in London or communicating with the players or media.”

One player who Emery had struggles with was Mesut Ozil. The former Germany international was the only player who didn’t attend a post-mortem of the Europa League final defeat at London Colney but Emery admits that he “tried” to support the mercurial no.10 throughout his time in north London.

Ozil was given the number 10 shirt and named as one of the club’s five captains upon Emery’s appointment, and was given additional time off at the start of the season after being the victim of a robbery with team-mate Sead Kolasinac.

“I worked for one and a half years with Mesut and tried to help him, support him and achieve the performances for the team with him

“Now I don’t know what the problems are as I am very concentrated and focused with Villarreal.

“I follow every Arsenal match but I don’t know what the problems are with the team or the players. I can only speak about Mesut Ozil when I was with him there and I tried to achieve the best performances with him.”

Arsenal Head Coach Unai Emery shakes hands with Buyako Saka before a training session at London Colney
(Image: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

Emery handed a debut to Bukayo Saka at 17-years-old and the Hondarribia-born coach laughs when he recalls Saka’s first league match against Fulham. The winger didn’t touch the ball in the short time he was on the pitch but he has gone on to become one of Arsenal’s most important players, cementing a place in the starting line-up and earning a national team call-up with England.

“I remember when Bukayo played the first match with us in January. We won against Fulham 4-1 at the Emirates, he played for the first time with us at 17 years-old for 10 minutes. He didn’t touch one ball in ten minutes! He ran, ran, ran but didn’t kick one ball – it was amazing.”

“When he started playing regularly you could look at him and see he’s a very good player. He’s progressing as a very important player and he is a very humble person.

“It’s very important because some other players don’t have the same humble qualities as him to always want to learn, listen and follow us.

“Bukayo was amazing as a person and a player. You could tell he’s a very intelligent, smart kid too.”

It could have been different for Emery at Arsenal if the Europa League final result went differently against Chelsea or he secured Champions League qualification instead of missing out by a solitary point – but it’s not in his mind anymore.

When asked if he has a message to the Arsenal fans who supported him during his time in north London, the Spaniard pauses and reiterates his gratitude for a life experience that has made him a better person and coach.

“My message [to the Arsenal fans] is that I’m grateful for my experience and above all my first year in Arsenal. I understand how football is, with the emotions and good results are needed.

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“The second year we lost a little bit that and the club decided to change me but I can’t say anything negative to them because for my experience it was amazing to be in Arsenal.

“Now I’m using all my experiences in Villarreal and want to create my way here.

“The [Arsenal] supporters supported me in that moment and the second year was more difficult but I understand totally. My message is thank you.”