The fall and rise of Unai Emery

WHEN Arsenal appointed Paris Saint-Germain boss Unai Emery as the successor to Arsene Wenger in May 2018, it was seen as a somewhat imaginative appointment. He was a coach who was on his way up, he knew how to win major prizes in Europe and he was, for want of a better cliché, a “special one”. Smart and personable and untainted by cynicism. Arsenal were hoping for a new Wenger, a manager who could be a change agent just as the professorial Frenchman had been back in the late 1990s.

If Emery had been hired in 2016 rather than 2018, the story might have been different. PSG had secured Emery after he had pulled off a hat-trick of Europa League triumphs with Sevilla, beating Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool in the 2016 final in Basel. It was arguably the third of these successes that convinced PSG he was a coach with a future and he was lured to Paris and expected to make a team of globetrotters into European champions. He was also given the footballing diva, Neymar, to help that process.

But Emery found getting past clubs from his homeland a problem, notably in the catastrophic and somewhat embarrassing 6-1 defeat at the hands of Barcelona in the 2016-17 Champions League. This seismic defeat, along with the loss of the Ligue 1 title in 2017, sowed the seeds of Emery’s ultimate downfall in Paris, even though nobody has managed to bring home the trophy that “project PSG” has really been all about. By the time he arrived at Arsenal, Emery had won six major trophies, including a league title. There appeared to be something rather classy about Emery, who was 46 when he joined the Gunners.

It was clear from his early press conferences and interviews that Emery’s English was going to be a problem, especially if things didn’t go well on the pitch. It made for some slightly uncomfortable post-match discussions and also made him something of a figure of fun with some hacks. As Jonathan Wilson wrote in The Guardian, Emery was “written off by Arsenal because his Vs sounded a bit like Bs.”

At the Emirates, Emery took the club to the Europa League final in Baku but saw his lack-lustre team torn apart by Chelsea. Arsenal finished fifth and were losing their place among Champions League qualifiers. Confidence in him started to wane in the early weeks of 2019-20 even though Arsenal lost just one of their first eight league games. Even when they were finding it hard to win games, they had still lost just three times at the time Emery was sacked in November 2019 after a Europa League defeat at the hands of Eintracht Frankfurt. But performances were, generally, not good and the fans turned against him, claiming he didn’t care about the club. A lot of people probably thought they had heard the last of Unai Emery for a while as he returned to Spain and was eventually appointed Villareal manager.

Did Arsenal give up on Emery too soon? Certainly, the early months of his successor, Mikel Arteta (possibly the man they really wanted to take over from Wenger) didn’t suggest they had found a better choice. Indeed, Emery’s win rate at Arsenal was 55.1%, Arteta’s is currently 54%. Unfortunately, he was the wrong man for the wrong club just as David Moyes was never going to be successful after the departure of an icon at Manchester United.

How satisfying it must have been for Emery when Villareal knocked Arsenal out of the Europa League in 2020-21, although he had far too much dignity to gloat. He then went on to beat Manchester United in the final. He credited his former employer with helping him to win the Europa League, the experience of managing in England had been invaluable. At the same time, there was an underlying feeling Emery had been thrown back in the pond rather hastily.

In his own backyard, Emery was a man in demand. Villareal came calling eight months after he left Arsenal and he took them to seventh in La Liga. With a minimum of fuss, Villareal slalomed their way through the Europa League, going 15 games without a defeat and disposing of Arsenal and, after a prolonged penalty shoot-out, Manchester United. It was clear that United underestimated both Villareal and their specialist coach.

In the Champions League this season, they came through a group with United and then into the knockout stage, overcoming Juventus and Bayern Munich. Nobody really envisaged they would get past the round of 16, but their away form in the Champions League has been impressive. On the back of these surprises, a reassessment of Emery has begun and the verdict seems fairly unanimous – he is a quality coach who knows how to negotiate cup competitions and difficult opponents. In fact, only Zinedine Zidane has a better scorecard in knockout games in Europe.

Can he pull-off what would be a massive shock and eliminate Liverpool from the Champions League? It is the biggest ask because Villareal simply don’t have better players than the Reds, so Emery would have to produce something very special out of his hat. But their record in Europe means Klopp’s side will need to be at their very best over both legs, because Unai Emery seems to have perfected the sort of two-leg strategy that was a hallmark of teams like AC Milan, Liverpool and Bayern Munich, way back in time.

It’s truly good to see him back to where he belongs and a contender at the top table. It didn’t take long for him to return to the game after what had clearly become a nightmare in north London. The big question is, will he yearn to revisit the Premier League at some point, considering he has unfinished business in England, or will he eventually take one of the really big jobs in Spain? He may have a number of choices for his next big move, especially if he can add a Champions League final to his CV.

16 football clubs sitting outside the elite

SHOULD EUROPEAN football ever morph into a super league structure, the landscape will be substantially changed, no matter how any new league might manifest itself. For the past decade, a set of global, elite players have evolved, but beneath the top layer, there are a number of clubs who have scale and presence, some with back stories that belong to a more democratic age.

Some of these glorious names may be dominant forces in their own backyard but do not have the financial clout to compete with Europe’s gargantuan institutions. Others were once feared names across the continent, metropolitan clubs from major cities such as Lisbon, Amsterdam, Rome, Rotterdam and Glasgow.

There will come a time when the football-watching public becomes tired of a system where the same teams win year-after-year. Nobody really enjoys monopolies or duopolies and when a club that has a rich European heritage suddenly finds itself “smaller” than a provincial outfit with very little historical success that has been elevated by geography and commerce, the very definition of “success” has to be questioned.

The cult of celebrity and aspiration, often via the double-edged sword of social media, has created a world where the shiny, noisy and glamorous rise to the surface. In football, it’s no different. And yet, away from the screaming headlines, the incessant well-scripted public relations and media hunger, there are dozens of clubs who remain the most important thing in the daily lives of so many.

Alongside the profile of the elite clubs, their performance underscores their status in the new world order of football. The 2003-04 season can be counted as “year zero” given it represents the beginning of Roman Abramovich’s reign at Chelsea, a moment in time as important as the inauguration of the Premier League, for it effectively provided the blueprint for modern club ownership. Since then, 13 of the 18 UEFA Champions League finals have been played between two clubs from the Super League 12. To add further fuel to the fire of debate,  41 European Cup/Champions Leagues have been won by these 12 clubs and a further six by Bayern Munich. That’s 47 of the 66 finals.

There have been just 22 winners since the competition began in 1955-56, and of these, half a dozen would be on many lists of clubs who have power and influence, not to mention resources. Let’s not forget that financial strength can be a fleeting benefit and the current problems of Barcelona remind everyone not to take anything for granted. 

So, let’s take a look at the clubs that could fill a second division of a Super League.

Ajax 
Although the Netherlands is a small market compared to the “big five” leagues and does not benefit to the same extent as its peers as commanding a huge TV deal, Ajax is a club with cachet, influence and heritage. Their business model demands that they produce players that can be sold in the market, even though they can call on an average crowd of well over 50,000 at the Johan Cruyff Arena. Periodically, they produce outstanding teams, but sustainability is a problem. Nevertheless, the time lag between golden generations seems to be getting shorter for the ultimate “stepping stone” club.

Atalanta
One of the surprises of Italian football, finishing in the top four in four of the last five seasons in Serie A. Atalanta, from Bergamo, have not won many major honours, but they are not far away from becoming one of Italy’s most progressive clubs. Their biggest problem may be of attaining sufficient scale to become more competitive.

Benfica
Like Ajax, Benfica are at the forefront of their domestic scene and also have a reputation for player development and trading. They also have strong links with South America and relationships with intermediaries. They attract huge crowds at their Estádio da Luz and the club is one of most widely supported around the world. Twice winners of the European Cup, Benfica have not competed at the highest level for some time, but they still qualify for the group stage of the Champions League on a regular basis.

Celtic
European Cup winners in 1967, Celtic are a huge club with massive support and an intsense rivalry with their Glasgow neighbours, Rangers. Although the days when Europe feared the green and white hooped shirts may be long gone, Celtic have enjoyed protracted success over the past decade. Their presence should be greater, but the relative lack of strength in the Scottish game does not help their cause.

Everton
A lack of a trophy for a quarter of a century does not help Everton, whose position in the English game has declined substantially since the 1980s. The future, however, could be much brighter when the club moves to a new stadium that could transform Everton and make them contenders for major honours.

Leicester City
Leicester’s time may have arrived as a pretender for the “big six” in England. They won the FA Cup in 2021 and the Premier League in 2016 and have a reputation for being well-run. They also have owners who have endeared themselves to the local community, as evidenced when their chairman was tragically killed in a helicopter crash at the King Power stadium. Leicester have certainly moved up a level and are no longer small in any way.

Napoli
One of Italy’s most intense football cities, Naples has only celebrated two Serie A title wins (1987 and 1990, in the Maradona era), but they’ve been one of the most consistent teams over the past decade. They have been runners-up four times in 10 years, each time losing out to Juventus.

Olympique Lyonnais
A club that has had its problems, but enjoying big crowds of 48,000-plus and a position of some influence. Founder members of the European Club Association and the so-called G-14.
Although they have been cast into the shadows by the rise of Paris Saint-Germain, Lyon have the potential to be far more successful. Their last league title was won in 2008.

Olympique Marseille
The only French club to lift the Champions League, OM last won the Ligue 1 in 2010. Owned by American businessman Frank McCourt, they enjoy 50,000-plus crowds at the Stade Vélodrome but have been in the shadow of PSG for the past decade. In the right circumstances, they could be a huge club once more.

Porto
Porto have also won the Champions League twice and although like Benfica, they are experts at player trading and nurturing talent, this aspect of their business model enables them to rub shoulders with the elite. They are well supported at their Estádio do Dragão, drawing 35,000 to most home games in normal circumstances. Porto, like their home city, is a vibrant club that has produced a number of top players in recent years.

RB Leipzig
The controversial club from the old East German territory, RB Leipzig are a well-run organisation that attempts to nurture young players. Despite this, they continue to attract criticism for their ownership model, which is misaligned to the German 50+1 structure. They have yet to win a major trophy, but their league record is very consistent, four top three finishes in five Bundesliga seasons.

Roma
Another underachieving club, Roma now have José Mourinho as their coach with the aim of competing for the Italian title. Owned by the US Friedkin Group, Roma had hoped to launch a new stadium project but at the start of 2021, it was shelved. The club’s last major success was their Coppa Italia victory in 2008, their last Scudetto in 2001.

Sevilla
Despite only one La Liga title to their name (1945-46), Sevilla have an outstanding record in European football in the 21st century, winning no less than six Europa Leagues, the most recent being secured in 2020. Well supported in a passionate football city, Sevilla have been remarkably consistent, finishing no lower than seventh and in fourth place on three occasions in five years.

Valencia
For a long time, a club that was ranked number four in Spain, Valencia have worked with their financial problems and have strong, devoted support. Their iconic Mestalla stadium may have a limited lifespan, but they regularly draw 40,000. Their last league title was in 2004 and they won the Copa del Rey in 2019. The club also has a rich European history.

West Ham United
One of English football’s most loved clubs is also one of their biggest under-achievers. They have won three FA Cups and one European prize in their long history and rarely challenge at the top end of the league. However, now they are drawing 60,000 to the London Stadium, West Ham could be on the brink of a breakthrough. The current owners are not especially popular, but the arrival of Daniel Kretinsky, who recent bought a 27% stake in the club, could be significant.

Zenit St. Petersburg
Backed by Gazprom, Russia’s biggest company, Zenit should be more competitive on the European stage. They have huge support, averaging 48,000 at the Krestovsky Stadium and have dominated Russian football in recent years, winning the league for the past three years.

Honourable mentions: Shakhtar Donetsk, Eintracht Frankfurt, PSV Eindhoven, Red Bull Salzburg, Rennes, Sporting Lisbon, Bayer Leverkusen, Wolfsburg, Besiktas and Nice.

This list is by no means prescriptive and there are many ways to slice and dice the second tier of elite European football. You may have your own list.