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Unai Emery: “I want French players in a French team.”

Unai Emery gave an exclusive interview to L’Equipe yesterday in Detroit, right before lunchtime. A few hours before their first international Champions Cup game against AS Roma, the Parisian coach (45 years old) spent 45 minutes, and looked back on his past season, and provided an in-depth overview. He also discussed the new one, which has barely begun. The technician also revealed a very positive nature on his ways – what does not kill you makes you stronger. He also insisted on his regular exchanges with PSG president Nasser al-Khelaifi, and sporting director Antero Henrique. This trio wants to bring PSG to the height of European football and win the Champions League.

What state of mind are you in during this pre-season period?

I am focused on football all year round, and when the summer is about to end, I look forward to starting again… The enthusiasm for the upcoming season is there. The summer break is long. You want to come back to be with the team and prepare games.

Similarly, concerning the Bilbao conference you attended with other coaches, was your vacation period a “studious” one? Or did you take a little break?

When on vacation, I can do things that I would not usually be able to, like spend time with my son and family or see friends in Hondarribia (his hometown in Spanish Basque Country). Since I have been a coach, I have not missed a day. And with PSG, this summer, I stayed in contact with Antero (Henrique), even during my summer vacation.

What do you like to do during your holidays?

I like being with my 14 year-old son in Valencia, where he lives. I also spend time in Hondarribia. I like to go to the beach and mountain, to go walking and to play sports. For example, I play tennis, and I am not too bad (smiling) against players that are at my level.

Was last season the most demanding one of your career?

I started my career at the young age of 32. I have always understood myself as being a part of the process and learning from these different positive and negative experiences. I would say that last season was great, with difficulties. It was a year for me to learn and progress. There were good and bad moments, but I consider it to be to be an experience which will help me become a better coach.

What did you take away from it?

By nature, I think a lot more about the present and future, than the past. All my experiences are good learning tools. I am a positive person. There were five titles up for grabs, but we came away with three (Trophée des Champions, Coupe la Ligue and Coupe de France), and the two most important ones got away. For PSG, the most important thing is to grow, progress and win titles. That’s the challenge for next season.

Do you think you made mistakes or failed?

I analyzed everything from last season with my staff, including the good and the bad moments. I think this first season was important for my progression in PSG. With the president, we always talk a lot to know what can and need to improve. The project is in the works. I had meetings with the president and Antero Henrique in order to define the strategy for the upcoming season. When I came back from vacation, we met up to see where the project currently was.

What is that strategy?

We spoke about that recruitment, and the team line-up. We all agreed that we needed to recruit a great offensive player. The club is working on that; it is the main objective. We also said that we had to keep our best elements like Marquinhos, Verratti etc. 

Who would you like to recruit in attack? Alexis Sanchez? Mbappé?

PSG wants to recruit the best players in the world from the best clubs in the world. Last December, when the team was not going as well, the president and I met up to speak about potential players that could improve the team. If we want to compete with Bayern Munich, FC Barcelona, Real Madrid and win the Champions League, we need to recruit a top 5 player. We are looking to sign one this summer. Sanchez and Mbappé are great players, plus Mbappé is French. I want French players in a French team. 

We have heard a lot about Neymar during these last few days. We imagine that he is a player that you would like to have…

Since he came to Barcelona (in 2013), I was able to witness Neymar’s impressive progression when at Sevilla. And now, he is a top 5 player in the world. The president and the club have been working for years to attract the greatest players. The team, but also the fans, would be happy to have a top 5, 6 or 7 player in their ranks, to add to the great players that are already here. But we know that this quest will not be easy. Maybe we will manage, maybe not.

How many more signings are you expecting this summer?

It is difficult to improve this team. I only want players who will help us progress. Following Maxwell’s retirement, we signed Yuri (Berchiche). I spoke with Serge (Aurier) to tell him that I would like for him to stay and continue to work with him. He said that he wanted to leave, and that he preferred to stay in Paris to prepare his departure. So we took Dani Alves, an experienced player and a winner. We also want a midfielder.

Like Fabinho?

We want a defensive midfielder who is good with the ball at their feet and who can fit into the style of the team. I spoke with Grzegorz Krychowiak. He is a player of quality who can play in a great team. But, in PSG, when certain players arrive, they have to be ready to take it a step further, to adapt to the team. It is not the same here as it is elsewhere. So, it is best for him to find a team which would best suit his style of play.

How do you see Adrien Rabiot, who does not want to play as a defensive midfielder?

Rabiot progressed a lot last season, like Presnel Kimpembe. We worked a lot with him. He would prefer to play as an 8, and we will make sure that he plays more in that position.

Would you like to recruit a new goalkeeper?

I am happy with Alphonse Areola and Kevin Trapp. With that being said, we are always looking out for ways to improve each position. If the club has the possibility to sign a goalkeeper to improve the team… Both goalkeepers want to play, but I do not know if it will be the case. This will depend on their performances.

If both goalkeepers stay, will Trapp remain the starter?

Last season, I gave them my trust. They both played and both managed good performances, but both went through rough patches. I have not decided who will be number 1, so the starter will have to come get their place. I will not say who it is before then.

Why did you decide to switch goalkeeping coaches?

When I came last year, I wanted to come with Javi Garcia, a right-hand man who I like a lot and whose work I am familiar with. I asked the club, but they said that it was not possible. I asked him again this season, I spoke with Nicolas (Dehon) and told him I was happy with him and his work. But I wanted to work with my right-hand man.

Why do you no longer count on Hatem Ben Arfa? Was it your decision?

With regards to Ben Arfa, we met with the president and Antero, and took a decision together. It is never easy when players do not train with the first team, but he is in good conditions to work. Pablo Villanueva, one of my assistants, is with him and the others who stayed. Simon Colinet, the physical coach, is also there, and there are physiotherapists and a doctor. We have a lot of players in our team. It is a club decision. He is a good player, but here, to go higher and win your place, it is a lot harder.

What is your relationship with Antero Henrique like?

Since his arrival, we have been speaking. Work is easy with him, he is experienced, and is available all the time. You can call him at 4 am and he will be available. 

… Do you not sleep?

(Laughing) I am also available at all times. My former president in Valencia told me you have to be. He could call his colleagues anytime he wanted. 

There were also two major departures in the sporting management: Olivier Létang and Patrick Kluivert. Did you ever feel threatened?

The results are the most important things for a coach, the work put in, and being honest. I only think about winning games, working to progress and being honest. I watch it all. For the rest… I’m free.

What relationship did you have with Kluivert, with whom you did not always agree with, most notably on the recruitment?

A good relationship, just as I did with Olivier (Létang). The latter was the first to contact me and with whom I had my first meeting before seeing the president.

Patrick left, it was the club’s decision. We did not always agree, that is true, but we spoke and he is a person with who it is difficult to not get along with.

To come back on last season, what did you take away from it? 

There were two halves. During the first half, we lost four games, which is too much to aspire to win. Afterwards, during the second half, we rectified these problems and found a clearer path. Our statistics were also good, with twenty-five wins, two defeats and three draws in thirty matches. We were able to showcase our individual qualities in a collective effort, with Angel Di Maria and Edinson Cavani who managed his best goal scoring season. There was also the contribution of some young players like Kimpembe and Rabiot. Lucas also had a good season. We need to start this new year, with the mentality from the second half of the previous one.

You had a great summer preparation in 2016, most notably in the US. The positive elements seem to have quickly disappeared. Why is that?

The reality of the pre-season was that after four defeats, there was another one. Sometimes, there are unexpected things which happen. We looked for a balance with which we came back strong, and the individualities came back well in the group. We spoke a lot, between the group and individually. With our talent and good collective attitude, the team will be even better. We have the same ideas, but what is certain, is that we will start out better tactically. Our team is better prepared this year, with better communication between us, the staff and players. I find training sessions to be better, and the players show their desire to do well. They have the second half of season mentality.

What remains from the match against Barcelona?

The joyous explosion from the home leg (4-0), and the plunge of the away leg both remain. It is important to be reasonable, and not be too enthusiastic and discouraged after. We learned. We needed this experience. This is football: what you do with the ball and what you do with your mind.

You were perhaps missing something at the end of the match… 

Yes, maybe, but it is an experience. Maybe we thought that we could play like we did at home following the first leg. But in the Nou Camp, against Barcelona, it is not possible. Barça really pushed us, and the referee did not control the match. Overall, there were positives from both games. I’d say it was 50-50. 

Do you think this upcoming season will be better?

The better you know your team and players, the faster things can be put into place, and the easier it becomes to do what you want. This is the type of progression I am looking for, and I believe that I can do more with this team.

Do you plan on changing your system? Perhaps going towards a 4-4-2?

We found a balance with our players here, who like to have control of the game and possession. It is difficult to change systems with three attacking players, as it is our strength. We scored 85 goals in 30 games during the second part of last season with this system. Di Maria scored more, we saw Verratti shooting more, Matuidi and Rabiot running into the opposition penalty area. We found a balance with a 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1, so it is difficult to change.

What do you expect from this pre-season tour?

We have players like Cavani and Di Maria who resumed quite late. It is a bit short, but they followed a routine during their vacation. We will make do. In any case, they are professional and have maintained themselves.

What are your ambitions for next season?

I do not look that far forward. There are five trophies to play for, with the first one against Monaco in the Trophée des Champions on July 29th. I want a team with an identifiable style of play, and if we can have a collective force with our individual talent, as well as winning spirit, we can aim for all titles, even the most difficult ones, like the Champions League.



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