Studious Unai Emery's obsession is satisfied at Sevilla
And so the Europa League champions will attempt to do the thing that that the Europa League champions rarely truly want to do: defend their title. Sevilla progressed through their group with a 1-0 win over Rijeka on Thursday night, thanks to a goal from Denis Suarez. And, said Unai Emery, the coach, they will try to keep hold of the trophy they won in Turin last May. "We like the Europa League," he said.
Not as much as they would have liked the Champions League, of course. Back in the autumn, Emery revealed that not long after his side had won last season's title, he had a conversation with Atletico Madrid's manager Diego Simeone, the winning coach the season before. The thrust of the conversation was simple: you reach the point where you need to be in the Champions League.
Emery, who took Valencia there three years running, knows that. But on Monday his team will be in the draw for the knockout stages of the Europa League and after a group phase in which the tournament occasionally felt like an after thought, they will do all they can to win it. As runners-up, they will in theory get one of the competition's stronger teams.
"We haven't analysed them yet," Emery admitted.
He will. Unai Emery, by his own admission, is a pesado. Heavy-going, hard working, a bit of a pain. Talking to him is much like watching him on the touchline; he can't sit still. There's an energy that borders on the obsessive, a need to explain and teach and instruct. Sit anywhere near a tactics board and you can guarantee he'll be up and down, pen in hand. "As a coach, participating in everything fulfils that need to be active; football fits as a professional activity with my personality," he admits.
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The son and grandson of footballers, Emery only ever played five first-division games (for Real Sociedad in 1995-96) and his playing career was ended early because of a knee injury, going straight from the pitch to the bench at Lorca. But he was always a coach, even then; pawing over the details, watching video after video. Even the old cliche is true: Emery loves chess, too.
"When I was a player, I took my coaching badges even when I was still playing because I wanted to continue in the game and I had the feeling that coaching was inside me," he told World Soccer magazine in the U.K. "I was always learning when I was a player. I stored up all the information I had so that I could use it when I became a coach. I wanted to know everything: I watched as many games as I could, I tried to understand what was happening and how. I noted everything down."
There have been doubts about Emery, except at Lorca and then Almeria, where he really made his name. This week, Almeria sacked their coach Francisco. Those that know him, say that he club's president has been on a kind of search for a new Emery every year since he departed in 2008. He has never found anyone who could match up. Elsewhere, some doubted that Emery truly would.
At Valencia third place was never really enough, not least because they were consistently a long, long way behind the top two and rarely troubled them. And for much of last season, he was under pressure at Sevilla. He moved Ivan Rakitic's position often and the reasoning did not always convince. But by the end of the year, they had enjoyed a fantastic second half of the season that culminated in a dramatic Europa League success. There was luck there too and Sevilla's statistically superb start to this season has not always been based on sparkling performances; Atletico and Barcelona put nine past between them.
Yet if there is one thing you can never doubt, it is the work Emery puts in. "I'm not the kind of coach who says: 'let's do a few piggy in the middle exercises and get home for lunch.' No," he says. That is an understatement. It is almost as if he would rather it was difficult. During one conversation with Emery, he leapt to his feet to draw something on the tactics board. "If you have Messi and he gets the ball here," Emery said, pen in his hand, "then he goes like this ... and scores. But if you haven't, then you have to find another way to get from there to here."
You couldn't help but feel that he preferred it that way.
Emery called Sevilla the "perfect" club for him this week; one where the relationship with the sporting director is good and he participates in the construction of the team, that obsession satisfied, the need for constant activity. It is also a club where the communion grows and there has been an appreciation of his efforts, which was not always the case in Valencia. Even the players seem better equipped to handle the
That wasn't always the case. Emery has a habit of giving every player a pen drive with homework on it. The winger will have a pen drive containing information on the full-back, the central defender will be handed a presentation on the forward, and so on. When he was at Valencia, he suspected that some players weren't bothering, so he handed one of them a blank pen drive, with nothing on it. The following day he asked what the player made of his opposite number, having seen the report.
"Yeah, boss, dangerous," he said. "But I've watched it carefully and I know what I have to do now."
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.