How Emery recovered from his Arsenal nightmare to lift Villarreal back to Europe’s top table

Unai Emery Villarreal 2021-22Getty Images

Unai Emery left France and England bruised by his time at Paris Saint-Germain and Arsenal, respectively, but has found his footing again in his native Spain, lifting Villarreal to new heights.

The coach exacted revenge on the Gunners last season by knocking them out of the Europa League before beating Manchester United in the final to lift Villarreal’s first major trophy, and his goals are loftier now.

After crushing Juventus 3-0 in Turin, Villarreal have been pitted against German giants Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-finals.

Emery has never made it to this stage of the tournament before, although nobody boasts a better Europa League record than him, with three wins at Sevilla adding to last season’s success with the Yellow Submarine.

His PSG team should have beaten Barcelona in 2017, after a 4-0 last 16 first-leg triumph, but the Catalans’ momentous 6-1 ‘remontada’ put paid to Emery’s hopes.

Despite the many pitfalls and the "good ebening" mockery he suffered in England, the headstrong, borderline obsessive coach did not give up and now his work is bearing fruit.

In England, where he was considered a failure, he is starting to get some of the respect he deserves.

“Sometimes it just doesn’t fit between a manager and a certain football club but that doesn’t make him a bad manager,” said Rio Ferdinand on BT Sport.

“The history he’s got as a coach and what he’s doing with this team now and beating Man Utd in the final last season – this guy is a top-level manager.”

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His colleague and former Chelsea playmaker Joe Cole agreed.

“Emery was the right manager at the wrong time,” he added. “Everything he did, he was getting criticised for. I think they missed a trick with that one.”

Emery made mistakes in England and he was unable to communicate effectively with his players, who perhaps were also influenced by outside views of him and not willing to fully engage with his plans.

Maybe the chaos of the Premier League didn’t suit a manager so tactically driven, who wants his players to go above and beyond, and for that to truly happen, needs to be able to communicate to them both how and why.

Not just the players, either, but the fans too. They turned on him after the Europa League final defeat by Chelsea in Baku and subsequent failure to reach the Champions League.

“The club was happy with me, but the fans were calling for a change, and it had to happen,” Emery told The Athletic this week.

As Cole said, Emery came at the wrong time. Following Arsene Wenger, who led the team from October 1996 to May 2018, in over 1,200 matches, proved an impossible job.

Mikel Arteta is succeeding now, to some extent, but is taking time which Emery was not granted. And the expectations at Arsenal, given their history, are huge.

By contrast, Villarreal are a club that wants trophies on the board and believe Emery is a man who can carry them to Spain’s east coast.

Crucially, he has the players on his side, where at Arsenal there was trouble with Granit Xhaka, Mesut Ozil and others.

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“One day one of the captains, Raul Albiol, said ‘Coach, you've won the Europa League, we want you to take us on that road,’” Emery told UEFA this week.

Villarreal, then, were all-in for Emery, which with his methodology, is crucial.

The coach notoriously scrutinises every detail and needs his players to be hungry sponges, ready to soak in whatever information Emery or his team draw up on their opponents.

He is a pragmatist, from the Diego Simeone playbook, recognising when his team may be weaker than their opponent and working very hard on fixing potential deficits.

“The first thing to do is a lot of analysis, so the players know everything possible about who they are facing,” Emery told UEFA.

“I try to give them more work rather than less, more information, tell them everything we can, and then we can be optimistic, as long as it’s based on all the work that we have done.

" Why not? We can beat teams that are better than us. The only way to do it is to go game by game, enjoying the work and not thinking about the final. Not thinking that we are going to win.

"‘Mentalising’ in each game, how we can be better and find the solutions to the problems that our opponents pose us.”

That is just what Villarreal did against Juventus, after a 1-1 draw at home they travelled to Italy, found the cracks in the Old Lady’s system and brutally exploited them to progress 4-1 on aggregate.

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The team was less efficient at the weekend against Levante, falling to a 2-0 defeat in the derby, perhaps momentarily taking their eye off the ball ahead of the Bayern clash – not unlike Chelsea, who lost 4-1 to Brentford, or Real Madrid, who needed three penalties to scrape past Celta Vigo 2-1.

“The Bayern game will be very different,” said Emery. “Against Levante, we were close to their box and we lacked the accuracy to change the game.

"Now, we have to focus on Wednesday’s match. For better or worse, we are showing a different level of performance in the two competitions.”

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The defeat was a disappointing way for Emery to chalk up his 100th game in charge of Villarreal, although it was only his 23rd at the helm, with 49 wins and 28 draws on the bench.

There was a chance he didn’t make it this far, when Newcastle United tried to tempt him in November, giving him an opportunity to right the wrongs of his first spell in England, to build from scratch on Tyneside instead of having to strip away parts of Wenger’s Arsenal dynasty first.

However, Emery realised just how precious what he had at Villarreal was, which was Champions League football and a club that believes in him. The key ingredient he needs for success.