NEW YORK — It has been more than three years now, but Unai Emery still remembers the moment as if he had just witnessed it. When he brings it up, all the frustration he felt on that day in March 2019 comes rushing back.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has just claimed the ball, the clock has ticked beyond the 90th minute and the referee has brought calm to the chaos. Arsenal has won a penalty, a last-gasp opportunity to win the match. It is also a chance for Emery, in his first season as Arsenal’s coach, to drag his team into the Champions League at the expense of the club’s bitter North London neighbor, 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 soccer royalty, but also his hold on his job as Arsenal’s manager.
“We played a good season, and we were very close, but this moment…,” Emery says, allowing the sentence to trail off. He has made his point.
For Emery, now two seasons into what has been by most metrics a hugely successful effort to rebuild his career at the Spanish club Villarreal, it is not only soccer games that are defined by moments: a missed penalty or a late save, a blown lead or a match-winning goal. Entire careers, he knows as well as anyone, can also be upended — or sent off on new, unexpected trajectories — by a single moment here or there.
Emery, 50, did not fall all the way down the ladder after his firing at Arsenal. He was out of work only months before he landed the next summer at Villarreal, where he has directed a golden run that he believes has once again established his credentials for one of the sport’s top jobs. At least one Premier League club has come calling. (He said no.) More big clubs will follow. Emery sounds like a man who is ready to listen.
“I think I recovered my level to keep in future my challenge high, high, high,” he said, raising his hands above his head. “I am very ambitious.”
Emery with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in 2019. Player, Coach and Arsenal fans know what happened next.Credit…David Klein/Reuters
He has already been to soccer’s heights, after all: victories in three European finals with Sevilla, two seasons coaching Paris St.-Germain in the Champions League, then that call to go to London to manage in the Premier League.
In 2018, Emery was tasked with leading Arsenal into the future, with managing its transition from 24 years under Arsène Wenger. The Emery era started well enough, with 11 consecutive victories, the club’s best run of form in more than a decade. But then came the botched penalty, the failure to leapfrog Tottenham in the standings, the bitter loss to Chelsea in the Europa League final. Emery survived the summer, but in November, after an extended winless run, Arsenal showed him the door.
His morale-sapping departure has been traded for a two-year adventure in western Spain, a thrill ride that has delivered Villarreal’s first major trophy, moments of glory against some of soccer’s mightiest teams and proof, at least to Emery, that he can still be considered one of the game’s finest coaches.
His most eye-catching successes came last season, when he took his team — a mix of rugged veterans, big-club castoffs and promising youngsters — on an improbable jaunt through the Champions League. Villarreal eliminated Juventus and Bayern Munich before threatening a comeback of cinematic proportions against Liverpool in the semifinals.
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 field, he said, by practicing set pieces and counterattacks, by drilling into players the idea that they had to dig in and stick to a plan.
“That is the difference you can reduce with other teams,” Emery said. In his view, coaches can improve their players and their teams by 10 or 15 percent. The rest is up to them, to a blend of preparation, belief and poise in critical moments.
“How can I explain it?” he said. “Last year, we were worse when we played against Arsenal in the semifinals of the Europa League. We were worse than them. They were better than us. But our work before arriving to play against them — we created a very good mentality, and that is when one coach could make his team better than one that has better players.”
It was a formula he brought to bear again in the Champions League last spring. Before each two-legged tie in the knockout rounds, Emery said, he told his players that they should expect to suffer and be outplayed for large spells, but that they should believe their chance would come to unsettle the opponent, either defensively or offensively. “When they start to suffer,” Emery said, “is when you can win.”
The moments were unforgettable. A 3-0 victory at Juventus. A stunning first-leg victory over Bayern Munich in Spain, and then an 88th-minute goal to eliminate the Germans on their home field. Against Liverpool, Villarreal overturned a 2-0 first-leg deficit within 41 minutes to leave its opponent shaken and its stadium rocking.
Liverpool regained its footing and survived — other teams get to have their moments, too — but the Champions League run has raised the profile of Villarreal’s best players. Some will move on. Their coach admits he probably will as well one day.
He has already knocked back the advances of some suitors, including an approach from Newcastle United after the Premier League club was acquired by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. “It was not the right moment,” Emery said of his decision last November. Newcastle, for all its new riches, 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 ways that success in the Spanish league could not.
At the beginning of his tenure, Emery said, he had planned to focus on the league. “But when we beat Atalanta and when we played against Juventus, the Champions League was, for me, more important,” Emery said. The club was getting recognition for its successes, and for players and coaches alike the performances could catapult their careers in new directions. “I know I have individual challenges as well,” Emery said.
Emery had arrived at Villarreal bruised by the nature of his Arsenal exit. Those wounds are not completely healed. He described the departure in Spanish as a golpe — a blow. By the time he was fired, Emery was facing criticism that at times felt more personal than professional: Long before the end, former players and parts of the news media had taken aim at his command of English.
Those criticisms still smart: When a fan at a preseason match in England recently goaded Emery by asking him to say, “Good ebening,” the coach responded with an obscene gesture that went viral.
At Villarreal, the team’s wealthy owners have provided Emery a platform to find balance in his life, as well as a space to rebuild a belief in his style of coaching. But Emery said he was certain that his success was not a case of a coach’s finding his level, of a leader most comfortable one rung below the elite. “I’m in a very good environment to feel strong, to feel confident again, adding confidence in my work,” he said. “And then, a new challenge.”
His determination to return to the top is perhaps best demonstrated by his extracurricular activities: While he has been re-establishing his credentials in Spain, he has also been working hard on his English. He described his summer trip to New York as a learning opportunity as much as a vacation with his son, Lander. It is perhaps a tacit admission that not all of the criticism during his time at Arsenal was wide of the mark.
He has been ruminating on those moments at Arsenal when he could not quite get his message across, or those crucial early conversations with key players when linguistic barriers made it hard to create the type of coach-player bond essential to winning teams.
“The next time I will arrive with better English,” he said.
That time may come soon. For now, though, Emery is prepared to bide his time, to wait for the right moment.