Meet the Astute Basque Managers Taking the Premier League by Storm
The Premier League has emerged as a hub of tactical ingenuity and managerial excellence, where a captivating revolution is unfolding. Four exceptionally talented Basque managers, namely Mikel Arteta, Unai Emery, Julen Lopetegui, and Andoni Iraola, are bringing a unique dimension to the league’s tactical landscape, leaving football enthusiasts enthralled. This piece delves into the remarkable backgrounds of these astute Basque managers, tracing their compelling journeys from humble beginnings to their esteemed positions in the revered Premier League.
Mikel Arteta (Arsenal FC)
Mikel Arteta, born on March 26, 1982, in Donostia-San Sebastian, embarked on his football journey at the local youth club Antiguoko. His exceptional talent quickly caught the attention of Barcelona, leading him to make a significant move to the prestigious La Masia academy at just 15 years old. It was there that he had the privilege of training alongside future managerial legend Pep Guardiola, which proved to be an invaluable experience in shaping Arteta’s tactical astuteness and footballing philosophy.
Throughout his playing career, Arteta ventured across Europe and represented esteemed clubs such as Paris Saint-Germain, Rangers, and Real Sociedad. However, it was during his time at Everton and Arsenal where he truly excelled as a player. Spending over ten years combined at Goodison Park and The Emirates Stadium allowed Arteta to showcase his utmost potential and leave a lasting impact in the footballing world.
After retiring from professional football in 2016, Arteta seamlessly transitioned into coaching. Recognized for his talent and potential, he received offers from top clubs such as Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur (alongside Mauricio Pochettino), and Manchester City. Opting to learn from his former mentor, Pep Guardiola, Arteta joined the coaching staff at Manchester City and played a crucial role in their back-to-back Premier League victories in the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 seasons.
In December 2019, Arteta returned to Arsenal, this time as the head coach, taking over from Unai Emery. His tactical expertise and emphasis on building from the defense quickly garnered praise. He wasted no time making an impact with a possession-based, creative style of play that improved defensive discipline, influenced by both Arsene Wenger and Pep Guardiola. In his first season as head coach, he led Arsenal to victory in the FA Cup. More recently, he guided the Gunners back to the UEFA Champions League after a six-year absence and came very close to securing their first league title in nearly twenty years.
Unai Emery (Aston Villa)
Unai Emery, born on November 3, 1971 in Hondarribia, began his football journey as a goalkeeper. He started his professional career at Real Sociedad’s youth academy and then went on to play for various clubs. However, Emery’s true passion was coaching.
In 2004, Emery embarked on his managerial career and successfully led Lorca Deportiva to their first-ever promotion to Spain’s second division. His exceptional tactical expertise and strategic approach did not go unnoticed, leading him to secure the head coach position at Almeria. Under Emery’s guidance, Almeria achieved promotion to La Liga and impressed with an eighth-place finish in their inaugural season among the Spanish elite.
Emery’s breakthrough came when he assumed the role of Valencia’s manager in 2008. Under his leadership, the team achieved three consecutive third-place finishes in La Liga and made impressive runs in the Europa League. In 2012, Emery joined Sevilla and created history by winning three consecutive Europa League titles, establishing himself as one of Europe’s most exceptional managers. His outstanding accomplishments caught the attention of renowned club Paris Saint-Germain, where he clinched a remarkable five domestic trophies, including the Ligue 1 title, Coupe de France, and Coupe de la Ligue.
In 2018, Emery took charge as head coach of Arsenal, succeeding the legendary Arsene Wenger. In 2020, he returned to Spain to manage Villarreal. Emery revitalized the team with vigor, securing a commendable seventh-place finish in La Liga and achieving an unprecedented victory in the Europa League by defeating Manchester United in a penalty shootout during the final.
While Emery’s initial stint in England received mixed reviews, his ability to turn Aston Villa’s fortunes around last season and lead them to European qualification showcased his tactical acumen.
Julen Lopetegui (Wolverhampton Wanderers)
Julen Lopetegui, born on August 28, 1966, in Asteasu, has had a remarkable and diverse coaching career. Before becoming a coach, Lopetegui was a goalkeeper for renowned clubs such as Real Madrid and Barcelona. Despite facing challenges in establishing himself at these iconic clubs, he spent the majority of his playing days with Logrones and Rayo Vallecano.
Transitioning into coaching, Lopetegui started as an assistant for Spain’s under-17 team before taking the helm at Rayo Vallecano. He then went on to coach Real Madrid Castilla and Spain’s youth teams. Eventually, he became the head coach of the senior Spanish national team and successfully led them through qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Unfortunately, his tenure was cut short when it was revealed that he had signed on to manage Real Madrid, leading to his dismissal just before the tournament.
During his time at Real Madrid, Julen Lopetegui’s tenure was short-lived and ultimately ended with his dismissal due to a poor start to the season and a significant defeat against Barcelona. However, he quickly bounced back and took charge at Sevilla.
At Sevilla, Lopetegui achieved impressive results, finishing fourth in La Liga and securing the UEFA Europa League title in his debut season.
In November 2022, Lopetegui made the move to Wolverhampton Wanderers, a struggling Premier League club positioned at the bottom of the table. Under his guidance, Wolves experienced a remarkable turnaround, winning nine out of 23 games under his leadership and securing a respectable 13th-place finish.
Lopetegui’s coaching style is highly regarded for its emphasis on attacking play and maintaining possession. Furthermore, he has demonstrated an aptitude for nurturing young talent while adapting to various challenges throughout his career. With successes at different clubs as well as national teams, Lopetegui has proven himself to be one of the most accomplished and versatile coaches in modern football.
Andoni Iraola (AFC Bournemouth)
Andoni Iraola, born on June 22, 1982, in Usurbil, had a promising start to his footballing journey at Antiguoko, just like Mikel Arteta. He later joined the esteemed academy of Athletic Bilbao, a club known for its commitment to developing players from the Basque Country or of Basque heritage.
Iraola’s remarkable playing career unfolded at Athletic Bilbao, where he amassed over 500 competitive appearances in a span of 12 years. His contributions earned him the status of a true legend within the club. Notably, his time coincided with Marcelo Bielsa’s coaching tenure at Athletic Bilbao. The Argentine’s philosophy had a profound impact on the young full-back and played a pivotal role in shaping his future as a manager.
Following his playing career, Iraola transitioned into coaching, starting with a short stint at AEK Larnaca in Cyprus. He quickly returned to Spain and assumed the role of head coach at Mirandes, a team in the second division. Under Iraola’s leadership, Mirandes had an exceptional run in the 2019/20 Copa del Rey, making it to the semifinals and defeating three La Liga teams along the way.
In 2020, Iraola took over Rayo Vallecano and guided them to promotion to LaLiga through the playoffs. Despite having one of the lowest budgets in the league, his high-pressing style of play, influenced by mentors like Joaquín Caparrós and Marcelo Bielsa, gained worldwide attention. Rayo Vallecano led all top five European leagues in ball recoveries in the final third in the 2022/23 season.
Iraola’s recent appointment as Bournemouth’s permanent coach highlights his growing reputation as an innovative tactician. His ability to bring out the best in his players has earned him accolades, and he is determined to continue in the same vein in the Premier League.
The Premier League is experiencing a captivating revolution guided by four talented Basque managers: Mikel Arteta, Unai Emery, Julen Lopetegui, and Andoni Iraola. These managers have emerged from modest beginnings and achieved prominence through their remarkable tactical prowess and strategic expertise. Mikel Arteta’s illustrious playing career with Barcelona and Arsenal greatly influenced his coaching style, while Unai Emery’s triumphs at Valencia and Sevilla solidified his reputation as a seasoned strategist. Julen Lopetegui’s diverse coaching journey, which included leading Spain’s national team, further highlights his expertise. Andoni Iraola’s distinctive high-pressing tactics have caught the attention of many. The involvement of these exceptional individuals has enriched the Premier League and raised the bar for tactical standards, promising an exhilarating future for English football.
(All images via Getty)