Manager Unai Emery’s Midas touch in the Europa League

A marathon Europa League final ended in the tightest of finishes as David de Gea missed his penalty kick, the 11th that Manchester United took, after having failed to stop 11 penalties, to give Villarreal their first continental victory in the history of the club.
A town of just over 50,000 had beaten a team that hosts more than 70,000 every home game. And yet, the odds were always in favour of Villarreal. Before this final, 15 teams had tried to beat Spanish opposition in the final of the Europa League. 15 teams had inevitably failed.

King of Europa

Four hard-fought wins at the Europa level, thrice with Sevilla and now with Villarreal have cemented manager Unai Emery’s claim as the greatest of Europe’s second-tier competition. No one has won more Europa Leagues than the Spaniard. The three-peat he pulled off with Sevilla from 2014 to 2016 had already put him level with Juventus’ legendary manager Giovanni Trapattoni who had won three during his stints with Juve and Inter Milan.

Emery could have won his fourth earlier, taking Arsenal to the Europa final in the 2018/19 season, but a 4-1 loss to Chelsea in Baku meant that he would have to wait for a while. When he was asked to leave Arsenal in 2019, his previous achievements at Sevilla and Paris Saint Germain, where he won a league title, were cast aside. But this latest stint at Villarreal has helped restore his reputation.

After the final yesterday, Emery addressed his change in fortunes after leaving Arsenal when he said, “At the end of that story was professional frustration, but some other doors opened then. Winning today is a satisfaction for my club, as it was when I was at Sevilla. When I was at Arsenal, we played a Europa League final and could not win but it is a process; from that game I learned a lot to win this one maybe.”

Villareal’s rigidity worked

Throughout their Premier League season, Manchester United have coasted when teams play a higher line and have gaps between their defence and midfield. With some of the fastest attackers in the league, the strategy plays right into Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s playbook.

But put a technically adept team in front of them, – one that stays compact rather than crumble under pressure and suddenly the Red Devils stare at an exorcism.

Villarreal had 40 percent possession of the ball. But when they did, they looked like a threat. United had moments where they looked like they would win the final but the second-best team in the Premier League has been largely inconsistent throughout the season and it showed.

It’s easy to point out that Villarreal usually had nine players behind Manchester United midfield at most points of the game, but high-calibre teams are meant to break these shackles down. Not enough dynamic attacking play from United made Villarreal’s job a lot easier. United attempted 29 crosses in the entire game and had a grand total of two shots on target and 14 attempts overall. They had a total of three corners. One-dimensional simply cannot cut it in modern-day football and United were victims of their own making.

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