Europa League and Unai Emery: What makes this love story blossom?
On the 9th of May, 2019, Unai Emery marched into his fourth UEFA Europa League Final with a 7-3 aggregate victory over Valencia and for a change, it wasn’t with Sevilla. Courtesy the win, the Spaniard, in his first season as Arsenal manager, ensured he got another bite at the 2019-20 Champions League cherry as he looks to build on the immense legacy left behind by a certain Arsene Wenger.
Over the years, Emery has enjoyed unparalleled success in Europe’s second-tier competition. A tally of three Europa League titles is one that no one has matched yet and it looks likely to remain unchanged for the foreseeable future.
Thus, the love story the Basque manager enjoys with the Europa League is as fabled a footballing fairy tale as any this decade. Though it would be a stretch to put it at par with Real Madrid’s three consecutive Champions League triumphs with those achieved by Sevilla, one certainly can’t look the other way when talking about Emery’s sheer number of trophies.
So, with him having distinguished himself, what exactly are the ingredients he uses for his recipe of the Europa League?
In the past, there have been several managers who have either been dubbed as ‘league managers’ or ‘cup managers’ and it is becoming increasingly clear that Emery falls into the latter category. Though it isn’t a crime being either, one must always remember the distinction when drawing conclusions about a manager.
Through his managerial career, the Spaniard has garnered only one league crown. Unsurprisingly, it was at Paris Saint-Germain in 2017-18. However, the rather worrying aspect was that he’d lost the title a year earlier to AS Monaco, despite boasting a star-studded squad. In contrast to the league, he has won 2 French Cups, 2 French Super Cups, 1 French League Cup and 3 Europa Leagues.
Thus, fuelling the fire of him not being the most suitable to oversee long, gruelling domestic seasons.
A major reason for the above could be the lack of a streamlined philosophy, unlike someone like a Pep Guardiola or even an Arsene Wenger.
However, that doesn’t take anything away from his strengths as a manager. The Spaniard is tactically astute and specialises in shaking things up mid-game. Yet, he falls into a set of managers who are closer to being ‘reactive’ than ‘proactive’.
Hence, it has come as no surprise that through the 2018-19 season, Arsenal has found the extra gears only after he has studied the opposition and their modus operandi.
The said trait works extremely well in the Europa League as most of the teams aren’t that high on the quality quotient and are relatively susceptible to losing their nerve.
The last two knock-out European ties this term have seen the Gunners defeat Napoli and Valencia home and away. The common thread has been the North London outfit holding their ground, not being too gung-ho and waiting for their opportunity to pounce.
The aforementioned approach wasn’t too dissimilar to what Sevilla followed during their ground-breaking run. On countless occasions, the Spanish side found themselves under the cosh yet they were able to buckle down, stand strong in the face of adversity and then make the opposition pay for their errors.
Thus, indicating that Emery does indeed set his teams up to maintain a respectable level throughout the game and then pick and choose their moments to hurt the opposition. It works in a competition like the Europa League because teams just aren’t that confident or patient to keep doing the same things over and over again. Inevitably, they try something different and in the process, leave gaps for the Spaniard’s teams to exploit.
However, it also leads to the downfall of his sides in the Champions League where teams are much more inclined to back themselves and force Unai to make the first reckless move.
Therefore, he has not been able to carve out a niche for himself so far in Europe’s premier club competition. The Round of 16 tie against Real Madrid last season and that infamous night against Barcelona at the Camp Nou in 2017 quickly spring to mind.
Apart from the facets mentioned above, the former Sevilla man also possesses tons of Europa League experience and he now finds himself in a situation where he intuitively knows what the other teams might do. While boasting of an intuition doesn’t take one too far, it does certainly help in overcoming your obstacles.
Thus, the Spaniard surely has more than a thing or two going for him in the competition that has come to be known as the Unai Emery League (UEL) recently. After all, four finals in eight seasons isn’t something to be scoffed at. That his latest final appearance came at the expense of the only club he failed to reach a final with (Valencia) only adds to the legend of Emery.
And while he still has a long way to go before he can hold a candle to Mr. Wenger, another Europa conquest would certainly put him on the right track.