Back in the summer Unai Emery approached his paymasters at Paris Saint-Germain and gave them a straight choice – back me or sack me. They chose the former.
It was a moment of clarity for the Spanish coach who just a few months earlier had received the harshest confirmation of what he already knew in his heart of hearts, namely that unless this PSG was strengthened with the players that he wanted to bring in then they were never going to win the Champions League, the dream they all think they can reach sooner rather than later at the French club.
Back in March, in one of the most memorable nights in the history of the Champions League, Emery looked on in horror as the Ligue 1 giants effectively rolled over and squandered a 4-0 lead in losing 6-1 to Barcelona at the Camp Nou.
Worse was to follow when PSG failed to win the league for the first time since the 2011-12 season finishing a full eight points behind Monaco, although they did at least have the consolation of lifting both the French Cup and the French League Cup. It’s fair to say, however, that if the powers-that-be weren’t going to sack him then then they are certainly not about to do it right now. But more of that later.
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The backing has come in the form of the players he wanted to bring into the club; ready made players that could hit the floor running and go straight into the starting line up.
Top of his shopping list was Barcelona’s Neymar who came to the club for an eye-watering €220m, closely followed by Kylian Mbappe for around €145m plus €35m in add ons although currently he is deemed merely to be ‘on-loan’ at PSG prior to an official move at the start of next season.
If nothing else such purchases are certainly a statement of intent by the club and also most importantly for Emery a vote of confidence.
Emery knows better than most that to win special tournaments you need special players and Neymar and Mbappe, though completely different people that need different handling and strategies to bring the best out of both of them, are about as special as they come. And the Spanish coach is showing signs that he is happy to treat special players specially, as that is what he has learnt in the past when he had to deal with footballer who were superior to the rest.
Neymar took the step forward of arriving at PSG with a view to being the number one at the club and with that came with a huge price tag around his neck that marks him out as the most expensive signing in the history of the game – bar none. New country, new league, new culture, new people, new city, it hasn’t been the smoothest of journeys for the mercurial Brazilian superstar although the portents – at least on the pitch – are good.
Neymar, like so many top-notch players, is misunderstood and oft spouted accusations of arrogance are as unfair as they are inaccurate. When you see him talking to his coaches past and present in private, his body language alone reveals his youth and shyness. A conscious lack of eye contact, head looking down at his feet belies a determination and aspiration to become top dog at the club but with such status comes the obligation to fight for the status within the club that he believes his presence merits.
And playing to Neymar’s strengths and getting the very best out of him is not as easy as one might imagine. Given carte blanche to play as he wants on the pitch is not necessarily the best course of action. Neymar frequently is most effective when he limits his area of influence.
That was certainly the case at Barcelona when he showed his best football when Messi and Suarez were playing alongside him, and he was asked mostly to attack the left flank, and he was probably less effective when Messi was out and he had to take on the mantle of number one player. He is not always at this best with Brazil when he feels he has to do more than he should.
Now, at PSG, he feels that he must do more to establish himself in that role and the truth is there needs to be some kind of middle ground found between the two extremes if the club are to get the very best from him.
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But the real pressure has come at both Neymar and Emery from forces within and outside of the club; forces that have their own agenda and reasons for wanting to destabalise both manager and player alike.
Back to Emery’s security of tenure at the Parc de Princes and to one Jose Mourinho who has been quite clearly flirting with PSG and the idea of going to Paris. Ignoring for one second just what Mourinho’s current employers, Manchester United would make of the fluttering eyelashes that the present incumbent at Old Trafford is currently making in the general direction of the French capital, the very notion that PSG be considering this course of action at this particular moment in time is, according to sources within the club, “nothing short of surreal”.
This season Emery’s side are unbeaten and four points clear at the top after 12 league games that have earned 10 wins, two draws with 39 goals for and 8 against. In the Champions League they have already guaranteed advancing into the knockout stages after an unbeaten four games that seen 17 goals scored and none conceded.
Judging by the conversations between the Spanish coach and both the president and sporting director Antero Henrique any claims as to the demise of Emery are way off the mark. In the most difficult of moments – and they couldn’t have got much more difficult than last year’s catastrophic showing at the Camp Nou – the club has remained faithful to him despite external pressures, and they have given similar signs in recent weeks.
Within the club both the coach and Neymar have had to deal with problems they could have well done without and mostly with players Emery now considers surplus to requirement and who instead of accepting their fate have reacted instead by leaking stories to the press.
There is work to be done both tactically and psychologically and Emery is more than capable of doing it, and, more importantly, the club think that is the case. Everything is going well and logically on the other hand- they are currently talking not just about now but also about the future, including new recruits for next season. Results at the end of the season will dictate, like with any other top club, the future.
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I have no doubt whatsoever that at some time Neymar may have expressed some kind of reservation on all manner of aspects concerning his new club and country. But my sources at the club tell me that certainly the last conversation player and coach had, one that took place before the player went on international duty, the Brazilian was quick to assure the coach of his loyalty and support. That positive and emotional chat, of almost an hour, was perhaps the first time both men connected, and Neymar understood Emery was working as hard as it is possible on the player’s adaptation, including giving him the necessary room and patience for Neymar to find his feet. The coach also reached a more detailed conclusion of what kind of pressures a player who wants to the be the best in the world lives under.
Did he say when he returned to Barcelona recently that he made a mistake in leaving the club? I have no doubt that moving into a new country and city is hard for Neymar, who found exactly the same difficulties when he arrived to Barcelona. But that is just part of part of the process, part of the journey he has to make and just as he found his feet in Barcelona so will he try settle down happily in Paris. He intends to.
Deep down he knows he has to adapt firstly to a new city and lifestyle and secondly to his role as number one at the club. It will not be a particularly easy journey and the crown can weigh heavy on the head of the wearer which is why I have so much admiration for the likes of Ronaldo and Messi who have done it at their respective clubs for so long and with such distinction.
Neymar will get there and will get there with Emery’s help.
Don’t underestimate Emery. This will not be the first time he has faced confrontation wherever he has coached and he will be fazed by it nor will he back down. He has been in this situation before both at Valencia (with David Villa) and also Sevilla (with José Antonio Reyes) where incidentally he won three Europa Leagues on the bounce. He does know how to win titles.
Now both he and the club believe he can go one better, and are convinced that at some point they will win the Champions League and that they have as good a chance as anyone else of winning it this time around.
This year’s Champions League final will take place in Kiev will take place exactly 25 years to the day since France won its only ever Champions league when a later to be disgraced Marseilles side beat AC Milan 1-0 in the Olympic Stadium in Munich.
Can Unai Emery’s PSG become only the second French side in history to win it? One thing is for sure, it’s going to take some side to stop them.