When Unai Emery was appointed Arsenal manager on 23 May 2018, it was a decision that was well received by fans and journalists. Emery’s exploits at Sevilla, inclusive of winning the Europa League three times in a row, brought adulation from across the world, with their balanced style a mark of his fine work. He’d continue that success with seven titles in two years at Paris Saint-Germain, making him out as one of Europe’s brightest tacticians.
Long before those heady days in Andalusia, however, would come a two-year spell at Almería that would put the talents of the former midfielder firmly on the map. Almería would finish sixth at the end of the 2005/06 season in the Segunda División, resulting in the dismissal of Paco Flores and the hunt for a new manager. The club’s search took them to Murcia.
Emery’s playing career ended prematurely at Lorca Deportiva when he suffered a serious knee injury in 2004. However, he quickly made the jump to management that December, with Lorca’s club president offering his former star the hot seat. The club hoped Emery could help them avoid relegation from Spain’s third tier and steer them towards a respectable finish. Instead, Emery would perform miracles, guiding Lorca towards the promotion playoffs. He sensationally beat Real Unión to gain promotion to Segunda for the first time in their history – and Spain took notice.
Many tipped Lorca for relegation in the 2005/06 season but Emery had the Midas touch. It may have been Lorca’s first taste in the Segunda but their performances under Emery made it look as though they had played in the league for years. They would finish just outside the promotion spots, in fifth, which led to several inquiries for Emery. Eventually, it was the determination of Almería president Alfonso Garcia that secured his passage to Andalusia.
Emery got down to work in Almería, deploying the methods that he still uses to this day. One notable feature was the extensive video sessions reflecting on their performances, with Emery repeatedly making sure each player knew of their role and their opponent, testing them on what they’d watched. Repetition was a key focal point at training, going over the same scenarios until his players went through them like clockwork. Despite the unrelenting pace of his sessions, which would eventually take their toll, Almería’s players responded positively to the forward-thinking, positive messages brought by the then 35-year-old.
Los Rojiblancos won promotion to LaLiga in 2006/07 by finishing as runners-up in the second tier, a jump of three places highlighting the immediate impact Emery made. Their statistics throughout the campaign reflected the success of his philosophy. Almería scored the most goals in the division with 73. Impressively, they weren’t reliant on a single player, with several chipping in, the highest scorer Michel registering just 12.
With Almería promoted to LaLiga, the task of keeping them there would prove Emery’s greatest challenge in football thus far. It appeared the transfer market would be their best bet. As the second-best side in the Segunda, Emery clearly had too many players unsuited to the rigours of the promised land, but backed by the financial clout of Garcia, he’d be able to reinvent his squad.
Thirteen players left Almeria during the summer of 2007, which included first-choice goalkeeper Sander Westerveld and top scorer Michel. Fourteen players were brought in to address the imbalance from a mixture of clubs in LaLiga, the Segunda and abroad. Three of those signings, Álvaro Negredo, Felipe Melo and goalkeeper Diego Alves, would play a key part in the season to come.
Emery needed a striker after Míchel’s departure and his eyes veered towards Negredo. Almeria paid nearly €4m for him, a princely sum for a promoted club, but there was a good reason why Emery went for a player who had no LaLiga experience. He saw Negredo’s talents – power, smart movement and clinical finishing – first hand in the Segunda, where he scored 18 goals for Castilla in an ultimately fruitless campaign for Real Madrid’s second string.
Felipe Melo moving to Almería represented a fresh start after troubles out on the wing at Racing Santander. While he’d later go on to represent Brazil, Internazionale, Juventus and Galatasaray, his career has been hit and miss to this point, with his name registering on few radars. Fellow Brazilian Diego Alves may have been brought in as a back-up to David Cobeño but he’d soon show his talents, becoming one of LaLiga’s best goalkeepers, later joining Emery at Valencia.
For now, however, the challenge of LaLiga awaited.
Almería’s first league game at Deportivo was a litmus test for the club, though Emery, often a slave to detail, chose the most unorthodox way to select his XI: a roll of the dice. Somewhere between bizarre and foolish, it worked a treat as Almería upset the odds to register an emphatic 3-0 victory.
That performance would set the tone for Los Rojiblancos during the season, as Emery would set his team out to play attacking football, pressing high against similar sides but playing on the counter against the big guns. It led to some notable scalps. They beat Valencia, hammered Sevilla 4-1, and held Barcelona to a draw. However, the biggest result that season was the beating of Real Madrid in February, both goals coming from set pieces, which Emery had valued from his early days in management.
Such a fluid style paid off for Emery as Almeria finished the season in eighth, defying many pre-season predictions and marking the young tactician out as one of the best in Spain. While they conceded as many goals as they scored – often due to naivety and an over-zealous attacking approach – their wider statistics made for compelling reading.
Almería would score the fewest goals at home in the league with just 18, while their 42 in total would represent the sixth lowest. The vast majority of their league wins were decided by a solitary goal, with the little things Emery instilled into his players through repetitive, high-intensity methods often the difference between and win and a draw.
Negredo would finish as the club’s top scorer in the league that season with 12, illuminating a path that would later take him to Sevilla, Manchester City and Euro 2012 glory with Spain. Alongside Felipe Melo, who was arguably Almería’s standout performer that season alongside Carlos García, bustling around the centre of the pitch as part-box-to-box midfielder and part-destroyer, they would elevate themselves to greater stages than the Estadio Juegos Mediterráneos.
Much like his achievements at Lorca, Emery’s exploits in improving the fortunes of a team and individual players’ careers was rightly praised by observers, especially when they finished higher than clubs such as Valencia, Real Betis and Athletic in the league. It’s not a surprise, then, that Valencia would come sniffing around for the young Spaniard, perhaps in the hope that he’d emulate another promising, young manager they’d appointed – Rafa Benítez.
What happened to Lorca and Almería after Emery’s departure is a testament to his all-encompassing impact as a manager. Lorca were relegated from the Segunda the season after Emery left, unable to coax his modern, intense methods from their subsequent choices. It didn’t get much better for Almería, who were relegated from LaLiga in 2011, the same year their former manager led Los Che to third. They’ve only spent two of the last seven seasons in the top-flight.
Emery and his work at Almería laid the foundation for his future endeavours at some of Europe’s biggest clubs, not least Arsenal, where he’ll be aiming to make the Gunners a trophy-winning, era-defining team again. Through his diligent recruitment policy, intensive training methods, likeable personality and ability to juggle the fans, the boardroom and his players’ ego, Unai Emery, at just 46, has become one of the continent’s best managers.
By Yousef Teclab @yousef_teclab