What can we learn from Villarreal’s Champions League run?

Raul Albiol did not win the Man of the Match award before yesterday. However, as a La Liga winner and a member of the 2010 World Cup winning team in Spain, among other accolades, he was Villarreal’s most capped player against Bayern Munich.

By contrast, all but Dayot Upamecano had at least one league title to their name at the start of Opponent Eleven. Five of the eleven have lifted the World Cup and nine of them were part of the team that won the Champions League less than two years ago.

The German champions did their best to restore the normal order of things after a shock 1-0 defeat in the first leg. They succeeded up to a point – taking 23 shots from Villarreal’s 4 and 6 kicks while enjoying more than two-thirds of possession. Yellow Submarine despite refusing to drown and a goal in the 88th minute by Samuel Chukwueze I sent them through To the semi-finals of the European Champions League for the second time in their history.

It was one of those moments that made you believe in the perfect nature of the sport on merit, in the cash and transfer market, and in the demise of reputation. Nobody knows this better than Villarreal’s manager, Unai Emery.

Abning is very good

Emery’s career so far shows how non-linear managerial performance can be. He made his name at Valencia as a solid choice, rose to the occasion in Seville, disappointed him at PSG, and was a disaster at Arsenal before redeeming with Villarreal.

Several observers have suggested Arsenal may have made a mistake and that Emery would have done better than Arteta. This is a review based on a very small sample size in knockout matches. Emery struggled at Arsenal and was responsible for a lot of their problems and that’s okay. Villarreal is doing a good job and a lot of credit goes to him. These two things are not mutually exclusive.

On top of that, Emery has always been much better in the knockout competition than in the league doing well at a club like Villarreal but not so much with Arsenal or even Paris Saint-Germain. The Spaniard has found an environment that suits him and his side shows that this is perhaps the most important factor to perform to the maximum level.

Avengers rag tag

A quick look at the list of Villarreal and there are many names that are easily recognizable. A lot of them played and struggled in England in recent years and were dismissed as not being good enough. All of them have found a positive environment under Emery which gave them the Champions League semi-final match to look forward to.

Gio Lo Celso, Serge Aurier, Etienne Capoy, and Juan Foyth were all at Spurs where they were described as mentally weak. Arnaut Danjuma and Pervis Estupinian were in the tournament two years ago. Francis Coquelin has been an angry pet for many Arsenal fans. Dani Parejo, Raul Albiol and Paco Alcacer (unused substitute against Bayern Munich) have been side hustle for Spain and La Liga for a while, but not good enough.

Gerard Moreno, Pau Torres and, more recently, Chukwueze, are perhaps the only two players with a clean slate behind them and a bright future ahead. A bunch of disappointing deals and a couple of possibilities Manchester United are not supposed to beat in a European final and send off Juventus and Bayern Munich in a few months but Villarreal continues to defy logic.

make it a success

So how have they managed to achieve such a great scalp in the past year or so? Tactically, they’re not revolutionary – Emery’s way is nice and defensive, especially in the Champions League with some minor tweaks to make it sophisticated. The staff, as discussed, is good but nowhere near the best in Europe and their academy is not one of those companies that produce world-class talent in every group. Nor are they masters of the dark arts, as other bands from the past have done, hacking and forging.

Their budget is right for a city that’s not too big but still dwarfs the rest of the Champions League quarter-finalists. This leaves the intangible as an explanation – good training and creating a positive atmosphere. Villarreal’s size means they are not calling for an extraordinary level of pressure but Emery is still able to build a team that believes in himself to achieve what others are not expecting.

Stories like Villarreal are increasingly few and far between in modern football but a timely reminder that getting the basics right will go a long way.