FEATURE | European Coach of the Season, 8th: Unai Emery

This article is part of Get Football’s European Player and Coach of the Season series, as we countdown our ranked top 12 in both categories to name the winners ahead of the Champions League final at the end of the month. Read every profile and see the full ranking right here.

The question surrounding Unai Emery is always whether he can truly be considered as an elite coach. This season, Villarreal have given both his fans and his critics good arguments. Villarreal have at times been absolutely magnificent. At others frustratingly disastrous. 

The Spaniard’s European conquest re-established his name among the very best, but it has not been an easy ride all the way through this season.

The moment of truth

In November, it seemed almost certain that Emery would be on his way, departing Villarreal. Newcastle’s new Saudi Arabian owners were looking for a world-class coach to lead their new sporting project in the north-east of England and Emery seemed to be first choice.

“The opportunity of a club like Newcastle, what it could turn out to be, it is normal for me to listen to the offer, to consider it,” he said at the time. “I thought about the offer and I spoke with [Villarreal president] Fernando Roig but I also had to take into account that we are in the Champions League with Villarreal, mid-season. In the end, with a lot of respect for Villarreal, and a lot of respect for Newcastle, I decided to stay here. I am happy here and we are doing an important job.”

It was a leap of faith by Emery into the project, one which had seen Villarreal spend more than any other club in the summer of 2021. Just as Villarreal had dismissed loyal club employee Javi Calleja, perhaps harshly, to bring in Emery, the coach himself repaid that faith with this decision. 

Emery the cup coach?

Villarreal had arguably the toughest Champions League draw at every stage of the competition. And they kept coming out on top. Wins over Juventus and Bayern Munich will go down in history as some of the greatest in the club’s history. Both were tactical masterclasses carrying the Unai Emery trademark. A one-off occasion planned to perfection, relying on defensive organisation and a potent counter-attack. If the plan was genius, the execution was even better.

Yet. on the other hand, domestically they have been disappointing. Battling for sixth place heading into the final week of La Liga is not quite where many expected this Villarreal team to end up this season. Surpassed by Real Betis and their more shallow squad and still lagging behind the even more inconsistent Real Sociedad, it does feel like a missed opportunity for the Yellow Submarine this season.

A two-week spell in late March and early April typified Villarreal this season. An away win at Juventus put Villarreal through to face Bayern Munich, who they beat in the home leg. In the two La Liga fixtures in between, there were back-to-back defeats against relegation-battling sides in Levante and Cádiz.

Villarreal are a side who perform best against quality. They are the only team to take points off of champions Real Madrid in both of their meetings this season, yet they have also lost to three of the current bottom four. 

Lower teams love to play cat and mouse with Villarreal. When in a losing position, the Yellow Submarine average 60% possession, compared to 57% when drawing and 49% when winning.

Mitigating circumstances

If there is to be a defence of such inconsistency, it must be the challenges that Emery has faced with injuries.

In attack, his leading goalscorer Gerard Moreno has started only 14 league games all season, never achieving a run of more than six in a row. The consequences of a long 2020/21 season followed by the European Championships with Spain have taken its toll on his hamstrings. When fit, he’s averaged a goal every 146 minutes and he is the only forward to have outperformed his xG (with a difference of 1.54). Had the number seven been fit all campaign, it could have been a very different story.

The alternatives came in three others. Yéremy Pino is a real bright spark, who Emery is using to achieve his full potential by deploying him on both flanks, but remains a raw 19-year-old still finding his way in the game. Marquee summer signing Boulaye Dia has looked impressive in flashes, but Emery remains unconvinced. The Senegal international has completed 90 minutes only three times this season, with just one of those coming since mid-August. 

Last but not least is Arnaut Danjuma. On the face of it, the acquisition from Bournemouth has been a true Emery success story. Plucked from the second tier of English football, he’s scored 16 goals this season. But he’s underscored xG by 1.23 and epitomised Villarreal’s inconsistency. Since October, he has only scored in two La Liga fixtures and has missed 10 through injury, while reports of a “peculiar” attitude have emerged.

Liverpool, a season in a nutshell

If you don’t have time to catch up on Villarreal’s season in full, simply watch the second leg of their Champions League semi-final against Liverpool. 

Incredible intensity that not even one of the best teams in the world could keep up with. Quality all over the park. A cutting edge that was like a knife through butter. But it couldn’t be maintained. Moreno hobbled off. The defence collapsed with goalkeeping errors opening the floodgates. 

The contrast of a true example of a game of two halves was akin to much of what Villarreal have done this season. Moments of brilliance that have seen them outperform the elite which balances out with displays where the basics let them down against the most mediocre of teams.

And that, to an extent, has been Unai Emery’s time in charge. Under his leadership, Villarreal have shown that they are more than capable of mixing it even with Spain’s big three, but they have, so far, failed to maintain any semblance of consistency. This Villarreal team feels like it’s on the edge of greatness, but the risk is that it could be disassembled in a single transfer window, after years of building.

Last summer, Villarreal added to their squad and retained their top talents in the likes of Pau Torres, whose patience may run out given the prospect of a return to the Europa League, or worse, the Conference League.

Emery’s shot at greatness with Villarreal was this season, and he recorded a historic campaign on the continent. But domestically, it was one to forget. His name will be in the record books alongside Manuel Pellegrini and his stint at Estadio de la Cerámica, but it hasn’t quite surpassed it. Given the challenges on the horizon, it seems that his best shot at doing so may have passed.

Sam Leveridge

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