Unai Emery is currently the Aston Villa manager and is doing a superb job of rebuilding his reputation in England after what was a chastening spell as Arsenal boss in 2018 and 2019. The former midfielder, from Hondarribia in Spain’s Basque Country, is thriving at Villa and daring to dream big but is still viewed rather unkindly by some in the UK.
In this article we look back on his overall managerial career thus far and explain what makes him such a good boss. And there should be no doubt that that is what he is, for he has won honours at three different clubs and been a success in three different countries too.
Unai Emery’s Playing Career
Before we look at his stats in the dugout, what about Emery the player? Like so many Basque footballers he had his start with Real Sociedad but never quite made the grade and moved to Toledo in 1996 at the age of 24. He was a left-sided midfielder and spent much of his playing career in Spain’s second tier, also turning out for Racing Ferrol, Leganes and Lorca Deportiva.
He played around 400 games in total but had to retire at the age of 32 following a bad knee injury with Lorca. A deep thinker, he always seemed destined for management and upon retirement he was immediately offered the job of coach with the club.
Emery Managerial Summary and Stats
The table below shows the Basque boss’s managerial career, including the clubs he took charge of, dates, number of games, notable achievements and overall win percentage.
|Number of Games
|Promoted to second division for first time ever and finish fifth the following season
|Earns promotion to La Liga then finshes eighth
|Despite financial issues and sales of key players, Valencia regularly quailify for the Champions league
|Wins the Europa League three years in a row from 2014
|Wins the league, two French Cups and two League Cups
|Takes Arsenal to Europa League final and fifth place in league
|Breaks club record for unbeaten games, wins Europa League (beating Arsenal in the semis and Man United in the final), then makes the semis of the Champions league
|Takes Villa from 16th to 7th and qualifies for Europe
NB – Villa stats correct as of 25th October 2023.
As the table above shows, Emery has been incredibly successful with a number of different clubs. Good fortune, inheriting a strong squad and one or two great signings can see a coach prosper for a short time. However, to have repeated success at several different sides, in very different circumstances, is the sign of a truly top-class manager.
Emery was undoubtedly not given much time at Spartak and as soon as results went against him he was sacked. Equally, his spell in Paris was far from a roaring triumph, not least because of the club’s failure in the Champions League, something he was brought in to end given his success in Europe with Sevilla. What’s more, the club “only” finished second in the league in his first season, although table-toppers Monaco did boast a rejuvenated Radamel Falcao and a certain Kylian Mbappe.
And of course we have Arsenal. Emery will not be remembered fondly at the Emirates, although some of the club’s more cerebral fans may lament the fact he wasn’t given longer. Taking over from Arsene Wenger was always going to be a near-impossible task and, in actual fact, in Emery’s first season the club finished a place higher than they had in Wenger’s last. He also took them to a European final, so he can probably feel justified in thinking he wasn’t given long the following season when results didn’t go to plan.
He was sacked in November 2019 after a run of seven matches without victory. Had he been given more time we have little doubt he would have turned the club around. However, managers are rarely afforded much time in the PL and his seemingly taciturn nature didn’t help. Nor did his relatively poor command of English, which was unfairly mocked but may have been a factor in terms of his difficulty getting his message accross to the Arsenal players.
Emery Turns it Round
The former midfielder couldn’t turn Arsenal round but he had no problem getting his own career back on track in his native Spain. He had a few months out from football before returning as Villarreal boss in July 2020. His impact was instant as he took them on a record unbeaten run and led them to a first European final, eliminating his former club Arsenal along the way. They then beat Man United in the final, meaning an incredible fourth Europa League win for Emery.
That meant they would play in the Champions League in the 2021/22 campaign and they impressed hugely. They made it through to the semis, beating Juve and Bayern Munich along the way, incredible stuff given their relatively miniscule budget – the best-paid player in their current squad earns less that £80,000 a week!
Premier League Return
Having previously rejected an approach from Newcastle in 2021, in October the following year Emery decided the time was right to return to English football. Villa effectively paid around £5m to Villarreal to secure his services and with the club languishing just a point above the drop zone following the sacking of Steven Gerrard, he clearly had a huge task on his hands.
His work at Villa Park from that day until this has been nothing short of superb. Since he took over only three clubs have won more points than Villa. In the 2022/23 campaign he led them to 15 wins (18 for the season in total, tying a club PL record) and they have carried on that form in 2023/24.
They currently sit fifth, winning six of their nine games and have scored more goals than City, Arsenal, Spurs or Liverpool. He has reinvigorated Ollie Watkins and others at the club and his tactical awareness, attention to detail, and mix of discipline and care have seen him earn many plaudits. He is truly an elite manager and has talked about dreaming of not just qualifying for the Champions League with Villa, but actually winning it!
He works incredibly hard and has improved so many of the players at his new club, as well as making some astute acquisitions. His meticulous approach means he gets every advantage he can and whilst winning the CL might be a big ask, we can’t rule Villa out of qualifying for it if he stays with the Midlands outfit.