NEW YORK — It has been greater than three years now, but Unai Emery still remembers the moment as if he had just witnessed it. When he brings it up, all of 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 ninetieth 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 usually a likelihood for Emery, in his first season as Arsenal’s coach, to pull his team into the Champions League on the expense of the club’s bitter North London neighbor, Tottenham Hotspur.
But Aubameyang, normally a lock from the penalty spot, fails to attain. That shot, that missed opportunity, was the moment, so far as Emery is worried, that ended not only Arsenal’s hopes of playing alongside European soccer royalty, but in addition his hold on his job as Arsenal’s manager.
“We played a great 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 profession on the Spanish club Villarreal, it is just not only soccer games which are defined by moments: a missed penalty or a late save, a blown lead or a match-winning goal. Entire careers, he knows in addition to anyone, may also be upended — or sent off on latest, unexpected trajectories — by a single moment here or there.
Emery, 50, didn’t fall all the best way down the ladder after his firing at Arsenal. He was out of labor only months before he landed the following summer at Villarreal, where he has directed a golden run that he believes has once more established his credentials for one in every of the game’s top jobs. No less than one Premier League club has come calling. (He said no.) More big clubs will follow. Emery feels like a person who’s able to listen.
“I believe I recovered my level to maintain in future my challenge high, high, high,” he said, raising his hands above his head. “I’m very ambitious.”
He has already been to soccer’s heights, in spite of everything: victories in three European finals with Sevilla, two seasons coaching Paris St.-Germain within the Champions League, then that decision to go to London to administer within the Premier League.
In 2018, Emery was tasked with leading Arsenal into the longer term, with managing its transition from 24 years under Arsène Wenger. The Emery era began well enough, with 11 consecutive victories, the club’s best run of form in greater than a decade. But then got here the botched penalty, the failure to leapfrog Tottenham within the standings, the bitter loss to Chelsea within the Europa League final. Emery survived the summer, but in November, after an prolonged 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 a few of soccer’s mightiest teams and proof, at the least to Emery, that he can still be considered one in every of the sport’s finest coaches.
His most eye-catching successes got here last season, when he took his team — a mixture of rugged veterans, big-club castoffs and promising children — on an improbable jaunt through the Champions League. Villarreal eliminated Juventus and Bayern Munich before threatening a comeback of cinematic proportions against Liverpool within the semifinals.
That journey, Emery said, was built on players who rose to the occasion when their moment got here. Much of Villarreal’s success was forged on the training field, he said, by practicing set pieces and counterattacks, by drilling into players the concept that they had to dig in and stick with a plan.
“That’s the difference you may reduce with other teams,” Emery said. In his view, coaches can improve their players and their teams by 10 or 15 percent. The remainder is as much as them, to a mix of preparation, belief and poise in critical moments.
“How can I explain it?” he said. “Last 12 months, we were worse once we played against Arsenal within the semifinals of the Europa League. We were worse than them. They were higher than us. But our work before arriving to play against them — we created a superb mentality, and that’s when one coach could make his team higher than one which has higher players.”
It was a formula he delivered to bear again within the Champions League last spring. Before each two-legged tie within the knockout rounds, Emery said, he told his players that they need to expect to suffer and be outplayed for giant spells, but that they need to imagine their likelihood would come to unsettle the opponent, either defensively or offensively. “After they begin to suffer,” Emery said, “is when you may win.”
The moments were unforgettable. A 3-0 victory at Juventus. A shocking first-leg victory over Bayern Munich in Spain, after which an 88th-minute goal to eliminate the Germans on their home field. Against Liverpool, Villarreal overturned a 2-0 first-leg deficit inside 41 minutes to go away its opponent shaken and its stadium rocking.
Liverpool regained its footing and survived — other teams get to have their moments, too — however 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 at some point.
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 proper moment,” Emery said of his decision last November. Newcastle, for all its latest riches, was last within the table on the time, and Villarreal was within the Champions League.
That competition, he and his players knew, could change perceptions in ways in which success within the Spanish league couldn’t.
Firstly of his tenure, Emery said, he had planned to give attention to the league. “But once we beat Atalanta and once we played against Juventus, the Champions League was, for me, more vital,” Emery said. The club was getting recognition for its successes, and for players and coaches alike the performances could catapult their careers in latest directions. “I do know I actually have individual challenges as well,” Emery said.
Emery had arrived at Villarreal bruised by the character of his Arsenal exit. Those wounds should not completely healed. He described the departure in Spanish as a golpe — a blow. By the point he was fired, Emery was facing criticism that at times felt more personal than skilled: Long before the top, 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 seek out balance in his life, in addition to an area to rebuild a belief in his variety of coaching. But Emery said he was certain that his success was not a case of a coach’s finding his level, of a pacesetter most comfortable one rung below the elite. “I’m in a superb environment to feel strong, to feel confident again, adding confidence in my work,” he said. “After which, a latest challenge.”
His determination to return to the highest is maybe 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 Recent York as a learning opportunity as much as a vacation along with his son, Lander. It is maybe a tacit admission that not the entire criticism during his time at Arsenal was wide of the mark.
He has been ruminating on those moments at Arsenal when he couldn’t quite get his message across, or those crucial early conversations with key players when linguistic barriers made it hard to create the form of coach-player bond essential to winning teams.
“The following time I’ll arrive with higher English,” he said.
That point may come soon. For now, though, Emery is ready to bide his time, to attend for the proper moment.