The performances of Spanish sides in European competition this season has created derision from fans of other European leagues.
The ignorance of labelling the Premier League as the pinnacle of the European domestic game has done little to help this. That said, Barcelona fell meekly to Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League. Sevilla, kings of the knockout format, were trampled by a taste of Scandinavia from Dortmund. Atletico Madrid were outwitted by a technical Chelsea side. Real Sociedad, early table toppers of the season, were dismantled by a ruthless Manchester United team.
That left Real Madrid as the sole Champions Legaue flag bearer of the nation. Even they have looked but a shadow of their potential, nay prestige, but nevertheless have ground their way through to the last four. Then there is Villarreal.
The Yellow Submarines are as experienced as they come in the Europa League. Only Atletico and Sevilla have featured in more semi-finals than they, and only five clubs in Europe have participated in the competition in as many seasons since 2009.
Such a record marked Unai Emery as the perfect steward to carry the club forward. Based on this season so far, it is hard to argue anything but. A team and a campaign that have gone a long way to restoring Emery’s reputation too.
The Redemption Path
Hiring Emery wasn’t the fixing of a busted flush. Sitting in that second rung of Spanish sides beneath the ‘big three’, they have performed every bit as one would imagine a club of their stature should in recent years. Barring the horrific relegation to the Segunda Division for the 2012/13 season, Villarreal have finished either fourth, fifth, sixth or seventh in six of the seven campaigns since.
Even last season under Javier Calleja, serving his second stint as manager, they finished fifth. Europa League qualification achieved after a season outside, as well as finishing as the league’s third highest scorers. Calleja had served a respectable term.
However the availability of Emery was too much to resist. The size of club Villarreal are is the perfect home for a manager of his standing and ability. His status within Spain is considerably higher than that in England and France, where fans of the clubs he managed never warmed to his awkward demeanour. At Arsenal this was particularly true. Emery took them to their first European final in thirteen years, but it was insufficient to buy him time. His failure to grasp the language, coupled with stilted and disengaging football, lost him the credibility he had earned in Spain. Lets not forget, Emery won three consecutive Europa Leagues with Sevilla.
‘After the COVID break, Calleja and the team completely caught fire and qualified for Europe. So when he was sacked there was a feeling of injustice to it. Because of that, I think the reaction to Emery being hired was won of pressure and expectations.’ says Zach, manager of Villarreal USA.
The appointment was strange to begin with. The hiring process was well publicised, with the electing panel vocal on what they were looking for. A coach and leader to guide the club through unsettled waters in the days and years post-Wenger. It is what made the likes of Carlo Ancelotti and even Mikel Arteta early favourites for the role. One a giant of European football to carry on in Wenger’s model, the other a managerial rookie but a former club captain who could appeal to the hearts and minds of the fans.
Neither were chosen, as Emery’s detailed analysis of the squad swayed the panel in his favour. Emery had never shown a philosophical adherence to attractive football, at odds with ‘the Arsenal way’. This would later sting both he and the club, and fifteen months later he would be released.
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Finding the perfect canvas
Emery’s successes at Sevilla made him ideal to succeed Javier Calleja at Villarreal in July 2020. Even during his stint at Arsenal, Emery had taken the club to a European final. His ability in cup competitions is almost unrivalled across Europe. For Villarreal, caught in the purgatory beneath the upper tier of Spanish football, to be a force in knockout football could be their best chance at progress.
The squad shifted as he arrived. Andre Franck Zambo Anguissa, arguably Villarreal’s best midfielder last term, departed as his loan ended. So too did Santi Cazorla after his swansong campaign, and Karl Toko Ekambi. Emery’s transfer activity has been one of the heftiest sticks to beat him. Preferring to coach rather than manage and involve in transfer activity, it has at times created a divide between the wants and needs of the team, and those in the boardroom signing transfers off.
However in his first months at Villarreal, the arrivals were shrewd and intelligent. Dani Parejo and Francis Coquelin arrived for free from city rivals Valencia. Watford’s Etienne Capoue joined too after their relegation for under £2 million. Pervis Estupiñán, the young Ecuadorian left back, also arrived from Watford after impressing on loan at Osasuna. His fee of £15 million was far and away the biggest made by the club in the window. Tottenham’s Juan Foyth, versatile enough to play centre back and right back, was brought in as a loanee.
Whereas at Arsenal Emery had to face the clamour for marquee signings, his new club looked to operate smarter. Taking Coquelin and Parejo from their rivals was inspired if only for bragging rights. The pair, plus Capoue, essentially sought to replace the defensive work and passing of Anguissa and Cazorla.
There already lay the foundations of an exciting team. Centre back Pau Torres is among Europe’s most coveted in the position, and sits alongside the seasoned warrior Raul Albiol. Right winger Samuel Chukwueze had been raised through the academy, an explosive and frighteningly quick ball carrier. And in Gerard Moreno and Paco Alcacer, Villarreal possessed a lethal and efficient strike pair. Moreno in particular can lay a claim to being one of the criminally underrrated players of the continent. Such foundations, plus the arrival of Emery, made European competitiveness a tantalising reality.
‘Villarreal is the highest scoring team in Europa League history, oddly enough, and I think for a long time now we’ve known that if there’s a trophy for us to win, its that one.’
What are Emery’s Villarreal?
Villarreal this season are best characterised by their build up play from the goalkeeper. At Arsenal Emery had imprinted the need for the goalkeeper to pass out at every opportunity. However this came at the expense of all other phases of build up, with Arsenal lacking the awareness nor ability to move the ball forwards from this point.
The team rank fourth, fifth, fifth and sixth across the league for touches in the defensive penalty area, defensive third, midfield third and attacking third respectively. Centre backs Torres and Albiol both play over fifty passes per match at a shade under 90% completion. Both will split wide of the goalkeeper at goal-kicks to increase the passing options, as is customary in a team that builds up so incessantly.
This of course brings Dani Parejo into his own. A passing metronome with exquisite long and short distance distribution, Parejo is continuously available in these build up scenarios. The three have played more minutes than any other outfield players this campaign, and their understanding of each other reflects this.
Emery has mostly favoured a 4-4-2 with an occasional switch to a 4-3-3. Parejo has been ever-present in both systems. He leads the league in passes into the final third (257), features in the top ten highest passers into the penalty area (45) and has taken more touches than all but two players in La Liga. It has long been common knowledge that the Spaniard is a fantastic ball progresser. However his defensive work this season has also impressed. His 48 tackles won are a squad high (ninth highest in the league) and his 589 pressures are the fifth highest league-wide. This dual functionality has made Parejo integral to Emery’s plans.
In playing a mid-block as Villarreal do, and that the midfield is made up of seasoned performers like Parejo, Coquelin, Capoue and Vicente Iborra, means they are not a heavy pressing team. For overall pressure Villarreal rank fifteenth across the league, and it is only in the attacking third that this ranking rises any higher. This is largely carried about by Parejo, Moreno and the converted wide midfielders Moi Gomez and Manu Trigueros.
Talent in attack
The conservative options fielded in central midfield, and often fielded in one of the wide midfield roles, leaves heavy impetus on the front two (sometimes three) to produce. Luckily for Villarreal, Gerard Moreno has had the attacking season of his life.
The twenty eight year old made his senior debut with the club in 2012 before being sold to Espanyol. Forty eight goal involvements in 118 appearances convinced his former club to reacquire him in 2018. In the three seasons since, Moreno has exploded.
He is Villarreal’s second highest scorer in their history, behind only Giuseppe Rossi. Clear of Cazorla, Forlan, Riquelme. His record of fourteen goals and six assists in twenty eight Europa League games is staggering. This season alone, he has twenty goals and five assists. This has naturally been inflated by nine penalties, but his twenty five G/A , at a rate of 0.95 per 90 minutes, is behind only Karim Benzema and Lionel Messi.
Moreno is also playing close to 1.5 key passes per game, dropping deep to link play as well as spinning wide to pull markers away. In last week’s home tie against Arsenal in the Europa League, the English side’s centre halves were lost against his movement. The unpredictability and relentlessness of his running make him a nightmare to handle. It is a part of his game Emery and his predecessor have worked to improve.
‘A big part of it is just confidence. Having managers who trust him to roam about and participate in build-up. He’s a player who is most comfortable when he’s involved in the match not just sitting up top waiting for service. Both Calleja and Emery have seen that he gets that involvement, either by playing him on the right in a front three or making him part of a two striker formation.’ says Zach.
Moreno is mostly partnered by Paco Alcacer. Alcacer is a rare striker, in that his goal scoring ruthlessness is undoubted. He takes only 2.27 shots per game, of which 1.1 is on target. His six goals are unlikely to set the world alight, but having a player like Alcacer will always bring caveats. Efficient finishing, albeit from few shots and minimal creation.
Moreno has shouldered the burden, with his twenty goals more than triple the team’s next top scorer (Alcacer). His eighty shots across the season are also over double the next highest’s (also Alcacer). Villarreal only take 10.58 shots per game, so the the quality production of this front two are essential to their goal output.
The wildcard, and future
Villarreal are an impressive unit, pulling together in a way that Emery’s two previous clubs never could. He has harnessed the talent of Moreno, Parejo and Torres with the workmanship of the collective image.
An average squad age of 27.2 years old shows that this is a team in their peak. With that comes an acknowledgement of regeneration, and phasing out the older faces with younger talent.
Mario Gapsar has made over 400 appearances for the side, and has still featured prominently this season. He has shared minutes with Juan Foyth at right back, and one imagines another young pretender to Gaspar’s spot will be brought in when Foyth heads back to London.
The greatest nod to the future however is right winger Samuel Chukwueze. The Nigerian has already featured over one hundred times for Villarreal at just twenty one. A left footed winger playing on the right, Chukwueze is the maverick, the catherine wheel in the Emery system.
Being so young, Chukwueze remains a developing talent. His decision making can be erratic, and his output will be expected to increase in coming years. Four goals and two assists across the season is promising if unspectacular. That said, the spark already on show is electrifying.
Chukwueze is an electric dribbler. Both in carrying the ball long distances on the break with long, heavy touches and in confined areas with feints and stepovers. He enjoys cutting inside but equally can draw a defender in before beating them on the outside and facing inwards. His 3.96 shot creating actions are higher than even Moreno’s, and his 35 carries into the penalty area are far and away the most in the squad.
‘Samu has learned defensive discipline under Emery, and in doing so he’s become a lot more responsible defensively and in his overall positioning than I’ve ever seen him before. What Emery has also done in recent weeks is play Juan Foyth behind Chukwueze on the right, and Foyth is the most defensively sound right back we have. That solidity behind him give Samu freedom to be aggressive and assertive, which is when he’s at his best, and it has shown in his form.’
To have a presence like this allows Villarreal the option to break at pace when defending deep. It also changes the dynamic in attacking areas, with Chukwueze a totally different prospect to defend against than any other attacker in the team.
At the time of writing, Villarreal are seventh in La Liga. Their eight defeats are only bettered by the top four teams, however thirteen draws is the second most in the league. If they are to get closer to fourth placed Sevilla next campaign, they must win more of these closely fought fixtures.
They have one foot in the final of the Europa League too. An impressive 2-1 win over Arsenal in the home tie has given them the advantage, albeit with work still to be done. Emery is the master of this competition, and reaching the final four alone is testament to his nous in Europe. Finishing off his former club and reaching the final will ultimately decide the grading on his report card.
‘Even now, if he doesn’t finish off Arsenal and make a Europa League final, a lot of fans are going to wonder why we hired him in the first place.’
The performances of key personnel may also attract serious European interest. Pau Torres is rumoured to have admirers in Manchester, and one would imagine he will leave sooner rather than later. Were Gerard Moreno two to three years younger he too would almost certainly be departing. The market for signing twenty eight year old forwards has never been smaller however, irrespective of their ability.
This has nevertheless been an impressive first term for Emery. The utilisation of existing personnel with those acquired just last summer has been successful, and the style he worked so hard to blueprint at Arsenal is already looking more comfortable here.
That spell in London wounded his reputation, outside of Spain at least. His difficulties with the language even led to mockery, and his character sneered at. A coach and tactician of Emery’s ability deserved better, and his work at Villarreal has shown once again where he sits within Spain. The perfect coach for the unfavoured underdog.
‘Was any manager hired directly after the legendary Arsene Wenger really going to match expectations at Arsenal? I don’t think so.’
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