FEATURE | In Defence of Unai Emery

The referee reached into his pocket and showed Marco Verratti his second yellow card, adding a final nail into Unai Emery’s coffin. PSG were in the latter stages of their Champions’ League tie, and had almost no hope of qualifying despite an Edinson Cavani goal minutes later. PSG’s opponent was Real Madrid, a club that exemplifies everything that PSG wish to be, a club with multiple Champions’ League titles in the last decade and a proud history of success in the competition. PSG eventually lost 1-2 and 5-2 on aggregate, a score-line that reflected the gulf in quality between the sides as shown over 180 minutes and the work PSG still have left to do to attain their most coveted prize.

Unai Emery was supposed to be a step in the right direction and yet now he is certain to leave in the summer, with rumours of managers such as Antonio Conte and Mauricio Pochettino already being approached by the French club. Emery arrived at PSG boasting three straight Europa league titles to his name at Sevilla and a reputation as a tactical specialist whose focus on video analysis bordered on obsessive.

His job was to improve PSG’s European performances and it was on this barometer that he was always going to be judged. PSG look likely to win a domestic treble this season, but it will not be enough to save Emery’s job. He will leave PSG branded a failure, cast out from Europe’s elite, and castigated for his failure to turn a team containing the likes of Neymar, Kylian Mbappé and Edinson Cavani into European champions.

However, when you look closer at Emery’s reign, it begins to become obvious that his time in Paris serves as a lesson in the art of managerial appointments. The Basque coach is not without fault and has made numerous mistakes that deserve criticism, but, as with failure to reach a set objective at any organisation, there is more than one factor at play here. His appointment was doomed almost from the start and PSG’s management must look back on his reign as this season finishes and learn the lessons of their own failures.

PSG’s display against Real Madrid showcased most of the critical flaws that have reared their ufly head over the course of Emery’s time in charge. On the surface, their lack of mental fortitude during the first leg turned a highly respectable 1-1 result into a hugely damaging 3-1 score-line. However, look past this for a moment, and a significant amount of structural, more tangible issues begin to become apparent. Against Madrid, in the second leg, PSG had a significant amount of possession, around the 50% mark. However, most of it was sterile, non-threatening and in areas that caused Madrid no significant problems.

A look at PSG’s midfield trio explains why: Unai Emery started his preferred troika of Adrien Rabiot, Thiago Motta, and Marco Verratti, each one a formidable player in their own right. However, the problem with playing them together is that they are too similar, and as a unit lack variety and balance. All three individuals are exceptionally-gifted with the ball at their feet and seek to control games from deep positions, but the results of this are a midfield that lacks any type of vertical depth or explosiveness, and often sees two or more of the same players invading each other’s playing zone. Against Madrid each player attempted to control the game and all three encroached upon each other’s spacing.

This meant that while PSG had a good amount of the ball, most of their possession occurred in the form of short passes in a midfield that lacked any type of depth or incisiveness. Another consequence of this problem was that it completely isolated PSG’s front three with Edinson Cavani especially struggling, without any type of support from his midfield. This is not a new problem under Unai Emery. PSG have in essence been a possession-based team, but missing the pieces to implement such a philosophy successfully on the biggest stage. While their superb individual quality has been more than enough to overwhelm Ligue 1, PSG’s issues have become clear against top Champions’ League sides. PSG lack any type of variety in their midfield personnel and this makes it all the more puzzling why they did not seek to rectify this problem.

A player capable of providing vertical depth and box to box ability would have transformed PSG into a much more complete unit, in this respect, they miss Blaise Matuidi. Money is no object for the French club and there were players available who would have fit the role. In fact, one of them, Corentin Tolisso, played right under PSG’s nose for years at Lyon before leaving for Germany. Another missed opportunity, Naby Keita, is widely regarded as one of the best midfielders in the world and his capture by Liverpool is seemingly a phenomenal piece of business. Unai Emery does not control PSG’s transfer business, this is the job of Antero Henrique and Nasser Al-Khelaifi who both failed to provide their coach with a balanced squad.

A question that springs to mind is why PSG even attempted to play possession-based style football when it directly contradicts Emery’s historically preferred system, what even put him in the frame for the PSG job in the first place. His Sevilla side were a counter-attacking machine and one of the best recent proponents of the 4-2-3-1 system. Emery’s obsessive tactical nature was the perfect blend for the squad building genius of Monchi, who gave the Basque coach the raw materials to turn Sevilla into the team that won three straight European trophies. Sevilla at their best were a superb counter attacking team who showcased what a good manager can achieve with limited resources.

After this period of success it seemed a matter of time before a larger club came calling and PSG, fresh of sacking Laurent Blanc and of being rejected by Diego Simeone, took the bait. Emery’s hiring seemed to a signal a shift in style for the French club. Blanc had achieved success at the domestic level by playing a possession oriented style of football but had exited Europe in unceremonious fashion, to a poor Manchester City team in a game where Blanc’s tactical ability was heavily scrutinized. With the hiring of Emery, PSG had found themselves a very different type of manager. Seemingly, the French club thought they needed more tactical nous instead of man management ability and that Emery could transform them into a European powerhouse.

However, PSG have handicapped their manager with squad-building related mistakes. Despite the additions of players such as Jésé, Giovani Lo Celso, Hatem Ben Arfa and Grzegorz Krychowiak in the summer of 2016, PSG’s strongest lineup was virtually the same during Blanc’s last season and most of Emery’s first season. Emery inherited a squad that had been built for a possession style of football and did not receive nearly enough freedom to change personnel to shape his needs.

Emery attempted to transition PSG into a 4-2-3-1 system early in the season, but quickly abandoned the effort after several bad results. This quick regression was unexpected and was reportedly prompted by the complaints of several senior players who demanded that PSG revert to the 4-3-3 and their old style of play.

This reality gives troubling insight at the importance of player-power at PSG and how players essentially refused to follow the direction of their coach, therefore leaving him powerless to affect real change. Ironically, the one player who PSG did sign with Emery’s strengths specifically in mind, Grzegorz Krychowiak, fell victim to this player mandated decision. Krychowiak had been one of the best defensive midfielders in the world while at Sevilla and was a key reason for their success.

The Polish midfielder was a physical monster with underrated tactical ability who played in Sevilla’s midfield pivot and broke up opponent’s attack. Krychowiak could have potentially been a key cog if paired with a midfielder like Marco Verratti, but in the 4-3-3 his lack of ability with the ball was exposed and he faded badly (he is currently on loan at West Bromwich Albion who sit bottom of the Premier League).

The season ended with failure in both the league and in Europe, and the enduring legacy of Emery’s time at the French club may well be his team’s capitulation at the hands of Barcelona.

The remontada is another moment that Emery has received a mass of criticism for, however, the game was quite simply 90 minutes of madness. PSG players made enormous individual mistakes throughout the game and Barcelona benefited from a clear Luis Suarez dive on the way to their comeback. If anything, the game showcased the PSG defensive weaknesses, and that huge upgrades were needed in this part of the field to make the club contenders. (In Emery’s two seasons in charge, PSG have not signed a centre back.)

As the 2017-18 season began, it seemed PSG had forgiven Emery for Barcelona and were ready to give him another season to impress. However, once again they made fundamental mistakes in their transfer business. Neymar and Mbappé are world class players and their quality cannot be disputed, but the decision not to upgrade the midfield in any substantial way (and then seeking to rectify that in January inadequately with the FFP-hamstrung motivated decision to sign Lassana Diarra) or invest in the backline besides the signing of Spanish left-back Yuri and an aging Dani Alves were catastrophic mistakes. PSG have been dominant domestically but the holes in their style of play have been obvious to see even before the Real Madrid tie. Not only is Emery not suited to managing a possession-based team, PSG have not made the right signings to upgrade their team if that was indeed the direction they sought to go in.

Unai Emery is a very good manager, and his past accomplishments prove this. For him to be successful in Paris, PSG needed to fully commit to his strengths and depart from the Laurent Blanc era. By not doing so, PSG handicapped his ability to be successful and largely wasted two years. A potentially valid criticism of Emery is that he showed weakness by letting the players dictate stylistic changes. However, player power was a problem at the club long before he arrived and it seems set to continue if Neymar’s recent behaviour is an indicator. Whilst Emery might not be a big enough name or character, the blurred lines of responsibility facilitated by PSG President Al-Khelaifi’s inaction in terms of implementing a clear hierarchy between the players and coaching staff has brought about one of Europe’s most lax and ill-disciplined dressing rooms.

Looking back, it is easy to wonder what might have been had Emery been allowed to fully develop his own identity upon the team. PSG’s best performance of the season came when they beat Bayern Munich 3-0 at the Parc des Princes, playing largely on the counter-attack. It was a truly world class shift and gave a taste of what Emery could have potentially achieved.

Coincidentally, Bayern sacked Carlo Ancelotti shortly after that game and replaced him with Jupp Heynckes, who famously destroyed Barcelona (so often PSG’s nemesis) back in 2013 with one of the best displays of counter-attacking football in the history of the game. Bayern now look like real contenders to win the Champions’ League under Heynckes, with one of the main reasons being their tactical flexibility and ability to beat teams like Barcelona and Manchester City who seek to possess the ball.

Unai Emery’s fate is already sealed, but the future of PSG remains highly unpredictable. Their problems will not disappear with the firing of the Basque coach and a period of self-reflection is needed to ask the question of why they failed in their pursuit of European glory once again.



More European Football News