Unai Emery did not know it at the time but by watching Peaky Blinders when he arrived at Arsenal to help him learn English he was already taking steps to feel at home at Aston Villa four years later. Emery broke into a broad smile when reminded of that admission in an ornate lounge overlooking the pitch at Villa Park on Friday, in the city that is home to the crime drama. “I am ambitious as well and I prefer to use difficult series to improve,” he says. “I think I can understand better the Birmingham history with these movies.”
Emery was sacked by Arsenal after 18 months despite finishing fifth and with a 55% win rate. Emery insists the English top flight has not changed too much since he left in November 2019 but that he is better prepared for taking on the Premier League, after enjoying further success with Villarreal. “They are here the best coaches, they are here the best players, and I think the pace is amazing,” Emery says. “The football is going so quickly, changing a lot, and we have to be able as well [to adapt] so quickly … and I think now I am more ready than the first time.”
Emery started work at Villa’s training ground on Wednesday and his first game is at home to Manchester United on Sunday.
He has watched every Villa match this season to build a picture of what he needs to improve and has made plain that he feels the squad has been underperforming. Villa have won one of their past six matches and are three points off the bottom. “I watch only to have some information from them, from each player, but really I want to start now and the message is a new message: maybe the position is going to be different and I want to use each training session to improve, to test, to take information from them,” Emery says.
How does the challenge of steering Villa clear of the relegation zone compare with his previous tricks at Sevilla, Valencia and Villarreal? “This is more daring, if you like, but you accept a challenge based on the experiences you have,” he says. “It really appeals to me and it appeals me to test myself and to push myself as far as I can go.”
Villa moved quickly to appoint Emery on a four-and-a-half-year contract and believe they have attracted one of the world’s best coaches. Christian Purslow, the chief executive, repeatedly cited Emery’s track record and reputation as a serial winner – Emery has won the Europa League on four occasions (three with Sevilla and one with Villarreal) and led Paris Saint-Germain to the Ligue 1 title – but the club’s hierarchy were also enticed by the fact that he has managed outside the elite.
Emery’s decision to leave Villarreal was met with surprise in some quarters but he could not resist the lure of the Premier League and restoring Villa into Europe. Purslow suggested getting Emery was the club’s most significant signing since promotion in 2019. Villa have not lifted a trophy since winning the Intertoto Cup in 2001 but Emery insists adding to the silverware cabinet is part of the project. “My dream is to win a trophy with Aston Villa,” he says. “My second dream, my objective, will be to play in Europe.”
Villa and Emery recognise the value of the extended World Cup break to help hone his methods, to get “the engine” fully running, but he also recognises the need to hit the ground running. “Villa I think is something special: it is an amazing history, the supporters we have are amazing, the stadium is a special stadium,” he says.
“I played here 10 years ago with Valencia and I was really so impressed about how was the atmosphere was here, and it was a friendly match. My decision about Aston Villa is I think I can progress and achieve a level ahead thinking to be proud of the history they have and to try and do again something important.”
Emery, who has named the former Liverpool coach Pako Ayestarán as his assistant, celebrated his 51st birthday on Thursday but has put any celebrations on hold – until Sunday at least.
Villa’s marquee summer signing, Diego Carlos, is a long-term absentee with a ruptured achilles but Boubacar Kamara is edging closer to fitness after a knee ligament injury and could feature.
“My birthday will be on Sunday if we win,” he says. “If we win against Manchester United I am going to enjoy after this match. [On Thursday] I didn’t have time to answer a lot of messages.”