Villarreal – The start of the Unai Emery Era

Villarreal stadium

When Javi Calleja was dismissed as Villarreal’s head coach in July, it came as a surprise to many as the club had finished the season in strong fashion. They picked up seven wins in the last 11 LaLiga matches and ended in 5th place, thus making their return to the Europa League.

But then, agreement with the former Arsenal and PSG boss Unai Emery had already been in place before the end of last season and so however Villarreal had ended the campaign, Calleja was not going to continue.

So far, Emery has lived up to the expectations. His team is placed 4th in the league and eased through to the knockout stage of the Europa League. Villarreal have only lost one of their 18 matches this season.

The Man in Charge

Unai Emery is a well-known coach in Europe. Best recognised for his unprecedented Europa League three-peat with Sevilla, Emery possesses more than a decade of managerial experience in Spain with the likes of Valencia, Almería and Lorca Deportiva.

In his two years in the French capital, he won seven trophies with Paris Saint-Germain, including a domestic quadruple in 2017-18. In the English capital, he lasted only 18 months, being sacked in November 2019 after a poor run of results despite having taken Arsenal to the Europa League Final in Baku earlier that year.

After an eight-month break from football, Unai Emery was back in the dugout. Back in the Valencian Community. This time at the Cerámica, to take the Yellow Submarine back to the Champions League.

The arrival of Emery marked the start of a new era at the club and many believe he is the right man to take Villarreal to the next level – as a team that can challenge for silverware.

“Dreams are free and I dream of a title with Villarreal”.

It was exactly what the fans wanted to hear from their new boss at his first press conference at the club. While Villarreal have enjoyed two strong decades having risen from anonymity in the 1990’s, finishing as high as 2nd in LaLiga and reaching the Champions League Semi-Finals, they have never won a major trophy.

Emery also spoke about the need to fill the voids left by Santi Cazorla and Bruno Soriano and Villarreal did extraordinarily well in the transfer window. Taking advantage of their crisis-hit rivals Valencia, they lured midfielders Dani Parejo and Francis Coquelin to make the short trip up north to the province of Castellón. The third big signing was of left back Pervis Estupiñán who had a breakthrough season at Osasuna last year. In addition, Takefusa Kubo and Juan Foyth were roped in on loan as back-ups for the upcoming busy season.

The Story so Far

Emery’s Villarreal took time to fully get off the mark. They churned out four points in the first two home games against Huesca and Eibar but were made to work really hard. Then unfortunately for Emery, the first away trip of the season took him to the Camp Nou, the same pitch where his PSG side historically let a four-goal lead slip away in the Champions League three years ago. History repeated itself and Villarreal received a 4-0 hammering.

Subsequently, the Yellow Submarine shrugged off the early season weariness and embarked on an undefeated run of matches which still continues. Their best defensive showing came in the 0-0 draw at the Wanda Metropolitano where they didn’t concede a single shot on target. Extra plaudits for the fact that one of LaLiga’s deadliest duos, Suárez and Félix, were leading the Atlético attack.

At the Cerámica, things have been splendid. 15 points from seven matches means that only leaders Atlético have a better home record in the league. Important results on home soil include a sweet derby win over Valencia and a satisfying 2-0 defeat of Real Valladolid.

Their away form, on the contrary, is a cause of slight concern with only one win and five goals coming out of six matches on the road. They also tend to struggle against teams that like to sit back and allow Villarreal to keep the ball as reflected in the goalless draws against newly-promoted Cádiz and Elche.

On other occasions, Emery’s Villarreal have found goals easily. Against Getafe and Alavés, teams not known to concede many, they netted three goals each time. There have also been times where Villarreal have been unlucky and probably deserved more as in the draws versus Real Madrid and Real Sociedad.

One place where goals have been easy to come by for El Submarino Amarillo is the Europa League. Unai Emery has not shied away from heavy rotation and yet his offence has been too hot to handle in Europe. They scored 14 times in five matches and secured passage to the knockout stage with a game to spare.

One can argue the group stage draw was favourable for Villarreal in terms of opposition strength, but when you’re travelling thousands of miles every other week – to Turkey and Israel, it’s far from easy.

The Squad

It would not be wrong to say that Villarreal have a complete squad in many aspects. While Emery has his preferred strongest 11, his bench strength is not too far off in terms of quality. The role of fringe players is especially crucial in a season like this where injuries are more frequent.

In Raúl Albiol and Pau Torres, Emery has one of the best centre-back pairings in the division. The back-up pairing of Argentines Funes Mori and Foyth have been given ample minutes in the Europa League. Last season Villarreal alternated between Quintillà and Moreno at left-back but with the former sent on loan and the latter out due to a long-term injury, new signing Pervis Estupiñán is the clear first choice now. His back-ups include Jaume Costa and Alfonso Pedraza, with the latter also capable of operating as a left winger.

There are not too many LaLiga teams who can boast of a superior midfield than the Yellow Submarine. They have not missed Cazorla as much as was estimated before the start of the season. Manu Trigueros and Vicente Iborra have upped their games and functioned well with the new boys Parejo and Coquelin, and it has given the manager a headache when it comes to choosing his best midfield. We’ve seen both two-man and three-man combinations in the middle of the park from Emery this season.

Up front, Gerard Moreno was the best Spanish striker in the league last term. So far this season, Paco Alcácer has nine goals and Moreno has six. Paco’s start to the season has been blistering to say the least and Emery must be delighted to have both his forwards, the most expensive transfers in club history, in top form this year. Veteran striker Carlos Bacca is delivering when asked to and has three goals to his name as well.

Villarreal have fast-paced wide-men in Moi Gómez, Samuel Chukwueze and Takefusa Kubo creating many of the team’s chances. Overall, the attack is technically gifted and creative, and we can expect plenty more goals from them for the rest of the season.

Then there is the case of the young guns. B-team players Álex Baena, Fer Niño and Yéremi Pino have all found the net in the Europa League. Unai Emery has trusted the academy kids while resting the main men and they have not let him down.

What can they achieve?

Villarreal president Fernando Roig spoke before the start of the season: “We have accumulated 20 years in LaLiga and achieved many things, but we are increasingly demanding. Our first objective is to be in the Primera and, from there, there is no ceiling.”

As mentioned before, Emery’s appointment really shows the club’s intention to break new ground. But the leap will not be made within a year. So what can they do this season? Is this the year they finally finish back in the top four? Furthermore, can they target the two cups, UEL and CDR?

It has been a very open start to the 2020-21 LaLiga season and we’ve already had seven different leaders. While Atlético are flying high at the moment and look to be solid title contenders, the big two of Madrid and Barça have been inconsistent, especially the Catalans.

The race for the top four could be the most interesting one we’ve had in many years. Other than the aforementioned trio, Villarreal’s rivals for the Champions League spots are mainly Sevilla and Real Sociedad – both teams with European commitments, so there’s no advantage for anybody in terms of rest.

Now, Real Sociedad’s start to the campaign was sublime as the Basques led the table for six weeks but they have struggled with balancing LaLiga and UEL, leading to a dip in form heading into Christmas. Sevilla were strong favourites for the top four again but have also failed to maintain the level of consistency we saw last season and currently sit 5th. It’s still only December so it’s tough to separate the three sides right now in this race.

In what was going to be arguably the most congested and demanding season in football history, it was always going to be key to have a strong bench so the rotation doesn’t hinder results too much. On paper, Villarreal do look to be somewhat better than its direct rivals in this aspect and that could make a whole lot of difference as we go deeper into the season.

The difference between last season’s Villarreal and this season’s is that they have become more difficult to beat. Even in matches where they get outplayed (and that’s not too many), they fight well and make sure they don’t return empty-handed. The Yellow Submarine have drawn over half of their matches so far in LaLiga but crucially have lost only one.

Villarreal may ultimately need to start turning a few draws into victories if they are going to finish in the top four. Fortunately they have a host of game-changing players who can do just that. Performing consistently, avoiding defeats and winning against direct rivals will be Villarreal’s formula for returning to the Champions League, nearly a decade after their last group stage appearance.

The Cups

From the perspective of the Europa League, Villarreal and Unai Emery looks like a match made in heaven. The club are three-time semi finalists in the competition and have more knockout round appearances (8) than any other club in the Europa League era.

When it comes to Emery, there isn’t much to say. We all know what a UEL mastermind the 49-year-old is. In the six times he’s been involved in the Europa League in his managerial career, he has reached the final four times, lifting the trophy thrice.

Villarreal have always been consistent in this tournament. They usually cruise their way to the knockout stage but are never really touted as favourites to win the title. Fans must be hopeful that could just change this season. After all, Unai Emery is the first coach with such a trophy-laden CV to arrive at the club. Maybe Villarreal just needed an ‘Emery’ to take them to the final. Maybe they can do just that this season.

The current Villarreal team has plenty of Europa experience under their belt – a total of 499 matches across the whole squad – second highest amongst all clubs competing this season. Adding this experience with Emery as the x-factor, it’s not incorrect to think this can be the Yellow Submarine’s year in the UEFA Europa League.

In contrast to the continental cup, the domestic cup hasn’t been Villarreal’s friend over the years. They’ve been knocked out in the round of 16 of the Copa del Rey on five of the last seven occasions. Their one and only semi-final appearance came in 2015 when they lost 6-2 to Barcelona over two legs.

However, the change of the competition’s format last year has favoured the underdog. With matches now being one-legged affairs until the semi-finals, for the first time in ten years we didn’t have Real Madrid or Barcelona in the 2019-20 Final. Villarreal reached the last eight but surprisingly went down 4-2 to second-tier Mirandés.

It’s unlikely the Copa del Rey will be a priority for Emery this season. But if they avoid any upsets in the opening rounds and get convenient draws, they could still have a real shot at going deep in it. If La Real and Athletic can do it, so can Villarreal.

It has not been a rocket start to life under Emery but it has been calm, composed, patient and more importantly, positive. To jump to the next level as a club will take some time. A top four finish this season would be the perfect way to begin the journey. There is a real buzz in town about the man who has taken the job on his shoulders. The new helmsman on the steering wheel of the yellow submarine – Unai Emery Etxegoien.


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About Akhil Rawat 41 Articles
Based in New Delhi, Akhil follows LaLiga and Spanish football religiously. Currently a novice in the world of football writing, he fancies expressing his passion for the league through words.