Unai Emery is back doing what he does best — impressing in LaLiga and going deep in the Europa League with Villarreal.
It’s a far cry from his time as Arsenal boss, where, one Europa League final aside, he spent a largely unsuccessful year and a half in North London.
So, as Emery gets set for a semi-final showdown with his former side tonight, how has the Yellow Submarine’s manager restored his reputation since leaving the Gunners?
A stable environment
Arsenal’s executive structure was in almost constant transition while Emery was at the Emirates.
Chief executive Ivan Gazidis left to join AC Milan just five months after the 49-year-old was appointed, to be replaced by Raul Sanllehi and Vinai Venkatesham as the club’s head of football and managing director respectively.
Sven Mislintat then stepped down as the Gunners’ head of recruitment in February the following year, before former player Edu was appointed as technical director in July 2019.
In contrast, Villarreal are led by the stable pairing of president Fernando Roig and his son Fernando Roig Negueroles.
That consistency at the top has allowed the Castellon-based club to punch above their weight for many years and has provided the stability for Emery to work effectively this season.
Taking back control
The Spanish tactician has thrived without the complex management structures in place at former club Paris Saint-Germain and the Emirates, enjoying greater control and not having decisions being taken above his head.
Never was this more evident than with Arsenal’s signing of Nicolas Pepe in August 2019, when Emery wanted Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha instead.
Reflecting on that transfer after leaving North London, he said: “We signed Pepe. He’s a good player but we didn’t know his character and he needs time, patience.
“I favoured someone who knew the league and wouldn’t need to adapt. Zaha won games on his own: Tottenham, Manchester City, us. Incredible performances. I told them: ‘This is the player I know and want.’
“I met Zaha and he wanted to come. The club decided Pepe was one for the future. I said: ‘Yes, but we need to win now and this lad wins games.’ He beat us on his own.”
That joined-up approach may be responsible for some of the smart moves that Villarreal have made in the transfer market under Emery’s leadership.
Experienced playmaker Dani Parejo arrived from Valencia in the summer and is just outside LaLiga’s top 10 when it comes to completed passes into the final third (21.3 per 90 minutes), while only seven players have had more touches of the ball (92.64 per 90).
Left-back Pervis Estupinan joined from Watford for just over £14million and has been similarly successful — providing a useful attacking outlet by completing the eighth-most crosses in Spain’s top flight this season (1.76 per 90).
A clear identity
Emery was never able to clearly communicate his tactical vision while at the Emirates, with the coach’s limited English skills undoubtedly playing a part in his struggles at Arsenal.
But Villarreal’s style is much easier to define.
Typically setting up in a 4-4-2 formation, the Yellow Submarine are one of LaLiga’s top attacking sides, with only four teams bettering their 1.52 goals per 90 — thanks in part to their 20-goal striker Gerard Moreno.
They like to dominate the ball but tend to avoid possession for possession’s sake, always looking to thread passes through to their attackers or take on opponents to drive play forward.
Ultimately managers are judged on results and Spain’s seventh-placed side are well placed for the season’s final furlong, at home and on the continent.
A Europa League specialist with three winners’ medals already in his collection, Emery is gunning for a fourth and would love nothing more than to beat his former charges en route to the final.