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How Unai Emery Made Slaying Giants Villarreal’s Champions League Specialty

First it was Juventus, then Bayern Munich. Liverpool is the next—and tallest—hurdle for the surprise Spanish side in Europe’s final four.

Many years ago, long before the Sheikh Mansour takeover, a Manchester City director observed that the club should have replaced Joe Royle as soon as he had led it to promotion back to the Premier League. He was a promotion specialist, the director argued: Why would he be good at leading a club at a higher level to challenge for European qualification? “You wouldn’t appoint the manager of a corner shop to run a multinational,” he said. Sure enough, City was relegated straight back to the second flight.

That was true then and remains true now. Football is a sport in which loyalty is notoriously lacking, in which successful managers can be sacked after a month’s downturn, and yet it often feels loyal in the wrong places. A board that will happily upgrade a fullback or a center forward as soon as a better option becomes available (and a fan base that will welcome that action) will hesitate to replace a manager when circumstances and aspirations change, yet will dismiss him in reaction to a few poor results.

It is one of football’s great unacknowledged truths that managers are good at different things. Pep Guardiola’s critics will point out he has never done it with a Napoli or an Arsenal, much less a Burnley or an Oviedo, but that’s not the point: he is a brilliant manager of top-level players. Would Lewis Hamilton be a good driver of a school bus? It just doesn’t matter. It’s not what he does. Similarly, certain managers are better in the spit-and-sawdust world of a relegation battle, scrapping for points on a shoestring: Sam Allardyce ended up being relegated with West Brom, but before that, he had saved a series of apparently lost causes; he was good at that, but that doesn’t mean his skills would necessarily have transferred to a grander stage.

Villarreal manager Unai Emery

This brings us, belatedly, to Unai Emery. Perhaps he has been unwise in his choice of clubs when he has left Spain: Paris Saint-Germain and its nest of egos are notoriously unmanageable; a post–Arsène Wenger Arsenal probably required more work than was recognized at the time; Spartak Moscow brought its own problems of financing and expectation. But at upper mid-table Spanish clubs, Emery has always excelled, particularly in European competition.

At Sevilla, Emery won three Europa League titles. He added another with Villarreal last season and also took Arsenal to the final. His progress to the last four of the Champions League this season has been built on similar principles: defensive organization, carefully orchestrated pressing and lightning counters. Perhaps he lacks the depth of squad to achieve results consistently over a full league season—Villarreal is seventh in Spain—and perhaps his teams are rather better at thwarting more vaunted opponents than overwhelming lesser sides, but at what he is good at, he is exceptional.

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Juventus was well-beaten in the last 16 despite taking a first-minute lead in the first leg. Villarreal ground its way back in that game and salvaged an equalizer. But it was in Turin in the second leg that it excelled, holding Juve off before forcing it into mistakes as frustration mounted late on, eventually scoring three in the final 12 minutes in a consummate Emery performance.

Perhaps Villarreal was fortunate in the second leg against Bayern Munich, which missed two or three glorious chances before Samuel Chukwueze made it 1–1 on the night, 2–1 on aggregate with two minutes remaining. But in the first leg, it had sliced Bayern apart again and again, with Arnaut Danjuma repeatedly getting in behind Bayern’s wingbacks. Bayern had been extremely fortunate to lose only that match 1–0.

Villarreal is the surprise semifinalist in the Champions League

Liverpool, gunning for a historic quadruple, is a clear favorite entering their semifinal tie, but Emery has beaten Jürgen Klopp in a head-to-head bout before. His Sevilla came from behind to beat Liverpool 3–1 in the 2016 Europa League final. Klopp won two and drew one of the three league meetings when his Liverpool played Emery’s Arsenal, but cups are a different matter for Emery. A League Cup meeting in ’19, with much-changed sides, finished level, with Liverpool prevailing in penalties.

Danjuma’s pace was key to beating Bayern, and it could be vital against Liverpool as well. The space behind Trent Alexander-Arnold, less a flaw in how Liverpool plays than a necessary vulnerability, could be ripe for him to exploit—so long as Villarreal can evade the Liverpool press to measure passes beyond the fullback. That has proved beyond most teams, other than Manchester City, this season, but if any coach can find a way of thwarting the Liverpool midfield with a weaker side, you suspect it will be Emery. The Yellow Submarine has already slain two European giants. Now its targets are set on its biggest titan yet.

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