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Sneaky Yellow Submarine attack

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Raul Albiol had never won a man of the match award before yesterday. Yet, as a La Liga winner and a member of Spain’s World Cup winning squad in 2010, amongst other accolades, he was Villarreal’s most decorated player against Bayern Munich.

Contrastingly, everyone but Dayot Upamecano had at least one league title to their name in the opposing starting eleven. Five of the eleven had lifted the World Cup and nine of them were part of the squad that won the Champions League less than a couple of years ago.



The German champions did their utmost best to restore the natural order of things after a shock 1-0 first leg defeat. They were successful to an extent – racking up 23 shots to Villarreal’s 4 and 6 corners to none while enjoying over two-thirds of the possession. The Yellow submarine though refused to sink and an 88th minute goal from Samuel Chukwueze sent them through to the Champions League semi-finals for just the second time in their history.

It was one of those moments that make you believe in the ideal meritocratic nature of sport, in the iconoclasm of money and the transfer market, and in the transience of reputations. No one knows this better than Villarreal manager, Unai Emery.


A Very Good Ebening

Emery’s career so far shows how non-linear managerial performances can be. He made his name at Valencia as a solid option, moved up a level at Sevilla, disappointed at PSG, and was a disaster at Arsenal before redemption with Villarreal.



Many observers have pointed out that maybe Arsenal made a mistake and Emery would have done better than Arteta has. That is revisionism based on a very small sample size in knockout matches.  Emery struggled at Arsenal and he was to blame for a lot of their problems and that’s okay. Villarreal is doing well and a lot of the credit belongs to him. These two things are not mutually exclusive.

Further, Emery has always been far better in knockout competitions than in the league which works well at a club like Villarreal but not so much for Arsenal or even PSG. The Spaniard has found an environment that suits him and his side shows that this is perhaps the most important factor to perform to your maximum level.


The Rag-Tag Avengers

A quick look at the Villarreal roster and there are many names that are easily recognisable. Many of them have played, and struggled, in England in recent years and been dismissed off as not good enough. All of them have found a positive environment under Emery and this has given them a Champions League semi-final to look forward to.

Gio Lo Celso, Serge Aurier, Etienne Capoue, and Juan Foyth were all at Spurs being labelled mentally weak. Arnaut Danjuma and Pervis Estupinian were in the Championship a couple of years ago. Francis Coquelin was a pet peeve for many an Arsenal fan. Dani Parejo, Raul Albiol and Paco Alcacer (an unused substitute against Bayern) have been side acts of Spain and La Liga for a while now, good but never good enough.



Gerard Moreno and Pau Torres, and recently Chukwueze, are perhaps the only players who have a clean slate behind them and a bright future ahead. A bunch of ‘underwhelming’ signings and a couple of prospects aren’t supposed to beat Manchester United in a European final & knock out Juventus and Bayern Munich in a matter of few months but Villarreal continue to defy logic.


Making it Work

So how have they managed to achieve these impressive scalps in the last year or so? Tactically, they are not revolutionary – Emery’s set-up is bland and defensive, especially in the Champions League with a few minor tweaks to make it sophisticated. Personnel, as discussed, is good but nowhere near the best in Europe and their academy isn’t one that produces world class talents in every cohort. They are also not masters of the dark arts, as other over-reaching teams of the past have been, hacking and faking their way through.

Their budget is decent for a city that is not very big but it is still dwarfed by the rest of the Champions League quarter-finalists. That leaves the intangible as the explanation – good coaching and creating a positive atmosphere. Villarreal’s size means that they do not invite an extraordinary level of pressure but Emery has still managed to build a team that believes in itself to achieve what others don’t expect it to. 

Stories like Villarreal’s are increasingly few and far between in modern football but they serve a timely reminder that getting the basics right will still get you a long way.

Ritwik Khanna
Economics student supporting FC Goa and Manchester United, in true masochistic way. Can be found reading Jonathan Wilson and Sid Lowe or planning a quirky trip in his free time.

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