MARTIN SAMUEL: Unai Emery works his magic again to shock Man United

MARTIN SAMUEL: Unai Emery’s tactics were spot on to thwart United and win a FOURTH Europa League… He may be a figure of fun in this country after losing his only final with Arsenal, but he is a serious player in the realm of modern coaching

  • Villarreal triumphed in the Europa League in the most dramatic style possible
  • The LaLiga outfit overcame Manchester United 11-10 on penalties in Gdansk
  • Unai Emery has delivered the goods once again in the Europa League
  • Villarreal brought in Emery to change their narrative and he has done just that 

Villarreal’s story was summed up before this match by the scorer of their only goal, Gerard Moreno. ‘Forever stopped at the gates,’ he said.

Like hopefuls outside the coolest nightclub in town, Villarreal could never get past the doormen. Champions League semi-finalists 2006; UEFA Cup semi-finalists 2004; Europa League semi-finalists 2011 and 2016; Copa del Rey semi-finalists 2015; La Liga runners up 2008. No further. Name’s not down, not coming in. 

Unai Emery was brought in to change that. On Wednesday night he did. Unai Emery took the seventh best team in La Liga, and led them to European glory. Again.

His glory, in his tournament. The one he has made his own. This is his fourth Europa League trophy, but the first cup of any kind for Villarreal. A town with a population of 50,000; a football club as old as Hornchurch FC. 

They brought Emery in to change their narrative and he has done so. What a coach he has proved to be. 

Unai Emery celebrates with his Villarreal squad after winning his fourth Europa League

Emery worked his magic yet again in the Europa League as Villarreal shocked Man United

There was heartbreak for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his United side in Gdansk on Wednesday

Sevilla were fifth when he won this competition with them in 2014; fifth again when he retained it the next year; then seventh when he made it a hat-trick. In all he has coached in five of the last eight Europa League finals, and won four of them. Only at Arsenal did he fall short.

And that makes him a figure of fun in this country. Too dull, too tactical, not charismatic enough. What must they think now, watching this? Are Arsenal better off without him now? Hardly.

True, the penalty shoot-out was the only genuinely outstanding event of the game, an incredible 21 successful strikes until David De Gea missed from the spot. No blame there, mind. 

Goalkeepers do not expect to be called upon on occasions such as this. Not to score, anyway. De Gea will feel more grief for the 11 he could not stop, even if it was Villarreal’s Geronimo Rulli who seemed to get a firmer hand to some of United’s attempts. 

Yet credit to Villarreal, and Emery for the way he mapped this out. He knew what he had. He knew how he wanted to play. He brought on five sets of fresh legs before extra-time. He made use of his sixth substitution in additional time. His tactics were spot on, too, thwarting United, stifling Bruno Fernandes, reducing them to two chances in the whole game. And to have every member of his finishing 11 score in a shoot-out. 

That doesn’t happen by accident, either. Perhaps not since Steaua Bucharest versus Barcelona in the 1986 final of the old European Cup have we seen a team so expertly prepared for every eventuality, including the sudden death. They must have some big brains at Arsenal that they can jettison this one after 18 months.

Villarreal eventually reigned supreme following the most dramatic of penalty shootouts

David de Gea is consoled after missing the penalty that consigned United to defeat

No wonder, at the Emirates Stadium earlier this month, the local journalists who have followed this club serenaded the players and manager from the press box after they made it past Arsenal. 

For Villarreal, just to be present in Gdansk on Wednesday night was huge. Despite the record of Spanish clubs against English ones in recent European finals – nine straight Spanish wins, and the last victory Liverpool against Alaves in 2001 – Villarreal were very much the underdogs here. Bottom line, if United want a Villarreal player, they take him – as they did Eric Bailly in 2016. Bottom line, they would have expected to win.

Yet it did not look that way as the match unfolded. Yes, United enjoyed a lot of possession but they did little with it. As always too much came off the cuff, everyone waiting for Fernandes or Marcus Rashford to rescue them with a moment. 

By contrast, Emery was a man with a plan. He is a serious player in the realm of modern coaching, misconstrued because of one failed spell in England. And, no, it wasn’t his finest hour. 

Yet Emery succeeded one of the great coaches in Arsene Wenger after more than two decades and could not emulate him. Given Manchester United’s struggles after Sir Alex Ferguson left it is hardly dishonour. Nor is it that Mikel Arteta has consigned Emery’s years to history’s dustbin. It was a difficult job, but look at Emery’s record before and since. Maybe the individual wasn’t wholly to blame.

Certainly, taking Villarreal to their first trophy in 98 years, and to win it unbeaten, suggests a sharp tactical brain. In the first-half – and for much of the match, certainly extra-time – Manchester United were not so much outclassed as out-thought. They saw a lot of the ball, but tactically, intellectually, Villarreal controlled the game. 

Edinson Cavani hauled Man United level from close range in the 55th minute in Gdansk

Too often United ran into a yellow wall, banked blocks of four with Fernandes unable to operate as he likes between the lines. Daniel Parejo, who drew the foul that set-up the free-kick to create the first goal – and then took it, beautifully – was exceptional, and Villarreal just looked older, wiser, veterans of course and distance; even though they are none of these things.

Emery is, though. Certainly when compared to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as a coach. There was a story recently that suggested Mino Raiola was touting Erling Haaland around the elite clubs of Europe, with a distinct bottom line. Sure, you’ve got a project. Sure, you’ve recruited a marquee name coach to deliver it. Everybody has. You’re all no different to each other. Now show us the money.

Yet that isn’t true at Manchester United. They may claim to have a project – restoring the club to its glory years, or even to the two trophy campaign of Jose Mourinho – but the marquee name coach is missing. Solskjaer is a legend, but only within the confines of Old Trafford. 

He is not Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, Zinedine Zidane, Thomas Tuchel, Antonio Conte, not even Carlo Ancelotti or Mauricio Pochettino. And he is not Emery, either. Not a coach who collects European trophies. He recently described them as window dressing. 

Solskjaer’s last final was in 2013 with Molde. Emery got the job at Villarreal because the club wanted to ruthlessly upgrade to winning; Solskjaer arrived because United sought a feelgood factor after a rancorous denouement. Solskjaer didn’t even bring a pedigree of success in significant domestic leagues. 

Gerard Moreno had put Villarreal ahead just before the half-hour mark on Wednesday evening

The fans liked Ole at the wheel because it was nostalgic; his presence, his hotline to Sir Alex, brought back memories of happier times. 

On Wednesday night they got to see Sir Alex on the pitch congratulating, not his protégé, but a wily old fox who knows how to win. Solskjaer never did come with a guarantee of success. That is precisely what Villarreal’s ownership sought from Emery.

Villarreal knew what they were about from the first trill of Clement Turpin’s whistle. Is there a Manchester United way under Solskjaer? Not unless losing a goal and mounting a spirited second-half revival counts. It happens so often it could be regarded as a tactic. 

So United went behind, as usual, and looked a different team after half-time, as usual. They played with greater intensity, they moved the ball quicker, and they equalised ten minutes in through Edinson Cavani. 

‘Can they score? They always score?’ That was the commentary that preceded Manchester United’s most famous European final victory, and Solskjaer’s greatest night in a United shirt. And his teams have something of that, too. 

They retrieved 31 points from losing positions in the Premier League this season, more than any other club. And because they have better players than most contemporaries, it often works. 

Then they come up against a team with structure, organisation, the wit to handle defence and counter attack for long, exhausting periods. They come up against an Emery team, in Europe. And then, expensive improv is no longer enough. Villarreal’s window dressing is preferable to United’s empty shelves.

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