Football Features

Unai Emery’s personal rebuild has Villarreal on the brink of history

By Ruairidh Barlow

Published: 18:34, 12 May 2021

Football is a results business even if, in recent months, it has seemed like purely business.

In theory, results dictate the fate of each manager and every player. If you were currently a football manager, however, you could have worse ideas than hiring a spin doctor. Perception weighs heavily too. It might mean a few extra days, a couple of crucial games or the backing of the fans for a little while longer.

When Unai Emery arrived at Arsenal, he was a man of repute. Nobody has won the Europa League as many times as he has. To win any cup competition three times is a feat few achieve, but to do it in consecutive years will be remembered as legendary. Yet, by the time Emery had left north London, he had been reduced to a parody of himself. Perhaps lacking some idiomatic flow as he attempted to learn a fourth language, Emery was portrayed as clueless; dense even.

That characterisation couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, it was his good preparation and detailed analysis of the Arsenal squad that won him the job ahead of others. There are other examples of managers who have struggled with English; Mauricio Pochettino and Marcelo Bielsa, who are looked upon far more favourably. Yet the perception was never important to him, he never hid his English – to his own detriment perhaps. Others have been allowed more patience and power with far less evidence that they can wield it as well as Emery.

It feels like that image did contribute to Emery’s downfall in London. Being the face of a brand has recently been added in the small print of the football manager job description.

When the opportunity to coach Villarreal presented itself, Emery must have allowed his usually concerned expression a grin. A club from a town of just 50,000 people with ambition, led by a strong figurehead in president Fernando Roig. Desperate to take the next step in the club’s meteoric rise (Villarreal did not debut in LaLiga until 1998), Roig sought out Emery as the one to bring Villarreal a trophy.

Whatever pressure came with that aspiration, Emery would be left to coach, not speak. In fact, it’s rare you see him grandstanding in press conferences. The most intense media scrutiny he has faced this season in Spain in relation to his decision to leave on-loan Real Madrid starlet Takefusa Kubo on the bench during a tentative start to the campaign.

A draw with newly-promoted Huesca, a narrow win against Eibar and destructive 4-0 defeat to Barcelona meant the honeymoon period was relatively short for Emery. The dismissal of his predecessor Javi Calleja had raised eyebrows and his arrival was supposed to be a statement of intent. Villarreal’s score had to be reinvented too. Star midfielders Santi Cazorla and André-Frank Zambo Anguissa departed in the summer and although Francis Coquelin and Dani Parejo were quality replacements, they did not mimic the skillset of the outgoing pair.

Yet following the loss in Catalonia, Emery drew the team closer together. The gaps were narrowed as Emery gradually recalibrated Villarreal to best use their strong array of weapons. Record-signing Paco Alcácer looked the perfect foil for the mercurial Gerard Moreno, gifted centre-back Pau Torres has moved closer to his prime and, miraculously, 35-year-old Raúl Albiol looks no further from his own peak. Villarreal would lose just once in the next 28 games.

None have stolen the show quite like Moreno. With an excellent season already behind him, Emery has provided the creative space for Moreno to flourish. The 29-year-old has already bettered his tally from last season by six goals and three assists, with four games still left to play. Only Lionel Messi has scored more in LaLiga and the man born just outside Barcelona has a very real claim to be in the discussion for player of the year in Spain.

Nurturing the optimal version of Moreno hasn’t been without its difficulties. That partnership with Alcácer has been absent for much of the season due to injury and, even now, the former Barcelona man looks a little short of the sharpness that makes him so valuable. Elsewhere, key midfielder Vicente Iborra was ruled out for the rest of the season in December, while Alberto Moreno, Coquelin, Samu Chukwueze, Pervis Estupiñán, Moi Gómez and Juan Foyth have all faced over a month out with injuries.

Villarreal have suffered greatly from fitness issues, but it’s never been an over-arching narrative. Emery hasn’t made it one. Undeniably, he isn’t as charismatic as other managers in the media, his discourse is far more suited to that of an architect than a philosopher. That scowling demeanour on the touchline betrays his emotions – Emery is a worrier.

It’s part of what makes him such a great manager. All eventualities will be prepared for, his sides are efficient and drilled to mechanical precision. Emery builds to give little away but adapts to the needs of the game as well as any. During those three triumphant Europa League campaigns with Sevilla, they went behind 12 times en route to the final, losing on just five of those occasions; and two of their were comebacks in finals. Stars left each summer, but the unit continued to surpass expectations.

Those aforementioned injuries did lead to a slump in February, with Villarreal going eight league games without a victory and exiting the Copa del Rey. By this point however, their priority had become clear. Villarreal have been almost impenetrable in the Europa League. The only undefeated team left, the Yellow Submarine hold the most wins and the fewest average goals conceded in the competition.

As Emery cautiously sidles forward on his path to vindication, it was inevitable that the spectre of Arsenal should loom into sight, now with a younger, sleeker and more beguiling Spaniard in place. Yet Emery gave it little notice.

The tie was very deliberately emphasised as Villarreal slaying their Arsenal demons or Emery getting one over his former employers, but he was just there to win a football match. Defender Pau Torres had been on the pitch as a ball-boy when Villarreal went out to the Arsenal in the 2006 Champions League semi-final, in tears. And so it was again, 15 years later at the Emirates. Only this time the tears were of delight. It was personal for Villarreal, but not for Emery.

Now, he takes the club into their first major European final in their history. After the Arsenal match, he started most of his answers answered with “Buenas noches” – good evening in Spanish. Comfortable, smiling, relaxed away from the pitch. With the passing of time, it becomes increasingly evident that the language barrier was not the reason that Emery didn’t translate into success at Arsenal. Once again, he’s in his element – coaching to win trophies. No egos, no narratives, no image, just football.

Article produced by Ruairidh Barlow in partnership with La Liga Lowdown, your home for Spanish football in English with reporters based in Spain. Find them on Twitter @LaLigaLowdown