Tit is not a story of redemption. It’s not about Unai Emery, the loser. This is Unai Emery, the winner. The former Arsenal manager leads Villarreal to the Europa League final against Manchester United in Gdansk on Wednesday. He’s been here before – this will be his fifth final in eight years with three different teams – which is why he’s here now, 18 months after being sacked by the club they beat in the semifinals. It’s also a big part of why Villarreal is in the final, for the first time in 98 years of history.
Fifteen minutes after the final whistle of the semi-final, as the scale of the feat kicked in, Villarreal president Fernando Roig stood on the Emirates pitch talking on the phone. Before long, Emery’s name came. “That’s what you brought him for, isn’t it, Award? He was asked. The question was obvious, the answer quick. “Well, yeah,” Roig said. Emery, inside a newsroom he knows all too well, was interviewed in much the same way. “I don’t think that’s why I’m here,” he said, “[but] it was something we talked about along the way.
We had talked about it long before that. Conversations with Emery began during the lockdown, which he spent at his home near Valencia, 65 km south of Villarreal. It was six months after leaving Arsenal. Sacked, singled out and projected as a figure of pleasure; Villarreal thought differently. Seeing an opportunity, CEO Fernando Roig Negueroles, the president’s son, came to a verbal agreement.
Villarreal had been knocked out of the Copa del Rey and lost three straight league games when the pandemic brought it all to a halt, but they came back, won five of their next six and finished fifth. The manager, Javi Calleja, had delivered European football and was under contract. Three days later he was gone.
It was not a decision taken lightly nor easily accepted: former player, coach of the B team, almost a member of the family, Calleja had already been sacked in December 2018 only for the president to apologize and call him back 50 days later. He had returned, saved them from relegation, and had now reached Europe. They could hardly send him back again.
But with the departure of Bruno Soriano and Santi Cazorla, a revival began. Besides, something was missing. Villarreal has been to Europe 14 times, was a league runner-up and twice finished fourth. They have reached a European Cup semi-final, a Copa del Rey semi-final and two Europa League semi-finals. But they had never made a final.
Emery had done it. Forget the fallout from London, the accusations. Those are hurt and the laughs may linger even as Arsenal deviate from the standards they have reached, but that was not a justification. It wasn’t a roll of the dice either; it was logical: a manager came to do what he does.
Villarreal didn’t hire Emery out of desperation, or because they gave him their word and it was too late to turn around; they did it to take the next step. Even those who felt it was unfair on Calleja, those who weren’t in love with Emery, saw an improvement. “We thought he would give us a plus,” says Roig Negueroles. “He wasn’t the same profile we had before. He was unemployed and wanted to return to Spain. We saw an opportunity and were happy to have a coach with his cachet, a program like his. Now we are even happier.
If there’s one word that defined Villarreal, maybe it’s pleasant: a beautiful club playing beautiful football living in a beautiful ecosystem where the spotlight and the pressure rarely fall. Emery’s arrival challenged this, even as he spoke of a place with “a particularity, a philosophy of touch and technique” that he would respect. Here is an injection of intensity, dynamism, aggression, which Something they were missing. A competitor, heavy, Emery is the man Joaquín said, “His videos went on for so long that I got popcorn.”
“Dreaming is free and I dream of winning a trophy with Villarreal,” Emery said. Clever signatures were made: Francis Coquelin, Dani Parejo, Alfonso Pedraza, Pervis Estupiñán and Juan Foyth came, Étienne Capoue followed. Halfway, they were fourth; briefly, it looked like they might even be candidates. But there have been too many draws – 13 in the first 24 weeks – and they finished lower than last season, reaching the Copa del Rey quarter-finals as well.
In Europe it was different. There they are undefeated. “We are proud of our journey in the Europa League,” said Emery. “We gave the competition something special – we get a feel for this competition.” Somewhere in that sentence is the secret of his file. And it bears repeating: five finals in eight years. It’s his competition and since Sevilla taught him, ultimately, to adopt it.
Emery had taken Valencia to three straight third places – a height they haven’t returned to in eight seasons – but wasn’t always a fan favorite, with a lingering feeling that they didn’t always compete with the best. Targets were one thing, trophies another, and something was missing. A little emotion, maybe. Memories, moments. It was a lesson he would learn once he left Valencia and has held on ever since.
“When I got to Sevilla the first thing they said was, ‘Unai, playing in the Champions League is lovely but you haven’t experienced what it’s like to win things,” a- he declared. ” Now I have; I have felt it. And that’s the greatest feeling there is, something really shared. Joy comes from hope, from the dream of winning a title. “
Such was the joy sought by Villarreal, stopped forever at the gates as Gérard Moreno said. Emery took them where they had never been. To Arsenal of all places – the club that turned Villarreal down and dumped him. In their fifth semi-final, including four in Europe, they finally found a way through.
Now the final awaits you. “Emery is very important,” says Raúl Albiol. “He has a lot of experience in this competition, a winning experience. He’s been here before and that’s very important, especially in the last days, those last moments before the game. And then it will be us who will go into the field.