I have a special treat for all of you today: we finally have an English translation of the full interview of Unai Emery by Marti Perarnau. This work was originally published on Perarnau’s E-Magazine, the Tactical Room, and is published here with full permission of the author. As some of you know, other less reputable sites copied a large potion of the interview and translated it into French and then into English. Those sites didn’t even credit Perarnau with the original work until I hounded them on Twitter.
You may know Marti from his work with Pep Guardiola on the books Pep Confidential and The Evolution but he’s a well respected journalist who interviews with the world’s best football minds. This month’s magazine, for example, has an interview with Monchi the former director of football for Sevilla (now Roma) and the man who is most directly credited with their amazing success in the transfer market.
This translation was done by Sergio Valenzuela and I want to publicly thank him for the hard work he put in to bring us this rather lengthy interview. this interview is 11,000 words. My articles are typically 1,000 words and most interviews you will see are around 5,000 words. Those of you who speak multiple languages know that translation is as much art as science. I speak some Spanish and English and this work was well above my ability to translate but I have tried to smooth out some phrases. So, don’t be a jerk about the translation and give Sergio plenty of love for his hard work. A lot of other guys promised that they would do this but only Sergio stayed true to his word. He’s a top guy.
And lastly, a huge thanks to Mr. Perarnau for allowing us to publish his work. This is a fantastic interview and we now have an official English language version on record (that wasn’t stolen by some shady “news” site.)
Anyway, enough of me! Let’s learn all about Unai Emery…
“In the big teams, players are always waiting for coaches to make the right choices”
“Being competitive is to adapt to the reality of the rival. Is to know how to suffer”.
Martí Perarnau interviews Unai Emery.
In a moment of crisis of the old owners, Unai Emery took a step forward and assumed, together with several other partners, the management of a small restaurant in Valencia (La Casita de Sabino) where in his days off, he meets with family and friends to share meals. In the back, he has established a reserved space, just with a couple of tables, decorated with the blue and white stripes that he wore when he was a callow player in the Real Sociedad Academy. Tightly framed, in the room hang the shirts of the six different teams he has coached in his 14 years as a manager.
Only a few hours ago that Emery (Hondarribia, 1971) and the chairman of PSG, Naser Al-Khelaïfi, agreed and by mutual consent not to extend the two-year contract that bound them, the reason why the manager from Gipúzkoa won’t continue to manage the Parisian team – he is expected to be replaced by Thomas Tuchel – after winning seven titles. If in Sevilla he was distinguished for winning three Europa League titles in a row, averaging a 51,2% victory ratio in over 200 games that he managed, at PSG he has conquered a league with a 20-point margin between them and the former champion, two League Cups and one Coupe de France – that can be two by next week: on the 8th of May the team plays the final- accumulating a 78,5% win ratio in 110 matches. He also leaves with two deep wounds, suffered by losses against FC Barcelona and Real Madrid in the last two editions of the Champions League.
For four hours, Emery talks with The Tactical Room and reviews his two seasons at PSG that will leave a mark in his growing process as a manager. Beyond the wins and those two known defeats, he reflects about his idea of football, analyzes the traits that distinguish him, points out the shortcomings he still has being a young manager, expresses his admiration for some colleagues, he gets passionate while describing his relationships with players, and proclaims an unlimited joy when coaching.
-On the bench at PSG you have gesticulated less and have showed much calmer reactions while talking to players. Is it that true or is my perception wrong?
I have reduced the amount of gestures, for sure. The first thing I do is to adapt to the team I am in. I have read it from Garitano. He was asked the reason why he did not to wear a suit when he is on the bench, and Asier answered that because he adapts to the teams he manages, and that Leganés is a working people’s town outside Madrid, so the suit doesn’t feel natural. I have had a similar experience. I arrived in Paris, had to adapt to the PSG, and that carries some formalities that make me the way I am, but with nuances in my relationship with the players, the management, the stadium, the fans… And I have reduced the amount of feelings I express in the bench for the purpose of adaptation to PSG.
-During the week you do your job as a coach, but during the game you are in the players’ hands. Every coach’s destiny is in the hands of the players. How do you deal with the feeling of being in the hands of a genius play or in the hands of a big mistake?
You take it from experience after living so many cases like that. I remember a Europa League quarterfinal match with Sevilla. We had beaten Athletic in Bilbao 1 -2 and everything played in our hands, but we stood at the back at the Sánchez Pizjuán (Sevilla’s home stadium) and Athletic made the comeback and we went into extra-time. There is a moment when Susaeta is alone against our keeper, and I felt that according to how the play went, the knock-out stage was over. If he scored, everything was over. But as the play was developing, I was saying to myself “act normally, act normally, act normally…) because Susaeta can score or can miss. In that moment, I learned to live these moments normally. The chances you have for and against you. Susaeta didn’t score. It’s not easy to score according to the circumstances you’re in! Same thing happens when my players make a genius play or err an easy goal. Act normally. Those things happen. However, if you are in a team like PSG, that wins a lot, you get used to wininning and every goal-scoring play you have is less momentous compared with other teams in which these plays are less often created. At PSG these plays are more natural and more likely to happen, so I act more natural, and coming back to the first question, that makes me gesticulate less. Because we win more often. Now, at PSG, when a player from my team does a genius play and scores, I feel a kind of normality. It’s “normal” that he makes that play.
I have talked about it with Neymar himself. I have always been a coach who plans the “strategy” and in general that has worked out well for me. But when you have a player like Neymar, sometimes you don’t need anything else: he’s the strategy. Marcelo Bielsa explains it very well when he says he sees players with talent that make certain movements naturally, and that’s pure talent, but there are other players that don’t have that talent and cannot do those plays, and in those cases Bielsa tries to make those plays automatic: repeat a play many times for the player to do it on the pitch.
As a coach, I’ve always tried to steer the players, like when someone moves a joystick, but when you arrive to PSG, you notice that in many cases the players themselves are the ones that choose the more effective route on the pitch. I told him one day: “Ney, there are some situations in the game that I have always worked previously and instead, in your case, you can do them alone”.
-Are you happy as a coach? I say this because you sometimes show a suffering face on the bench.
It always depends on the moment we choose. What image do you want to choose from people? Their hardest moments. Sure, when Barcelona scores their sixth goal [he’s speaking of the 6-1 match in the round of 16 at 2016-2017 Champions League], I make a gesture on the bench. I put my head down and put my hands around my eyes. And that is the image that stays from that hard moment. Or in this year’s second-leg match [against Real Madrid] from the 15th minute I’m frowning in the bench. I’m suffering, yes, because I saw that we didn’t had the answer we needed it for that match.
However, do I enjoy [coaching]? Of course I do! I’ve also seen Guardiola suffering, in his last year there. It was evident that Pep was suffering in those moments. If you watch Simeone when the opposition scores, of course he suffers. But I am a coach and I enjoy being one. I enjoy all of it. I like to be a coach. I want to be a coach. I was a player in Toledo and when I was on the bench, I spent the games giving instructions to my teammates, to the point where Miguel Ángel Portugal, who was my coach, one time stared at me like saying “What are you doing, kid?” It is an image that has always stayed with me, at Salto del Caballo [Toledo’s stadium]. Miguel Ángel was staring at me, and I had to almost apologize because I did not want to impersonate him and do his job, but wanted to cheer my teammates. I wanted to be a coach back then.
Do I suffer? No, I enjoy it. I like football, I like to coach. Do I want to coach the best team in the world and have the best contract in history? Well, okay, maybe I do, but the truth is that it isn’t my goal. I want to coach. I enjoy coaching.
Have I lived harsh moments? Of course. Last year when we lost against Barcelona. This year when we lost against Real Madrid. But in both cases I thought, after passing through those bad moments: “Unai, you still have wonderful opportunities when coaching”. And I want to take those opportunities. Do those losses hurt? Of course they do, they hurt a lot. But you pick yourself up and after some days you are capable of seeing you have been able to overcome those losses and start again. Maybe I have needed three days of isolation, without remembering those hard knocks, but those are some grieving days until you get back to being your normal self. You go as far as being able to watch those games again and see what you did wrong. And that feeling of normality makes me happy. Yes, I’m happy as a coach.
-Why did you became a coach? Why did you wanted to be a coach?
When I was 11 years old, my grandfather ‘Pajarito’ Emery had passed away [Antonio Emery was a Real Union de Irún goalkeeper between 1920 and 1930, twice Cup champion], and the house was filled with telegrams expressing condolences from Real Madrid, from Barcelona and from other clubs. My father and my uncle [both football players too] showed me those telegrams: I remember an image from my grandfather’s house with the table full of telegrams. That shocked me.
And other thing that made an impression on me: Real Sociedad’s league title in 1982 with that goal from Zamora. I remember being at home listening to the match on the radio, the voice of Josean Alkorta, and jumping up and down with that goal. Football was present in my childhood and then I became a professional player [Emery played 215 games in the second division of Spanish football]. But why did I become a coach? For pure survival instinct. Because I had dropped out of school and my only future was in football. As a player, football was only my present. My future had to be related with football somehow, and the light shone on the possibility of me earning a living from being a football coach. It was pure survival instinct and it was attached to the feeling that I liked to be a coach.
I never look back. I don’t look at how I have got to PSG. Simply I have been taking steps forward. But I have my goal very clear, and it isn’t a specific club nor a specific city, just coaching. That’s my happiness and my idea: to coach. Where? I don’t know. But to coach.
–What is your balance after these two seasons at Paris Saint-Germain?
It is a positive balance, and above all it’s a balance of continued improvement, closely attached with the process of an adaptation to a different dressing room, a different league, and also an adaptation from the players to a new coach with a different work methodology. I came with an idea of continuity for what was established at PSG, but also with the idea of planting a few improvement details.
I believe that the team has improved all the time. The first six months were hard because, among other reasons, Ibrahimovic left the club and he was our franchise-player, and everything that came with it, 50 goals, 20 assists… And we had to rebuild a new PSG without him, but from January 2017, the team started to have positive and progressive performances. In this second season, with the signings of players like Neymar and Mbappé, the new team has had a growth process and has ended with a good season, three titles so far and waiting the Coupe [du France] final to try to get the fourth, although with the “but” of the Champions League. A “but” staged with two Spanish teams, Barça and Real Madrid, which are the dominators of world’s football last decade, in one case with a key refereeing incidence, and in the second case with the fact that Real Madrid’s current form is better than PSG’s. That’s my summary of the two seasons.
I think that if Real Madrid beat us in the Champions League semis, you have bought some time, but they beat us in March and it has been a tough month and a half, because we had to pick up the bike and start pedaling again. And that is what I feel proud the most: not letting the team collapse after the big hit we took against Real Madrid. I am very happy about that. A few weeks ago, for example, we played Saint-Étienne and we played a horrible first half, but after the break, and with 10 men on the field, we reacted and stood up (1-1). A staff member told me after the whistle: “Unai, today the players have shown they are on your side. If they weren’t on your side today, we would have lost” And he was right. If the team wanted to kill me, that was the perfect time to do it, when everything was against us. But the team reacted and we stood up again.
-In which aspect it is better to coach a big team than a small team? I am not talking about the bigger possibilities of winning titles, but the difference between methodologies that it involves.
Let’s start from a principle that I understand as a basic: coaching is very, very, very hard. And going on from there, coaching top-class players is even a bit harder. Why? Because being convincing is the key characteristic that you need for coaching: making players believe in you. Making them believe because you know a lot or because you have many victories with your name, or because you are really strong, or because your presence entails respect, or because what you say always happens… for any reason. Making them believe in you. And in the big teams, players are expecting just that: that the coach is always right. In a smaller team, the players expect that, but are more conscious that there is a bigger margin of error, that you lose a bit more. In a big team, you have to get every detail right: at training, at planning, in what you say and who you say it to. Everything gets a little bit more difficult. Maybe from the outside it can look that you have to work less, but no, it’s the other way around. You have to say the right things in the right moment, and make it help to win the match. In teams like PSG, winning is the norm and that is what gives significance to your actions and your words. In lesser teams, the results are more variable: you win, you draw, you lose… Here, you don’t, you win most of the time and you need to get it right in the precise moment. Time after time.
It is said that it is a matter of managing the egos, but egos are everywhere. I have had problems with some egos in Segunda B [Spanish third division] with someone who had not played on Sunday. Monday’s after the games you always have problems, in every team. You know what rule I have imposed on myself? Not to train the day after a match. Because after two days everyone comes back more relaxed. Then, they train together, the ones who played and the ones who did not, and only you separate them at the end of the session. The first one who told me about it was Paco Ayestarán, although he told me about it for another reason: for earning some more training days. But I have added to it another concept: I do it for gaining some mental stability for all. Yes, at the highest level, the egos have more repercussions, but at the end of things, it is the same in every lower level.
-A squad with players like Neymar, Mbappé or Cavani is not short on egos…
The first thing to do is to have a relationship with the players at the personal level. One by one, or by groups. A coach has to do for the player the same things that a parent has to do for his child. At these levels no one likes to clash with a player because he did something that you think is wrong, in the same way that any parent wouldn’t like to argue with his child. But you have to do it and do it in a way that doesn’t provoke a decline in your relationship with him. With your child it is easier, because you know you can argue with him but, after all, he is still your child, and he will understand and keep being by your side. But maybe a player does break the relationship with you or holds a grudge against you or decides to leave. For this reason, is more delicate what you say, when you say it and how you say it. Because it may have an irreversible repercussion in your relationship with the player. In a smaller team, this risk is lesser because everyone in the group knows that you are the one who dominates the team and you are the boss because you have earned it. But in a top team, maybe the responsibilities lay on others. Jorge Valdano once made me reflect: “At Barcelona, Messi is the leader; at Real Madrid, it is Florentino Pérez; and at Atletico de Madrid it’s Simeone”. Notice it: a player, a chairman and a coach. In every case, a different leader profile.
I know when I am the head of a group and I know when I am not. It’s a process every coach has to go through and make it his own, it’s not something you learn in a couple of days, it just comes with time and experience. In every club you know exactly your place, and exactly the place you are given by the whole group. In my opinion, today PSG’s leader is Neymar. Or rather it will be Neymar. He is still in the process of being the leader. I have had it clear from the first day: Neymar has gone to PSG to be the leader. Neymar has gone to PSG to live through the necessary process for him to become the world’s greatest player. It’s a process that is still ongoing. At Manchester City, the leader is Pep. At PSG, the leader has to be Neymar. I think I managed the dressing room quite well. My greatest achievement is that, after we lost to Barcelona last year, or to Real Madrid this year, the team’s morale didn’t decay or was trashed. And it didn’t because we have made the right choice and tried to maintain the level. It is my greatest satisfaction, although is a very internal thing that will not be valued in the outside. But I managed to sustain it. I do not control everything, naturally. Both round of 16 losses show it. It is hard to master every key factor to run a big team, and I am in the process to improve.
A few months ago, a PSG player told me: “Mister, you have changed this year”. Well, of course I have, I cannot be the same with and without Neymar in the team. There has been a process of mutual adaptation with the player, a process that never ends, that is always going on. It isn’t an instantaneous process because you have to learn to know yourself and know the others, Coaching Messi, or Cristiano Ronaldo, or Neymar is not simple: they are the best in the world and that means a lot. You have to adapt to them. Look, one of the best things Guardiola has at Manchester City is that he doesn’t have a star to be subordinated to. He has great players that when he needs them, in the moment of truth they all go to one [person]. And they do it because Guardiola earns it and gets the union. And when he has had to make radical decisions, Pep has made them, like dropping Deco and Ronaldinho, or letting Ibrahimovic go when he had issues with Messi. And by doing it, he avoided serious trouble.
-In all of this issue of relationship with players, you have not mentioned the language, but it is a crucial element to connect with the football player.
Luckily, the French I studied as a child has been useful. It ‘s clear that I’m not at hundred percent, but one day I read that Rafa Benitez wasn’t able to transmit everything he wanted in English… I was surprised because Rafa speaks English perfectly and has been there for fifteen years, but I understand him, he still has some percentage of English to learn for him to connect perfectly with the players. I do not speak French at 100%, but I do know quite a lot and it has been enough to explain myself and be understood. It is obvious that one of the reasons of a coach’s success and in my experience I think that is the case, it’s communication and connection with a player and with the group. And by connection, I mean emotionally. Also, I am one who speaks a lot in the dressing room. No doubt, I have reduced the intensity of my talks up to a 60%, but I can speak thanks to the French I learnt as a kid in Hondarribia and what I have learned in the last two years. All my interactions with the team have been in French and I think we have understood each other well, and that language hasn’t been a barrier in the process.
The true barrier we have had at PSG is that we drew Barcelona and Real Madrid at the round of 16 in the Champions League. Last year it was the time to beat Barça, but we didn’t. And this year, Real Madrid showed they were better than us. Those are the two setbacks we have had. My adaptation to PSG was good and step by step I keep growing.
-When a team wins four titles in a season, and that can be the case for Paris Saint-Germain with you at the helm, does the Champions League weighs that much that there is a feeling of disappointment?
It is the price you have to pay when you are in the elite. I have lived in Spain with the overwhelming superiority of Guardiola’s Barcelona and the continuity of that superiority with Tito and with Luis Enrique, I have seen at times how Real Madrid can be superior and capable to win titles, and I have lived the same thing with PSG, that level of requirements and capability of being better that your rival. Everyone who wants to put it a “but” will say that it is normal, and I from the inside and believing it, I say that this PSG has played very well. And it has been superior than the last league champion, Monaco, ending with the 7-1 win at home, and that is because this team has made a very good season and not only been better, but has played to be better and shown the fans more things that just wins: we can give emotions and play well. PSG has given energy, has given quality, a group cohesion, superiority with the ball, and all in all, that is what you have to give to the fans, and they should feel that ninety minutes are not enough because they are enjoying it. And that is what we have achieved.
-European Football is showing more notoriously that there is a big difference between league football and Champions League football… England’s, Spain’s, France’s, Italy’s and Germany’s champions are all out of the competition…
There are two ways of seeing how a team performs. As a coach, I prefer to value how my team plays, and what it gives to the audience. It’s true that the final result is quite important, but it’s not the only thing. I give much importance to the result, and for me, winning always comes first. But as you can’t always win, I have given a lot of importance that my team shows something. For me, showing something is more than if we score more goals, the better we are because that’s the greatest form of joy for the fans. When the team emits energy and intensity to the fans, it is also transmitting emotions. I want to win, but playing with energy, being near to the other team’s goal, having an active attitude in the pitch, wanting to play football, being the main character, quickly doing the throw-ins and the goal kicks, wanting a lot of things to happen and using the most of the ninety minutes of the game, in the actual game, being closer to the sixty minutes of actual game than fifty minutes… Because, in the end, that is what the fan gets and it is not only the result, but the things that go on on the pitch.
Answering your question, yes, of course, Champions League is the greatest expression of knock-out football, along with the World Cup. If we watch it from a marketing perspective, the big European teams maybe would want to have a competition of only the ten best, but I am for making the national leagues stronger and making it the base for competitive football, the base where clubs find the foundations of the teams that then compete at a European level. Let’s not underestimate the value of the national leagues, because I believe those are the ones who ‘feed’ football, the one made for everyone, the one made for the season ticket holder. And if in the end we are left with only the reduced elite, we will make a decision that will only benefit the biggest clubs, and I say it precisely now, in a moment I am in one of those big clubs. I advocate to vindicate the ‘pure’ football, that is the one we live in the leagues.
–How much will it weigh this PSG experience in your build-up as a coach? Are you leaving satisfied even with those two losses in Champions League?
I leave very satisfied. Very happy with my work. I have learned about French football and the elite level. I have learned that, even if we won 80 percent of the time, the remaining 20 percent maybe weighs more than the 80. I assume that is football’s reality. I accept it and assume it. If you ask me if I think I am capable of continuing to grow PSG, I would answer yes. If you ask me if I believe I left important things, that will help grow PSG in the immediate future, I will also answer yes: young players that have come and improved their performances, established players that have kept their level and have improved in some details. And it’s not me saying it, it is said by some players that have recognized what we have done and what we have contributed to the game, to their performance and the growth of the player. I feel very satisfied with all of this and with the relationship with the players. And also, I have had a very good relationship with the executives, With Nasser Al-Kheläifi I have had a good relationship and we have said goodbye being certain that he has a friend in me, and I have a friend in him. And that is the same with Antero Henrique, the sporting director, and with all the crew at the club.
In football you have three ways of leaving: one is being fired, which is the worst; another one is you leaving because you want to; and the third one is having your contract expire and don’t re-sign it by mutual consent, and that has been my case, and I think is the best one. There is and will be a good relationship between PSG and me.
-Do you regret any decision you took or did not took in this two years, on or off the pitch?
When I arrived, Ibrahimovic’s exit had to be dealt with along with the arrival of Cavani, who we gave full attacking responsibilities, and I was satisfied with his performance: 49 goals last season, an all-time high for him, and this year he added eight or ten assists, therefore I’m happy with his development as a player, even if he was already a star. Having regrets? As much as regrets, no. It is obvious there were two knock-out games that leave a mark, but I have a very experienced friend who says that in Champions League football, you have to have a bit of luck along the way. We have come across with the best European teams of the last decade and, well, against Barcelona we nailed 50% of the series and failed the other 50%, but overall we could have gone forward if we came across different circumstances. And against Real Madrid we suffered that their historic moments as a winning team have always occurred in the European Cup (actually it’s UEFA Cup and Champions League) and it happened again this year, in which they hit a sweet spot in the Champions League. And we have suffered both.
We have worked hard, we have tried to improve the team and overall I think achieved that, barring those two games. You have to seduce the Champions League in order to win it. You have to seduce it, you have to gain experience, information, knowledge of the Champions League, and keep growing around it until the day that all of that knowledge and plan help you break the barrier and win it, like one day happened to Barça with Bakero’s goal at Kaiserslautern or with Iniesta’s goal at Stamford Bridge. And I’m sure one day PSG will also get it.
-Let’s go deeper in your emotional connection with the players. We’re up against one the most relevant issues in modern football.
A PSG player once said to me: “There are many types of coaches. There are some who ask you about your family and you value that a lot. There are some who ask you about tactical issues, and you also value that a lot”. What do I think? I have to be a coach who ask about their family and also about their tactical concerns. Because if you are not interested about their families, you seem to be only worried about tactics, and vice versa.
I will give you an example with this restaurant. I took over because in a certain moment there was a crisis, they asked for my help and I did it because I wanted to help ten people stay in their jobs. And now, a couple of months ago I met with these workers and I said to them: “it is all about you being happy”. In football, it’s the same thing. You have to keep the player happy, but logically that has a limit: you can’t keep him happy letting him do what he only wants to do. No. You have to make a pact. Start from the beginning: every day of my life I am thankful of where I am. That is the level we have to start from to be happy! I am delighted where I am! But the player has to understand that he has to be happy inside a pact, inside a collective harmony between desires and responsibilities.
My absolute failure happened in Moscow, at Spartak. First, there was never direct communication, only through translators. And second, because lifestyle and the way of life in Russia is quite different. But in the rest of the teams where I have been I do think we had that harmony between what we are and our work requirement. Happy, yes, but with requirement. The Player must be happy, yes, but working at the required level. It has to be a meeting point kind of happiness. As my PSG player says, emotional connection is a collaboration: asking about the family and asking about the tactics.
-How do you prepare? I mean physically, mentally, and study-wise. How do you improve as a coach?
I am an autodidact. I was not motivated for school and dropped out to be a player. I left pending two high-school subjects and my mother pressed me to finish them. I did not want to because I wanted to be a player, but my mother kept insisting until I went back to high-school and finished those two subjects. And thanks to that, I could earn the coach title at 24. Therefore, I was a very young coach thanks to my mother’s pressure.
Football has been my guide in everything I have done. First as a player and then as a coach. It is what makes sense to me. Football and coaching. My old colleagues say I have been lucky, but I also say to them that since a very young age I have prepared to be a coach.
I have always been centered in the moment. To prepare trainings and watch matches. I have been a ‘devourer’ of live matches. And it is still the same today: my day-by-day is my preparation of the training and the work to be done. My improvement process consists in watching and analyzing our match, tearing it apart and adapting the next few training sessions in function of what was analyzed. I even try to analyze the kick-off play. Why did we do it in that way or the other? And from there I get a lot of information to use in our next tasks. I like to prepare personally all the work to do. I like to read books about motivation and generation of group dynamics, and according to that I try to find answers to questions I ask along the way and try to apply them in my relationship with the players. Sometimes people say to me that I have to talk with an specific player because he is dealing with some issues, but careful, you cannot talk just for talking. You have to know what to say to him. If what I have to say to him won’t help him, maybe I prefer to postpone the talk.
The day-by-day of an active coach is in his head. In not stopping to throw your head around it. One day, eating at home, my father said to me: “Unai, you are aloof”. Yes, he was right, I was wrapping my head around an exercise or a problem of the team. In my whole life I have only stopped coaching one month, December 2012 [when he was fired at Spartak Moscow]. If everyday a player has a problem, there are twenty-five problems a month and each one is different.
I go to bed thinking about tomorrow’s training session, about a task we have to do or i conversation I have to have with a player, and the next morning I wake up thinking about that exact same task or conversation. Maybe it is a minor problem, but one which we have to deal with and solve. I have to speak to him and for it to go well, I prepare myself and maybe I go to bed taking notes, writing the script of what I am going to say. And I wake up in the morning with the same intention. My last thought at night and my first thought in the morning is the same: what I have to do at training.
-Playing a game every three days does not help the process of improving and perfecting the teams…
We have gone from managing cycles of training for getting to the match to managing cycles of matches over matches. It is true that now a whole week of training seems almost too long to me, but I am thankful for it and enjoy it, because they are rare: you go from a match to a match. This cuts your job to analyzing the match and reviewing the videos with the players.
At this level you are not working on a single action at the pitch. There isn’t enough time. It is better to prepare a video with the action and that players, who generally are smart and experts, understand them in five minutes. I had always liked to do the following kind of sequences: work in the pitch, video work, a test and then go to the game. That sequence has now shrunk to two steps: video work and to the game.
-This methodological change includes set pieces…
Yes. Normally I worked on set pieces for half an hour on Fridays, and another half an hour on Saturdays, but you are now limited to five-ten minutes during the pre-game talk at the hotel, decreasing the possibilities spectrum. You are left managing a limited number of set pieces with which you can surprise your rival.
Although, sometimes you can be shocked. I always have had three rules at set-pieces: one, do it fast, before your opponents are in place; two, do them short to make the opponents move and leave their places, making spaces appear; and three, based on your and the other side’s position in the pitch, attack them and try to shoot. I always work with those three rules in mind, but I figured that with Neymar there wasn’t time to work it because he had just arrived to Paris. And suddenly we had a corner kick against Toulouse, Neymar goes and kicks it fast, and Kurzawa scores. We hadn’t worked it with him. One day I said to him: “All of my work was narrowed to one of your genius plays”.
-Let’s talk about your game plan. The actual question is: What is your game plan? But as Paco Seirul.lo says, sometimes we cast doubts about a coach’s real game plan because he can’t express it clearly with words.
It is not easy to answer this question. The answer will depend of who is getting the answer. What is a game plan? I say that because there are people who ask about the game plan, actually want to know about the game ‘scheme’. It depends a lot on a country’s game culture. For example, in France they give a lot of attention to the coach’s modifications and substitutions during the game, and, however, to me it is not that critical, because I think every player in the squad has to be equally prepared to play the same way, not just eleven players.
Roberto Olabe told me that nowadays that everyone plays the same way: the goalkeeper starts the play from the back, high pressing… and it’s true: today everyone works the same kind of way because people are so prepared. Where lies the difference? It’s about you convincing the players. And, of course, that they are quality footballers.
For me, the game plan is closely related with it being competitive. That your plan is coherent with the players who have to understand it. Because sometimes with a specific type of player you can’t expect to play in a way and be better than your rival. There has to be coherence. Or maybe you have to modify your idea because with that kind of players, the performance will be less than desired. And I have to be able to do other things win.
To me, the game plan is to be competitive with a certain group of players who have concrete characteristics. I distinguish two main ideas: to have or not to have the ball. I don’t want to start debating what Lillo says that you cannot separate moments. By the way, let me say this: Juanma Lillo is someone who is nice to hear explain himself. When I started to coach, I would have liked to assist him. Because he is a coach who gives something different to the game and you learn from, but I didn’t have the chance to get close to him. Look at what Sampaoli did, to go and look for him. Or Guardiola, how much he has listened to him.
-It seems obvious that you narrow your game plan to the mindset and being competitive…
A winning mindset is not the one of the winner. It is the one of who does everything to win. Certainly, you can lose having a winning mindset, because losing is part of the game. But with that mindset, you create and generate some internal networks to the team in which you try to avoid them letting go: that mentality is to try to overcome the unavoidable harsh moments. And sometimes it leads you to win and sometimes to lose. But not because you lose you are going to let go that winning mindset. In fact, it is more about having a competitive mindset. You can be humble and competitive. A competitive team is one which can overcome harsh moments because it never gives up. It knows what to do in every moment. That is why I like Pep Guardiola and Simeone so much, although they are opposite poles in their ideas, but both of them accomplish the same thing: being competitive and win. They have an immense competitive capability, although they express it in different ways. For me, an ideal would be a mix between them.
A game plan is to be competitive to win and to transmit excitement to people. I like that becomes the main character and, at first, we go in a disorderly kind of attack to win. When I arrived at Valencia in 2008, I found a team based in a 4-2-2, and when I tried to push the team to get disordered to attack, I was being criticized because we were a mess defending. And I said: I try to promote a team that get disorderly in attack to try to win. Because if I wanted a team much more staid without the ball from a defensive positioning, of course we would have less chances for winning.
Through time I have been adapting based on trying to always be competitive, to the point that my critics have transitioned from saying that we are too attacking to being too defensive. But it is about being competitive. And with the premise to give emotion to the spectator. I prefer a 5-5 draw than a 0-0, and I say it clearly. Because the spectators enjoy it more. But we have to focus on being more competitive.
When I started at Lorca and we were promoted to Segunda División (Spanish second division), we started to suffer. Yes, we played very well, but we did not win. I remember I called José Aurelio Gay, who the year before had gone through the same thing with Pontevedra: they played really well, but they did not win, and he got fired during the season. And then I realized I had to reorganize my ideas, that playing well and scoring a lot did not work if we did not win.
Being competitive is to adapt to your rival’s reality. There are times that you beat them because you manage the ball better than him and there are times you beat them without having the ball. And that is why I display my admiration to Guardiola and Simeone. Because they are very competitive. Sure, I get to PSG and I know: it is a team of possession, of having the ball, of scoring. Let me tell you something: PSG has played well and has won. It happens that people don’t value it because they say it is easy to do it that way. What has happened to us? That we have lacked a bit of competitiveness in key moments. Why? Because the team doesn’t have Ligue 1 matches in which your opponents make you suffer regularly. Being competitive is to know how to suffer. Suffer like Simeone’s team do to win. Suffer like Pep’s does to win in England.
My team has two base premises: I want to be a possession-oriented and pressure-oriented team. Those are the basics. Have the ball and recover it as soon as possible. I want to make it clearer: I say possession rather than position because there are moments that from position we can win, but there are others in which we need to change positions in order to surprise the rival.
Now, as Guardiola says, if you have to win with a goalkeeper’s long pass to the striker and he scores with his butt, let’s do it also. I also train that, of course.
-Let’s talk about the midfield, which is the ‘mirror’ of the team. Has the midfield been a weak point this season for PSG? I say this because you have used Motta, Lo Celso, Rabiot, Verratti, Lass in that position…
It depends. I remember when I analyzed Xabi Alonso’s Real Madrid, I thought he had a hard time running backwards and you had to exploit that weak point. When I analyze Barça and see Busquets, I think that Sergio also suffers going backwards. If I see Thiago Motta, I also think he suffers going back. Every great midfielder suffers going back. But you are from a team who has the ball 70% of the time, and that is more important than suffering going backwards. Going forward is more important! You are who dominates the matches and that happens most of the time. For this reason alone, your midfielder’s performance is less important during the time you don’t have the ball: because it is a shorter time span. And if I put in a pure defensive midfielder, it will undermine my game-building more than it would help destroy my rival’s. Sure, I have to get Thiago Motta to be better defensive-wise, of course. But when you analyze Xabi Alonso or Sergio Busquets, you see exactly the same thing. They also suffer in those moments, but help a lot in building an attack.
I don’t think the “sentinelle” [French word for pivotal player or defensive midfielder] has been a weak point at PSG. Motta is a magnificent midfielder. This year, injuries have been his problem. Motta gives a lot to the team, he can carry the ball. Does he suffer going backwards? Yes, but there are two Champions League champions like Xabi or Busquets with the same issue. I don’t think PSG’s problem has been the midfield.
Let’s talk about Rabiot. He plays as an 8, but he is more comfortable as a 6 than as a 10. But he still is more an 8 than a 6. When you want to play with a fixed 6, a fixed 8 and a fixed 10, Rabiot runs into trouble: he needs to run around a lot, not play fixed in a position and it is even worse if he plays with the back pointing towards the goal. Rabiot doesn’t like to play as a midfielder, he likes to play as an 8, but I prefer when he plays as a 6. That is why after losing to Real Madrid I told him to play as a 6. I also instructed him to play facing the opposite’s goal, moving around a lot and changing with Verratti, because those conditions is where he plays his best. With some players you cannot enforce your idea, but you have to adapt to their characteristics to win competitiveness between you and him, and with the whole team.
Lass? He arrived in January and after six months of low competitive level, and he needed time to recover.
Pep told me a key thing last year: To win the Champions League, Barcelona had to break two crucial moments of the club’s history: Bakero’s goal against Kaiserslautern and Iniesta’s goal against Chelsea. PSG lacks that goal! It could have been last year when we lost 6-1 against Barça: maybe that was the moment to break the shell. Or this year against Real Madrid, when you have the moment. PSG lacks that ability to break the molds, matches, moments. Having its “Bakero’s goal”. Even being inferior, even when you don’t deserve it at all. But, boom! you score that goal, you win the Champions League and you have your moment.
To be big, teams need to go through moments like that. The only team that doesn’t need those moments, and that is because they had them in the past, is Real Madrid. This year, we had one of those moments again. It was at Santiago Bernabéu. There, Madrid was suffering. It was clear they were suffering. I had said to my players before the game: “For them to lose, they have to suffer”. We have to make them suffer and couldn’t rebuild itself after suffering. We had to hit the nail on the head in the moment they were suffering. And we had the moment when we were 1-1. I was there, really calm, because it seemed like we were ready to do it. And we had spoken about it: we have to be careful with Real Madrid in each half’s beginning and ending, we had to be extra careful in those moments, because those are the ones Real Madrid uses to rebuild itself. And that was it: first half is dying, the referee calls a penalty, they equalize. We were tied and we have a chance: but we don’t score. The game is ending and they score twice. No, we didn’t know how to close the match when we could nor how to suffer when we should. If they score the second goal, you have to keep suffering, hanging tight and but hoping they don’t score the third, because that kills the knock-out stage. Suffering after the 2-1 and hanging, without allowing that Real Madrid scores the third.
Sure, the second-leg match is a whole different world, because Real Madrid came to Parc des Princes with favorable conditions. We had to play a crazy game, but didn’t make it. Maybe it was because I started with controlling players instead of someone who can make the rhythm change. There we lost every chance. There I lost control of the team. I started players that can control tense moments in the pitch, but the game was set for other things. In the 15th minute I told Carcedo, my assistant coach, that it wasn’t working. The game against Real Madrid needed the craziness of the previous year’s game against Barcelona: breaking and breaking [their game creation]. And with that strategy, we hoped that Real Madrid were fearful. And we had that sometimes at Bernabéu, but not in the second-leg.
-In the two big knockout games against Barça and Real Madrid, PSG had five, six, eight minutes too many to play…
Yes, we had. Those final minutes. PSG needs to break the shell, break the barrier, the psychological frontier, but it is still not ready to do it. Why does Verratti get sent off? For his emotional frustration his suffering. Because it is hard to resist those kinds of frustration and manage the game despite it. You have to get used to live and play with it, and to overcome it. That probably doesn’t happen to a Barça or Real Madrid player. When you overcome it is when you make that big leap. That is Bakero’s goal or Iniesta’s goal. Why do I sub in Pastore when we were 0-1 down? Because Pastore is a player who has no inhibitions, that can make a nutmeg and still has possession or he can do it and make a big mistake. But he is a player who has moments, who can help to break the dynamic we were in.
PSG needs to live a process. We had an enormous amount of pressure on us when we brought Neymar and Mbappé, because we are known as the ‘money’ team. Yes, but Real Madrid has done the same thing for the last 10 years buying Cristiano, Bale, Marcelo, Kroos, Modric… Players already established. And they have Zidane, that is the best coach Real Madrid can have. He cannot be the ideal coach, depending of the team, but he is the best for Real Madrid, and he is showing it. Can he improve? Of course he can, but he knows how to manage that group and to keep the players happy.
There are players who have said it: Zidane is the best coach for us because he understands us, we are all happy and know that we cannot let him down in key moments. Can the situation be better? Sure, because they are not constant. And if he presses them more, maybe he will stop being Zidane. He knows what this group of players want and does what it is needed to make them happy. Being happy sometimes leads to relax and that takes a toll in the league, for instance. We had the chance to break them in that moment, and maybe to knock-down that construction, but we didn’t do it.
Coaching Madrid or Barça is a very complicated job, is a balancing act. The balance between the players’ happiness and maximum effort. That is why is so hard to do what Zidane does. And that is why it is so admirable what Guardiola and Simeone do, and for me they are the best in the art of having their players happy while asking the most of them.
What Pep did adapting to his players in Munich was amazing, admirable. Am I in that level? Not yet. I am not there yet. But I think I can get to that level. I am just not there yet.
Look, the first thing I did this season was to establish my priorities: I have to keep Neymar happy, that is the first thing. Keep him happy. We will see how to do it. I have had many conversations with Neymar about this subject. Some of those conversations have not been successful, but some have been. In one of them, we were talking for 45 minutes, with our hearts on our sleeves. It was great. He listened to me and I could convince him of some things. But it is a process. Neymar is in a process to become the best.
-One year ago, talking with Xabi Alonso in Munich, we talked about that famous video of the dinner between Draxler, Matuidi, Meunier and Verratti before the Barcelona game at Camp Nou, that 6-1 game. In that video you could sense fear in the players. Is the lack of emotional stability a shell that still needs to be broken? Or Thiago Silva’s statement saying that Messi can only be stopped by praying…
In the important games, the team lacks a step of the process. It is still lacks it’s Bakero’s goal, the Iniesta’s goal. Having a player base as Real Madrid, established players and breaking the barrier. When will it happen? I think it is a difficult project, in the economic sense, player-wise or having a big training complex. What does it need? Patience and experience. I wanted to make the process faster. I wanted to see if I was able to speed up the process after winning the Europa League three times, and take a step forward. We didn’t take it. Why? Because we still have some things missing. You need to be important in key moments.
As a player I have lived through feeling scared on the pitch, feeling scared to play. And sometimes in Ligue 1, you can be too comfortable. That is a bad thing for any player, because you can get stuck. I have pressed a lot, I have had discussions and shaken the dressing room. But that agitation, as I have not won the Champions League, sometimes were harmful. I try to make things happen in matches, that the matches are not placid and comfortable, and not solved by a magic play from Neymar, Cavani or Mbappé. I don’t like the style of play of just play without anything happens and the great players solve the puzzle. I don’t want to win that way. Yes, that will do it if you just want to win, but I don’t want that. That is why I admire Guardiola: Guardiola builds things, makes stuff happen. I like that: to make stuff happen.
There are two ways of understanding football: aggressively or less aggressively. You are going to get the ball back or you are not. I have always considered that the 4-4-2 systems that are coming back again to Spain are the best if you want to avoid you rival getting through your lines. Because you have to cut through three lines and each one is difficult to go through. Marcelino’s teams are good because they do that very well: it is very difficult to go through those three lines. They try to get the ball back and counter-attack, because they have two strikers up there and two players on the sides that make it easier. Defensive positioning and counter-attacks.
After Guardiola and the national team success, a style of play was developed that relied on possession, but it is now fading because when in Spain the players’ level dip, and the rivals learn how to counter -and the 4-4-2 is designed for it-, the style of play is not the best and that is why is fading.
For my liking, I prefer Guardiola’s Barça but I also like its current style, Luis Enrique’s concept also used by Valverde, and is a 4-4-2. That is one of the reasons why Neymar left Barcelona. Because he was subdued to Messi. And Neymar was forced to play going through the whole touch line.
I like to go and face the opposition. It is a more aggressive idea, but at the same time gives you more space. Like Bielsa’s style, Guardiola’s style. When I lose the ball, I want to get it back immediately. My team, using a 4-1-4-1 formation or a 4-3-3 knows that in any place the ball is, has to apply pressure on it. When the ball moves, apply pressure and try to get it back, respecting the tactical structure. Those are my two readings. Defensively, getting the ball back as soon as possible. Attacking-wise, pressuring. If the ball is standing still, positioning. To me, the 4-1-4-1 formation is the best to try to apply pressure. The 4-4-2 it’s more like a zonal positioning, less aggressive on the pressure, but harder to cut through. It is very hard to get over the 4-4-2 teams. Marcelino’s teams, Quique Sánchez Flores’ teams, Saint-Étienne the other day… Those are teams that feel comfortable with a closed 4-4-2 formation.
I cannot discard the 4-4-2. It’s not the idea I like the most, but if I have to use it because it makes me more competitive, I will. In fact, at Sevilla we did it sometimes. Sure, I placed Ever Banega in the middle, making him play as an attacking midfielder, because I wanted possession and not the fast transition between defense and attack. With two strong players behind him, the team had more cohesion for a pressing strategy. In my case, it is not getting the ball back and run, but it is getting the ball back and rebuild the game with the ball. Guardiola’s Barcelona did it so well. That is why we tried to take the ball from them, but the bastard always got it back. Pep always goes forward and presses in the final third. Guardiola gets the ball back and owns it. At Manchester City he does the same with Agüero and Sterling: positioning, high-pressing and recovery for the team to start again with the ball.
PSG has a game plan, but it is not always valued. The other day we scored a magnificent goal against Metz. In our own goalkeeper’s area, we were under pressure and Verratti took a chance with our goalkeeper and we started to evade that pressure, passing the ball, and bam, bam, bam, we scored. When Guardiola does it at City, that image is shown in every video in the world. But PSG doesn’t get the same value, maybe because we are in France and it has less repercussion. And I think that also has an influence on the players, because they don’t believe in the project so much and they are less prepared to compete. And they feel they are good players because they are comfortable, but when the comfort is over, and it’s show-time, they are not that prepared to perform as needed it, to suffer. PSG has to end that.
-And now what are your plans, other than the Coupe du France Final?
Well, three days ago we took the decision together with the club, to not continue working together, and people have started calling me. I like competition and I also have a big responsibility with my coaching team and I don’t think that it is easy to stop coaching for a year, just to have a rest or to get to the right bench. It won’t be easy that I take a sabbatical, although I cannot discard anything. I do not discard the chance to take the risk and take up another project nor take a break for some time, although my competitive nature and my assistants’ is more likely to continue.
Stop for a year or not? Pff, I just can’t see it. What I like to do is coaching. Luis Aragonés never stopped. He was coming or going, but never stopped. On the contrary, there are other coaches that have some reputation and don’t want anything to tarnish it, even if it means to be unemployed for one or two tears. I would struggle with that: I want to coach. People say to me, that I have a big reputation and maybe I have to stop until I find another team with similar reputation. I understand it, it’s a logical thought, but on the inside I feel that I need the bench.
-When you say you don’t discard anything, you don’t discard anyone because of your proposal or after working at PSG you have to stay on the highest of the elite teams?
I like to listen to everyone. What I have is an argument with three different perspectives. The first one is the sporting status: to try to remain in Champions League or in Europa League’s level, to have a chance to do something big in the tournaments, to be competitive. The second one is your quality of life as a coach. To feel satisfied in a team that lets you manage it and working with it in a process that lets you improve. And the third one is the economic factor.
If a project has two out of three of these perspectives, you can take it. With three out of three, logically you go until it ends. But if it only has one, whichever it is, is really hard to implicate yourself with it. I mean, from now on, I will analyze every proposal according with these parameters.
-What is Emery lacking? What is he lacking as a coach?
I am 46 years old, and I have to keep progressing and going. Mine is a formation and growing process. I am very self-critical. I still have to keep going. And owning the bad moments, the defeats. I do less gestures at PSG, it’s true, but maybe tomorrow I want to gesticulate more, to be me again, to give the people more emotions. I see Pep and I see Cholo (Simeone’s nickname is Cholo- Tim) are passionate on the sidelines, and I love it. In his day, Jorge Valdano was critical of me for it, and said it to me personally. And Del Bosque did it too. I did it less at PSG because I understood that it was the most convenient thing to do. It’s true that at PSG it is easier to score goals and winning is far more likely that in other places, so you are more relaxed because of it.
I have to keep going deeper into the job. I love to study tactics. To find more ways for the team to play better. That we can play easier, less fearful. I think that at PSG there have been players that have improved with me, like Kimpembe (Presnel Kimpembe, French international and one of the most prized young players in the world right now -Tim) or Rabiot. Although people don’t give it enough value, I did a good job at PSG, but it is evident that Barcelona killed us.
Our path is a process, and as is logical, you may not always finish the process. My project at PSG has had good moments, like the titles we won, a Ligue 1 by a huge margin over the former champion, the Cups won and in general, the quality of our game. But we have had bad moments like the losses against Barça and Real Madrid. The most logical thing to do is to value it as a whole project which didn’t get to the end, the same way I feel as a coach under construction.
Because I also live in a process of growing, mistakes, corrections and carrying on. I have learned that you have to give it everything and try not to get stopped in the way. No one is perfect. Not always you need to go forward. Sometime you have to learn and correct your mistakes. Sometimes you have to do things like Guardiola did when he let go of Deco, Ronaldinho and Ibrahimovic. Zlatan and his agent messed with Pep afterwards? Okay, but he got rid of him, got rid of the brakes that were stopping his team, and built his greatest hit. Pep is a coach that builds artworks.
What do I still need to improve? That my works need to be works of art. My works of art.