This is not a redemption story. This isn’t about Unai Emery, the loser. This is about Unai Emery, the winner. On Wednesday the former Arsenal manager leads Villarreal into the Europa League final against Manchester United in Gdansk. He has been here before – this will be his fifth final in eight years with three different teams – which is why he is here now, 18 months after being sacked by the club they defeated in the semi-final. It is also a big part of why Villarreal are in a final, for the first time in their 98-year history.
Fifteen minutes after the final whistle in the semi-final, as the size of the achievement sank in, the Villarreal president, Fernando Roig, stood on the Emirates pitch talking on the phone. Before long, Emery’s name came up. “This is what you brought him for, isn’t it, presi?” he was asked. The question was obvious, the reply swift. “Well, yeah,” Roig said. Emery, inside a press room he knows too well, was asked much the same. “I don’t think this is why I’m here,” he said, “[but] it was something talked about along the way.”
It had been talked about long before that. Conversations with Emery began during lockdown, which he spent at his home near Valencia, 65km south of Villarreal. It was six months after he had left Arsenal. Sacked, singled out and projected as a figure of fun; Villarreal thought differently. Seeing an opportunity, the chief executive, Fernando Roig Negueroles, the president’s son, reached a verbal agreement.
Villarreal had been knocked out of the Copa del Rey and had lost three consecutive league games when the pandemic halted everything, but they came back, won five of their next six and finished fifth. The coach, Javi Calleja, had delivered European football and was under contract. Three days later, he was gone.
It wasn’t a decision taken lightly nor accepted easily: a former player, B-team coach, almost part of the family, Calleja had previously been sacked in December 2018 only for the president to apologise and recall him 50 days later. He had returned, rescued them from relegation and now reached Europe. They could hardly sack him again.
But with Bruno Soriano and Santi Cazorla departing, a renewal began. Besides, something was missing. Villarreal have been into Europe 14 times, have been league runners-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 been in a final.
Emery had. Forget the fallout from London, the accusations. Those hurt, and the laughter may linger even as Arsenal slip from the standards he reached, but this was not about vindication. Nor was it a throw of the dice; it was logic: a manager brought in to do what he does.
Villarreal did not employ Emery through desperation, or because they had given him their word and it was too late to turn back; they did so to take the next step. Even those who considered it unfair on Calleja, those not enamoured of Emery, saw an upgrade. “We thought he’d give us a plus,” says Roig Negueroles. “He wasn’t the same profile we’d had before. He was unemployed and wanted to return to Spain. We saw a possibility and were happy to get a coach with his cachet, a curriculum like his. Now we’re even happier.”
If there is a word that has defined Villarreal it might be nice: a nice club playing nice football living within a nice ecosystem where the spotlight and pressure rarely fall. Emery’s arrival challenged that, even as he talked about a place with “an idiosyncrasy, a philosophy of touch and technique” that he would respect. Here was an injection of intensity, dynamism, aggression, that something they lacked. A competitor, pesado, Emery is the man of whom Joaquín famously said: “His videos went on so long I got popcorn.”
“Dreaming is free and I dream of winning a trophy with Villarreal,” Emery said. Astute signings were made: Francis Coquelin, Dani Parejo, Alfonso Pedraza, Pervis Estupiñán and Juan Foyth came, Étienne Capoue followed. At halfway, they were fourth; briefly, it seemed they could even be candidates. But there were too many draws – 13 in the first 24 weeks – and they finished lower than last season, also reaching the quarter-finals of the Copa del Rey.
In Europe, it was different. There, they are unbeaten. “We’re proud of our path in the Europa League,” Emery says. “We’ve given something special to the competition – we have a feeling for this competition.” Somewhere in that phrase lies the secret to his record. And it bears repeating: five finals in eight years. This is his competition and has been since Sevilla taught him, ultimately, to embrace it.
Emery had taken Valencia to three consecutive third-place finishes – a height to which they have not returned in eight seasons – but was not always a fans’ favourite, a sense lingering that they didn’t always compete with the best. Targets were one thing, trophies another, and there was something missing. A little emotion, perhaps. Memories, moments. That was a lesson he would learn once he left Valencia and has held on to since.
“When I arrived at Sevilla, the first thing they said was: ‘Unai, playing in the Champions League is lovely but you haven’t experienced what it is to win things’,” he said. “Now I have; I have felt it. And it is the greatest feeling there is, something really shared. Joy comes from the hope, the dream, of winning a title.”
That was the joy Villarreal reached for, forever stopped at the gates as Gerard Moreno put it. Emery took them where they had never been. At Arsenal of all places – the club that had denied Villarreal and dumped him. In their fifth semi-final, four of them in Europe, at last they found a way through.
Now the final awaits. “Emery’s very important,” Raúl Albiol says. “He has a lot of experience in this competition, winning experience. He’s been here before and that’s very significant, especially in the final days, those last moments before the game. And then it will be us who go out on to the pitch.”