The plane from Baku flew through the night with no trophy on board and landed at 8am. Unai Emery went home to Cockfosters, slept for three hours, then returned to London Colney, where the players started arriving from midday, called in one by one. His first season at Arsenal was over. It had been “very good” he insists – repeatedly, in fact – only to collapse into a limp finish. Three defeats in seven days – against Crystal Palace, Wolves and Leicester – then a draw with Brighton cost them a Champions League place; that loss in Azerbaijan denied them the Europa League. Now the analysis began, preparations for the next stage.
Every player came, except Mesut Özil. Emery told them his plans and heard theirs: £130m was spent on signings, eight players in, 10 out, excitement building. But mistakes were made, he admits – from recruitment to the departure of all four potential captains – and within six months he was gone. Something had broken, the situation “unsustainable”, and he was sacked. He had overseen the best start in Arsenal’s history and their worst run in 30 years. As it disintegrated, he knew those games he watched alone and exposed on the touchline, toxicity all around, would be his last.
On 29 November it was official, his departure as unlamented as it was inevitable. Emery, under lockdown in Valencia, would almost rather leave it there. As he recalls his origins at little Lorca and discusses his desire to work again, there is a glimpse of the old enthusiasm, absent in the autumn. And he keeps returning to the “positives” at Arsenal. But that goes with an inescapable sense of injustice at how he has been portrayed, dismissed as a disaster, a figure of fun. And it is hard not to linger on what went wrong.
Starting with Baku. Below the surface were problems, but Emery believes things might have been different had they won and made the Champions League; had they reacted right. That final, those conversations and plans, should have been a start but listening to Emery it feels more like the end. In October 2018, fans had chanted: “We’ve got our Arsenal back.” By November 2019, they had changed their tune, to: “We want Emery out!” And: “You’re getting sacked in the morning.”
“The first season we did a lot well,” Emery says. “I thought: ‘This is my team.’ People said: ‘Unai, we can see your personality in this side.’ There was spirit, games with intensity, energy – Tottenham, Manchester United, Chelsea – and we reached Arsenal’s first (European) final in 13 years, playing very well against Napoli and Valencia. Finishing third was in reach but we lost four decisive points against Crystal Palace and Brighton.”
Emery calls those results “incomprehensible” but tries to make sense of them. A recurring theme emerges. “(At first) things went magnificently; there was a good spirit in the dressing room,” he begins. “(Aaron) Ramsey’s injury, when he was at his best, had a big influence: he conveyed positivity, so much energy. And playing a lot of important games in April without him, we needed 100% implicación from every player.”
Implicación. If there is a word repeated often over the hour’s conversation, it is that. In English it is commitment and it was missing.
“In Baku Chelsea were better, I accept that. In the second half Eden Hazard made the difference. Preparations were good and everyone was committed. But some players had a mentality that says one day ‘yes’, one day ‘no’, when in football it has to be ‘yes’, ‘yes’, ‘yes’ every day. We lacked that little extra to get through a lot of games in those final weeks. If your application and commitment falls below 100%, you can lose, and that’s what happened.
“People were happy but something was missing,” he says, a shortfall in commitment, character and leadership he wanted to address. “I told the people running the club. And then there were decisions that didn’t go well. Mistakes were made, and as coach I take responsibility for mine. For example, all four captains left. Ramsey had decided he was going. It would have been better for the team if he had continued, and for me. Petr Cech was retiring; fine. But I wanted Laurent Koscielny to stay, Nacho Monreal to stay. All those leaders went, which makes the dressing room something else.
“We signed (Nicolas) Pépé. He’s a good player but we didn’t know his character and he needs time, patience. I favoured someone who knew the league and wouldn’t need to adapt. (Wilfried) Zaha won games on his own: Tottenham, Manchester City, us. Incredible performances. I told them: ‘This is the player I know and want.’ I met Zaha and he wanted to come. The club decided Pépé was one for the future. I said: ‘Yes, but we need to win now and this lad wins games.’ He beat us on his own.
“It’s also true he was expensive and Palace didn’t want to sell,” Emery concedes. “There were a series of decisions that had repercussions.”
Including his own: “autocrítica,” self-criticism, is a word he throws in often, despite seeing himself partly as prisoner of others’ mistakes and there were injuries too. But could he not have intervened? Convinced Ramsey to stay or pushed harder to renew his deal? Or Monreal, or Koscielny? And why allow the captaincy question to become so drawn out, so contaminated? Why choose Granit Xhaka, a decision so unpopular it ended in confrontations with supporters?
“(Initially) he wanted to stay,” Emery says of Ramsey. “He needed to negotiate a new contract and they didn’t reach an agreement. The club had doubts about renewing for a certain sum. Ramsey wanted to feel valued. It was a financial matter; I can’t get involved. And I still didn’t know him well when I arrived. He’s important but I can’t say what they should pay him.
“I believed Xhaka could be captain. And the players voted for him, he was respected in the dressing room.” But why vote? Why not own that decision yourself? “My strategy was 50% me, 50% them. I like to have players’ input, their opinion. There were people with the character to be captain, but you need time and backing. Without the support of certain people or the fans, it’s harder. If Xhaka had Koscielny and Nacho, or Ramsey, he could have eased into it. Emotionally, certain results and attitudes inside didn’t help the team have the commitment and togetherness of before.”
Another criticism levelled at Emery is that he failed to accommodate Özil, his most talented player – a £350,000-a-week problem that conditioned so much. “I spoke a lot with Özil,” he says. There is a long pause. Maybe a hint of sadness. “He has to be self‑critical too, analyse his attitude and commitment. I tried with all my might to help Özil. Throughout my career, talented players have reached their best level with me. I was always positive, wanting him to play, be involved.
“In pre-season I told him I wanted to help recover the best Özil. I wanted a high level of participation and commitment in the dressing room. I respected him and thought he could help. He could have been a captain but the dressing room didn’t want him to be. That’s not what I decided; that’s what the players decided. Captains are ones who have to keep defending the club, the coach, teammates.”
The difference between Özil’s performances home and away was stark. Even the number of appearances was. Why did Emery not trust him, play him more? Why were his displays not better? “Sometimes they were better, sometimes worse, like all players. Sometimes he wasn’t available because he was ill or his knee hurt. Watford was his first after the robbery, and I put him (straight) in. I was always open to talking, he was always in my plans, but he had to do his bit. And there were things I couldn’t control.”
If so, Emery kept his counsel, and he seems to hold back now. He always will, he says – even if that means shouldering the blame. “A coach has to have the strength to take responsibility, to be (in the firing line). I protect the players and the club protects the manager. I’m a club man, that’s what they signed. With Arsène Wenger it was different: he did everything. Now there’s Raul (Sanllehi) and Edu, and I have to trust them to do their job. My job’s the football. The club have people who handle other stuff, although that impacts on the pitch. Some of that hurt us.”
Maybe him most of all. Emery was exposed. When results turned, he was an easy target. A comedy one, even. Language made it harder to build a relationship with fans or a public persona that might have insulated him. His English became a stick to beat him with, grounds for dismissal. “I had a decent level, although I needed to improve. When results are bad it’s not the same. You lack the linguistic depth to explain. And take ‘good ebening’: OK, it’s ‘good evening’, but when I said ‘good ebening’ and won it was fun; when we were losing it was a disgrace.”
And results were bad. Awful, in fact. It unravelled fast. Emery changed players, formations and ideas but could not change the trajectory or regain control. He watched it fall apart, knowing he would be the one to fall. “It’s difficult,” he says, hands drawing swirls, so much going on. “The energy slips, things drift; everything does, everyone does. Some support you but you feel the atmosphere, relationships (shift). And that transmits to the pitch. Losing leads against Palace and Wolves reflected our emotional state: we weren’t right. It wasn’t working. I told the players: ‘I don’t see the team I want.’ That commitment and unity wasn’t there any more. That’s when I see I’m on my own. The club left me alone, and there was no solution.”
Jorge Valdano once said there are two types of coaches: strong and weak. And once players realise theirs is the latter, he is screwed.
“Indeed,” Emery says. “At every club, I’ve been protected: Lorca, Almería, Valencia, PSG. At Sevilla I had Monchi. At PSG Nasser al-Khelaifi protected me in the dressing room and publicly. At Arsenal they weren’t able to, maybe because they came from Wenger, who did everything. They’d say: ‘We’re with you’ but in front of fans and the dressing room they couldn’t protect me. Truth is, I felt alone. And the results dictated I had to go.
“But, look, I was happy at Arsenal and I remember the good things. The first year was magnificent, I gave opportunities to young players: Bukayo (Saka) played eight minutes and never touched the ball but that was a first step for a 17-year-old who’s going to be great. Bernd Leno has grown. (Joe) Willock, Reiss Nelson, (Eddie) Nketiah, (Gabriel) Martinelli. Mattéo Guendouzi did very well, Lucas (Torreira). It’s rewarding seeing them grow. And (Pierre-Emerick) Aubameyang got 31 goals and was top scorer, (Alexandre) Lacazette scored 19 and gave 13 assists.
“All that was missing was Aubameyang scoring that penalty against Tottenham: two extra points for Champions League qualification. Or beating Brighton and Palace. We couldn’t finish the job and then there were mistakes. I’m self-critical; at certain moments I couldn’t get results. I enjoyed the Emirates. I still follow Arsenal. They’re making changes. (Mikel) Arteta was the right choice … I spoke to him around Christmas. I want the best for him and for Arsenal.”
Emery is keen to work again: “The desire and energy is there. I’m watching football, learning. And if there’s a good project in England, if someone wants me and is prepared to get behind me, I’m available… In England that identification with your team brings the game alive. It’s deeper there, like a church. I was born in San Sebastián and my team is Real Sociedad. That feeling is in my heart and that’s what you find in England. It’s marvellous, the loveliest thing there is.”