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Why is Unai Emery so strong in knockout matches?

He who pays particular attention to stadiums and their architecture will not be insensitive to the atmosphere of Anfield. Tonight in Liverpool, Unai Emery plays one of the most important games of his career in the Champions League semi-finals. Certainly, the step is high. Liverpool are favorites for this game, but the Basque coach of Villarreal has shown in the past that he knows how to prepare the perfect game plan for the cutthroat matches.

“Villarreal probably has the most successful coach in the European Cup in the world of football,” Jürgen Klopp reminded those who thought the confrontation was a foregone conclusion. This season, no one imagined the seventh in the Spanish championship at this stage of the competition. Getting out of the hens was a challenge; the “Yellow Submarine” qualified at the expense of Atalanta Bergamo, quarter and eighth finalist in the last two editions of the Champions League. Then by defeating Juve and Bayern Munich, two giants of European football. Unai Emery built his coaching reputation by winning four Europa Leagues. Three in a row with Sevilla – the only one in history to achieve such a feat – and a fourth gleaned last year with his current club, Villarreal.

To read again: Villarreal, 51,000 inhabitants, capital of ceramics and a team that challenges the greats

Emery, who again took Arsenal to the Europa League final in 2019 (4-1 defeat against Chelsea), has qualified ten times for a national or European final in the past ten seasons.

Seventeen videos to beat Manchester

Since 2009, the Basque coach has qualified 27 times in round-trip European Cup matches. Detailed record: 40 wins, 16 draws and 15 losses. How to explain such a success? According to Romain Molina, author of the book Unai Emery. El maestro, the strength of the Basque technician lies in his specific preparation for matches. “Before each meeting, seven or eight of the opponent’s matches are systematically analysed,” explains the journalist. Sometimes this requirement is taken to extremes.

To beat Manchester United last year in the Europa League final, Unai Emery admitted watching 17 Mancunian games. Video is an essential part of his work. Some of his players, in Valencia or Seville, complained that the video sessions were too long. “Today, he calmed down a bit,” concedes Romain Molina. This particularly energy-intensive method would exhaust its players over a full season (its results are more ordinary in the league) but would find its relevance in high-stakes matches.

The psychological dimension is also a determining factor in Emery’s success. In the semi-final of the Europa League, Seville-Fiorentina in 2015, Ever Banega, then Seville’s playmaker, had a lackluster first period. At half-time, the collective chat is left to his lifelong assistant, Juan Carlos Carcedo. Emery is responsible for remobilizing Banega who will be decisive in the final victory. “Wherever Unai went, his teams were confident with the ball”, decodes Romain Molina.

“He is a coach of details”

This can be seen in the fluidity of the ball exits. We must not have trembling feet when at the Allianz Arena, full of composure and control, Villarreal encouraged Bayern Munich to come out high, at the feet of their defenders, to then develop the game from the sides . For this, he relies on the unfailing contribution of his assistants. In addition to Carcedo, Victor Manas in video analysis, Pablo Villa or even Javier Garcia, the goalkeeper coach, considered one of the best in Europe.

Emery confronts his points of view with those of his assistants but also his players who take part in the major decisions of the team. “He’s a detail trainer,” adds Molina, going so far as to correct the positioning of his players’ bodies as soon as they run.

The perfect game plan, constant quest

The former right side of Sevilla FC Coke had bet on the thoroughness of his former coach during the last Europa League final. “I am sure that all the situations that could arise for Villarreal in the final have already been predicted by Unai”, he assured to Elpaís. Until spending the night before the match to find all the parades to the opposing responses.

“The more information you have, the better you can decide,” Emery said a few years ago. I trust work more than experience, because what worked in the past may not work for you today.” A few years ago, after his departure from PSG, Emery returned to his adaptability to the opponent for the specialized magazine Tactical Room. “To be competitive is to adapt to the reality of the adversary. Sometimes you win because you use the ball better and sometimes you have to adapt and give up having it. That’s why I admire Guardiola and Simeone so much. Because they are very competitive, in opposite styles.

On the pitch, he relied on a 4-2-3-1 (Sevilla), a 4-3-3 (PSG and Arsenal) or a 4-4-2 with Villarreal. All this remains theoretical, and the repeated movements of the players make the structure rarely frozen. The common denominators of Emery’s teams are high-positioned full-backs, a pair of recovery players and a line of four hard-working midfielders.

This benefits the leading striker, who usually achieves the most prolific period of his career with him. This was the case for Kevin Gameiro (67 goals in three seasons in Seville), Carlos Bacca (49 goals in two seasons in Seville) and Edinson Cavani (89 goals in two years in Paris). Earlier in his career, he had surprised European football by sometimes using two full-backs on the same flank as in Sevilla with Coke and Mariano, one in a winger position and the other lower. Balance, another crucial factor to which he will not derogate.

The memory of the “remontada”

His European results with Sevilla brought him to Paris, from 2016 to 2018. In France, Emery will remain for many the coach of the worst match in the history of PSG, on March 8, 2017 in Barcelona: the famous reassembled. A 6-1 defeat against Barça in the knockout stages of the Champions League. But many forget the first leg, three weeks earlier, which is still considered PSG’s greatest European performance.

To read again: Barça-PSG, “I was there”

Dying in the face of low blocks in the league, PSG had that evening thwarted one of the best teams in Europe and signed a pressing recital aligned in 4-1-4-1. Edinson Cavani found himself chasing Ter Stegen’s raises as the team block could be high. On the eve of the game, The Team reported a longer than usual video session on the opponent’s relaunch mechanics.

Following PSG’s victory, Emery recalled that there were “90 minutes left”. “Oh! He’s a good coach… ”the players threw at him, still according to The Team. The following year, the reinforcements of Neymar, Dani Alves and Kylian Mbappé saw PSG compete with Real Madrid in the first leg for more than half time. The game plan for the second leg was to ignite the game in the first quarter of an hour. PSG will not succeed and will be taken out of the competition by a Madrid sure of its strength. “We needed the game to go crazy, but we just couldn’t do it,” Emery admits to Tactical Room. Maybe because I fielded control players, instead of players to pick up the pace. […] From the 15th minute, I told Carcedo, my assistant, that it wouldn’t do it.

Second knives between the teeth

This year, he again advances to the knockout phase with Villarreal. “Here, there is a group of guys who love football, revengeful, they are convinced by his speech. Unai makes sure that they adhere to what he says”, sums up Molina. The chameleon Emery convinced the Frenchman Etienne Capoue who had already planned to end his career in English D2 at Watford. “The passion he [Unai Emery] puts into everything he does. The way he manages to transmit these emotions to us is incredible. And we follow him blindly” is moved by the former Toulouse player.

A team of second European knives (Pedraza, Albiol, Trigueros) or promising young people (Danjuma, Foyth, Pino) ​​who form the right alloy to achieve a European course worthy of that of 2006. Led by Juan Roman Riquelme, Diego Forlan or even Juan Pablo Sorín, Manuel Pellegrini’s Villarreal had already reached the semi-finals of the Champions League.

“The surprise factor fades over the laps,” said Unai Emery yesterday at a press conference. “Who would have thought that after their Europa League title, they would do it again?” asks Romain Molina. Emery looking to build “his great work”, he could approach it tonight by looking straight in the eye at one of the best current teams, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.


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