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revenge is sweet Former Gunners boss Emery hoping to have last laugh against his old club


Current Villareal manager Unai Emery, who formerly managed tonight's opponents Arsenal. Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivan/Getty

Current Villareal manager Unai Emery, who formerly managed tonight's opponents Arsenal. Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivan/Getty

Current Villareal manager Unai Emery, who formerly managed tonight's opponents Arsenal. Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivan/Getty

In the dark days towards the end of Unai Emery’s Arsenal reign, when the team were sliding down the table and control of the situation was slipping through the Spaniard’s fingers, some of his players would mock him at the training ground.

It was not to his face, and it was rarely done out of genuine malice, but it was enough to make clear that the relationship between the coach and his squad had been broken beyond repair.

Arsene Wenger, the man Emery replaced, was seen as something of a father figure to his players. Emery, by contrast, was more of an unpopular schoolteacher. Depending on who you ask, the players either did not accept him or he did not try hard enough to strengthen the bond between them. The end result was the same: the decay of the club’s culture and collapse of their spirit.

Seventeen months on from his sacking, Emery meets many of his old players again in tonight’s Europa League semi-final.

Having been appointed by Villarreal in July last year, Emery has worked hard to rebuild his reputation.

The master of the Europa League has found a more suitable environment for his methods and is widely seen to be doing a commendable job in Spain.

It almost goes without saying that his life has been easier without the language barrier that caused him so many problems at Arsenal.

He has also taken over a team who dream of bloodying more illustrious noses rather than expecting to compete for the top trophies in Europe every season. Upon his appointment, he said he felt “back at home”.

The accusation levelled against Emery at Paris St-Germain was that he failed to control the bigger egos in his squad. This was certainly true of his spell at Arsenal.

But a source close to the Villarreal dressing-room describes the squad as being largely without “big egos”. There is a mix of reliable senior players, such as centre-back Raul Albiol, and talented up-and-comers like Pau Torres.

At Arsenal there is respect for the way Emery carried himself in the job – always dignified, always hard-working – even if there was no great sadness when he left. It is a measure of his character that he called Mikel Arteta to offer his advice before his compatriot took on the role.

“I wanted to tell him about my experiences and what I thought could be positive for him,” Emery said yesterday. “I told him one or two things that could be improved, in a natural and personal way.

“Apart from talking about my job at Arsenal and football, I suggested he take over my house,” he added. “I think a player took it in the end.”

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This colourful anecdote was told in a manner out of keeping with his approach to the media in England. Journalists in Valencia, for example, speak fondly about Emery’s fascinating interviews and press conferences during his spell there around a decade ago, to the shock of anyone who ever heard him talk in England.

Crucially, the concerns about Emery’s communication were shared by his players at Arsenal. Bukayo Saka once said he had better conversations with assistant coach Freddie Ljungberg because he did not always understand what Emery was saying.

There are clips of training sessions where Emery’s message is far from clear, and his style of talking to the players was often the source of those mocking jibes.

But it was Emery who took Arsenal to the Europa League final in 2019, when they lost to Chelsea, and his affiliation with the competition remains strong. He was a three-time winner with Sevilla and in Spain they refer to the “Emery effect” when it comes to the knockout stages of this tournament.

He knows what it takes to win ties like this, and knows the weaknesses of so many of the Arsenal players. Arsenal and Arteta will be wary, and it should come as no surprise if Emery ends up having the last laugh.

Villareal v Arsenal

Live, BT Sport 3, 8.0

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