Jet black hair, a booming voice, a gleaming smile behind a Spanish accent as strong as his handshake, Unai Emery made an immediate and positive impression on his first day as Arsenal head coach.
The title is significant. Emery is not replacing Arsene Wenger as manager, but will head a coaching team and a new approach to trying to return glory to a club that last won the Premier League title in the Invincibles year of 2004.
Not one to shy from a challenge, the passionate Spaniard said he wanted more than domestic success.
At a time when clubs such as Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United, and Tottenham are giving more power to their managers, it will be fascinating to see how Arsenal’s attempt to evolve in a different direction, albeit a new one for them, works out.
That said, it was clear from his opening media conference and a more intimate chat with the press in the Arsenal’s director’s room that he will have a very different way of working to his predecessor.
Wenger, as brilliant as he was, tended to let players work things out for themselves, to sometimes just be better than the opposition and did not spend a lot of time talking to them individually.
His failure to address a side that malfunctioned defensively without the ball and appeared to too often lack fight late in his 22-year reign will be an immediate priority for Emery.
A tactile man, judging by his dramatic gestures and willingness to press the flesh after his official media duties, Emery also demonstrated he will be more hands-on and direct with his players.
“I’ve always been a coach who plays with the ball and wants possession. But there is something I would like to add to my philosophy, that I like to win the ball back as quickly possible. So its about two things: Possession and pressing.
“Football is a demanding and difficult sport — but what I want is for Arsenal to transmit energy and emotion to the fans.
“What you are looking for is a shared experience. It’s true that you get the famous egos in football but that is true of top players and players who are not so good.
“I’m a coach that has come from second division, gone through to the first division, coached at PSG and now at Arsenal. And really the essence of it all is people.
“I’m the type of coach who has always worked really hard, not because I do it better than anyone else but because that is what I believe the most important thing is.
“I’m very demanding of myself, I’m passionate and I really want to transmit that to the people around me — that we can, and must, improve in the future.
“That is the kind of thing I want to transmit, that desire to be better and I think that will lead us to improve in the Premier League and in Europe.”
Emery arrived at his interview on May 10, three days before the end of the Premier League season, with a self-collated comprehensive view of the Arsenal squad, but will listen to colleagues before initiating significant change.
He explained: “All the conversations and all the meetings with [chief executive] Ivan [Gazidis] and the people who work here will be very important for me to get all
the information about the club.
“After, I want to know how we will [improve] this squad. I know all the players and I think all the players are very important. All the players, who I want, I will be with them this way, but I want to speak with all the players individually. I want to speak with them face to face.”
Gazidis, without openly criticising Wenger, indicated he expected Emery to get more out of the current squad and the new coach seems to think he can — with a bit more effort from the players.
Arsenal fans hoping for a dramatic change in playing personnel to a team that would seem in desperate need of a goalkeeper, some defenders and midfielders, will be disappointed to hear Emery shares the selection panel’s belief that this will not be a summer of significant transfer activity.
He explained: “This team is a big team, big players, good players and we think we need to change little things.”
There is, however, money to spend, as Gazidis was happy to point out. He said: “We run ourselves on a very clear and transparent model, which is self-sustaining.
Gazidis, who headed the three-man recruitment team, spent almost as long explaining why Emery had won the eight-man race to succeed Wenger as he did selecting him.
But he was man enough to admit the exhaustive process he oversaw, partnered by head of recruitment Sven Mislintat and head of football relations Raul Sanllehi, his 100-page Emery dossier for owner Stan Kroenke, following a four-hour interview and many more hours of watching footage of their three ‘finalists’ on the coaching pitch could not guarantee him or Arsenal any immediate success.
Emery has a three-year contract and there is a strong sense he will be given at least all of that time to get things right.
Gazidis explained: “This kind of significant change in a club doesn’t deliver instant success, nobody is naive enough to think that. But I do think the new way of working, the new energy, it’s not a criticism of Arsene. I just think that change stimulates the
environment and I think it’s going to be very positive.
“I could not possibly feel better about this appointment. And the feeling that we have between each other, and we’ve spent a lot of time over the last few days together, is I feel better and better about it by the hour.”
Whether he will end up on top of the world alongside Emery remains to be seen.
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