Somewhere along the way between an embarrassing Champions League collapse vs. Barcelona and a much-maligned stint in England, we forgot that Unai Emery is a pretty good coach.
Admittedly, I had my doubts after watching his success at Sevilla fail to translate to world class attacking talent in France and the lack of progression at Arsenal. But, as Thomas Tuchel experienced and Mauricio Pochettino is now seeing, perhaps the whole PSG operation isn’t all what it’s cut out to be. Arteta, too, has gone through poor phases trying to turn the Gunners around, though his situation isn’t exactly the same as the one Unai was in.
If anything, the whole Emery career arc proves how hard it can be to isolate a manager’s impact from the endless variables that muddy the waters of causation.
This is not to say that he’s in the rarefied air of a Guardiola or Klopp (or even a Tuchel or Poch), but put him an environment that suits him and he will probably deliver, as we saw in Wednesday’s Europa League final vs. Manchester United.
There was a lot of focus and speculation on the rationale behind Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s lineup selection, which saw a McTominay-Pogba double pivot behind an attacking quartet of Marcus Rashford, Bruno Fernandes, Edinson Cavani, and Mason Greenwood.
Pogba playing deep is a controversial subject, to put it lightly, but it is possible that Ole anticipated a game where Villarreal would seek to dominate the ball. After all, the Yellow Submarine did have the 5th highest possession figures in La Liga and are far from scared of pressing, although their application is not particularly intense game-to-game from a relative perspective.
United have also had their best displays under Ole in transition, and Pogba and Shaw feeding Rashford and Bruno in that left halfspace was a tantalizing proposition.
But Unai Emery wasn’t having any of it. Anticipating the threat from United’s left side, the Spaniard dropped right back Mario Gaspar for the more defensively-minded Juan Foyth and prepped his team to defend deep.
Right-winger Yeremi Pino fell back to make a line of five any time Shaw charged forward, allowing Foyth to pinch inwards and sit on Rashford. Additionally, in what will no doubt be under-discussed or missed entirely, Villarreal’s best attacker Gerard Moreno worked his ass off to block lanes into Pogba and apply pressure deep in his own half, ending the night with 2 tackles, 2 interceptions, and 2 clearances.
Go to minute 1:55 and observe how committed the front two are to cutting off the double pivot. The guy on the right is Moreno (I think).
Now, compare it to the real game:
Thanks to Gerard’s effort, Capoue, Parejo, and Trigueros’ orientation to the flank, and Yeremi’s tracking, United had very little obvious avenues down their left.
The situational back five and the narrow midfield line did concede the switch of play, though I suspect that Villarreal were more than fine with this. Aaron Wan-Bissaka averages a blistering 0.88 key passes and 0.07 xA p90 in the league and struggled to make anything happen when he got on the ball.
His “support” was McTominay — who was obsessed with hiding behind cover shadows and making inaccessible channel runs — and Greenwood. The latter did have some decent moments vs. Pedraza when coming outside, but it’s hard to argue that he’s best used as an isolation dribbler.
Shutting down an opponent’s most dangerous personnel and forcing worse/less optimized players to make a difference are hallmarks of good defensive tactics.
However, Ole did literally nothing to react.
The original plan (beyond prepping for counter-attacks) seemed to revolve around Bruno overloading the left, which Villarreal often countered by having Capoue latch onto him, revealing a more aggressive strategy than one might expect from a low stance. It didn’t happen on every sequence, but Emery’s men were eager to step out and break up the combinations that Rashford-Shaw-Bruno sought to initiate.
This meant that Fernandes had several situations where he drew Capoue deep, creating a significant opening in the right halfspace that absolutely no one sought to occupy.
Attracting aggressive pressers out of position and hitting a dropping attacker through quick passing patterns is a textbook way to exploit this, and United fans will be heavily disappointed to have never witnessed it.
If I’m being charitable to Ole, it did appear as if Bruno was more regularly positioned on the right in the second half. I’m not sure the midfielder’s touch maps show the degree of the shift, as it doesn’t track his off-ball movement, but you’ll have to take my word for it unless you want to look at 3000 clips of Bruno standing still as he watches McTomisauce pretend to make himself available in pockets.
To his credit, McTominay did get off three shots and had strong ball carrying actions that caused some disorganization (prompting Ole to call him the “best player on the pitch”), but that was the end of the story in regard to United’s offensive output — bar the freak rebound goal in the 55th minute.
Nevertheless, if you’re as intelligent as I know all of my readers are, you’ll notice that Villarreal didn’t exactly trounce United on xG. And I’m not sure that Emery really wanted to.
Unai is infamously conservative in the way he manages games, especially in cup competitions. Versus a side with superior attacking talent, there’s a certain logic to making proceedings low event and, therefore, higher variance, so that one moment, such as a set-piece, can decide everything.
Coincidentally, Villarreal appear to be quite good from dead balls:
I don’t think the absence of chances was all down to Emery, though. United’s press and counterpress were strong and Villarreal’s pre-match preparation seemed to emphasize the generation of lots of counter-attacks — something we rarely saw.
Notwithstanding United’s solid performance against the ball, Emery seemed to confirm his cautious intentions when he subbed off Carlos Bacca for… Francis Coquelin, having just conceded five minutes ago.
I’m not sure that the move gave his side a huge boost defensively, but United had a dearth of ideas, anyway, and Unai made more understandable changes prior to extra time: Alcácer for Pino; Moi Gómez for Trigueros; Moreno for Pedraza; Gaspar for Foyth.
Ole, by contrast, made his first sub in the 100th minute, allowing Villarreal’s fresher legs to gain the possession advantage for the first time in the game while outshooting United 5-2 post-regulation.
After a million years and 21 consecutive makes, De Gea’s miss sealed the deal, giving the funny foreigner, who once committed the crime of trying to speak a new language, his 4th Europa League title — the most in competition history.
At the end of the day, Unai Emery revealed exactly what kind of final he wanted through his actions, giving us an excellent window into who he is as a coach. He drilled his side superbly on the defensive end but maybe became more conservative than he needed to in the second half. It worked against Manchester United in the Europa League; it didn’t go to plan versus Barcelona in the Champions League.
That may be why he’ll never succeed at the biggest clubs with the greatest talent, but it’s also part of the reason he’s so good at elevating non-league contenders to European glory.