A Spaniard in the works – Champions League frustrations

THE first legs of the Champions league semi-finals are over and there’s still every chance that Liverpool and Manchester City will meet headlong in the final in Paris.

Liverpool showed they are simply too good for Villareal, Manchester City demonstrated they are vulnerable at times, allowing Real Madrid to score three times at the Etihad. According to TalkSport’s Jason Cundy, who spent several minutes shouting at clouds after watching the game at Anfield, Villareal were a disgrace and shocking and might have been better served to field fans instead of some of their players. Cundy, by the way, was a player, appearing for a poor Chelsea side in the days before they rediscovered silverware. If he had played in a defence as one-dimensional and determined as the Villareal back-line, would he merely have said, “we done a professional job, didn’t we”?

But no, Cundy was going for the throat of Villareal, completely dismissing the approach of Unai Emery’s side, who had a game plan against a vastly superior team. Were they supposed to allow Liverpool to thrash them, to lay back and be ripped apart by Salah, Mané and co? So they made it hard for the home team for maybe 45 minutes and then they were prised open. Villareal are not a title-chasing Spanish unit, they are good at cups and can be difficult opponents, but they are not Real Madrid.

It was pretty obvious Villareal had little chance once Liverpool had scored, but Cundy’s narrative was fairly typical of some sections of the English media. This was all about Liverpool and their chase of the quadruple, never mind there’s also another team involved. The pundits now have this quest firmly between their teeth, praising Liverpool to an embarrassing level (or they really the best ever Liverpool?) and canonising Jürgen Klopp. We all appreciate Liverpool are very, very good, but we need a balanced view from the media, there’s absolutely no way a pundit would lambast an English club like that, reducing considered discussion to tap-room yelling. There are many ways to play a game, that’s what makes football so interesting and Villareal went to Anfield knowing their best bet was to stifle the life out of Liverpool. Can you really blame them for playing so unimaginatively in the circumstances?

Is there an anti-Spain thing going on at present? Or is it a little bit of xenophobia in the night? Many pundits don’t know a thing about the teams English clubs come up against, they simply play to the narrative, and that is: Liverpool and City are great, they deserve to meet in the Champions League final, and all other teams are either dirty, negative, past their best, lacking the team ethic or very good at rolling around after getting fouled. But let’s not forget how Phil Foden showed he too can roll with the best of them. Some of the comments remind you of an age when foreign players were treated as if they had two heads, tentacles and ray guns.

Real Madrid were dismissed as being “over the hill” when they arrived in London to face Chelsea. The assumption was they had too many old players, their coach was too laid-back and on his retirement gig and Chelsea should be too strong and vibrant for them. Last season, nobody fancied Villareal and they went out and disposed of Arsenal and Manchester United. The fact is, English clubs invariably get knocked out by Spanish clubs. In the past five seasons, it has happened eight times, including 2021-22 when Chelsea and Manchester United were ousted by Real and Atlético.

There seems to be a certain arrogance circulating the English game that’s becoming a little unpleasant. For once, it isn’t the fans, although you didn’t need to be an expert in sign language to understand some of the comments at the Etihad and Anfield. English clubs have an advantage because of the extraordinary wealth that has been created by broadcasters and owners. Success is almost always bought.

This is now starting to show through in the Champions League, hence we could be looking at a third all-English final in four seasons. There’s no disputing Liverpool and Manchester City are the best teams around at present, but that doesn’t mean other clubs do not have the right to challenge them. Villareal and Atlético Madrid have enraged people because they have dared to take the English on, but the anger doesn’t always reflect well on the Premier clubs – Atléti manager Diego Simeone was pelted by missiles as he left the Old Trafford pitch and United were fined, albeit a paltry, spare change penalty.

Ultimately, we should also be aware there is very little that is English about the current dominance of English clubs – only 20% of the Liverpool and City players used in their first legs were English, the coaches were Spanish and German, the club owners from America and Abu Dhabi. A victory for globalisation.

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.

FC Bayern’s failure – early onset decline?

ALTHOUGH the Real Madrid-Chelsea tie captivated the continent, the seismic news was actually the shock elimination of Bayern Munich at the hands of Villareal. Defeat by a Spanish club is not unknown to FCB, indeed in the last decade, they have gone out to La Liga representatives six times, but usually, its Real Madrid, Barcelona or Atlético Madrid that have inflicted the damage.

Villareal are managed by Unai Emery, who has bounced back from his unhappy time at Arsenal to win the UEFA Europa League and now reach the last four of the Champions League. There may more than a few Arsenal fans who now wonder if the likeable Emery deserved more time than 78 games to turn the Gunners into something credible.

But nobody really expected Villareal to turf Julian Nagelsmann’s team out of the Champions League, even when the “Yellow Submarine” won the first leg of the quarter-final tie by a solitary goal. Now, people are starting to ask if 34 year-old Nagelsmann has arrived at the Allianz Arena too early in his somewhat charmed career. The Bayern top brass will undoubtedly decide whether the gamble has worked. After all, the club may well win their 10th successive Bundesliga title, but that will be the only piece of silverware to be polished in the close season.

Bayern are currently nine points ahead of second-placed Borussia Dortmund, with five games to go. The two sides meet on April 23 at the Allianz. Over the previous nine years, the average margin between Bayern and the runner-up in the Bundesliga has been more than 12 points. This year it may be similar, but Bayern’s goalscoring has declined. The nine-year average is 91, but the past two years have seen Bayern score 100 and 99 respectively.

The team that drew 1-1 with Villareal included four players who are at the veteran stage of their careers, including Manuel Neuer (36), Robert Lewandowski (33) and Thomas Müller (32). This trio has been pivotal in the Bayern story and there are hints that Lewandowski, whose contract runs until June 2023, will not sign a new deal and will move to Barcelona. Müller, who missed a golden chance to clinch the tie in Munich, and Neuer, also come to the end of their current deals in 2023.

The rest of the squad includes a cluster of players – the likes of Pavard, Kimmich, Goretzkam Coman and Gnabry – who are probably at their very peak. It’s only two years since Bayern last won the Champions League, but have this collection got another victory within them given Lewandowski, for example, will need to be replaced soon? The prolific Pole has scored 235 Bundesliga goals in his time with Bayern, representing 33% of their total output.

Bayern have the money to find a replacement and potential heirs to Lewandowski’s throne include Bayer Leverkusen’s Patrik Schick (26), Stuttgart’s Sasa Kalajdzic (24) and Benjamin Sesko (18) of RB Salzburg. Bayern have spent € 747 million over the last 10 years, less than Borussia Dortmund, but the position of the Bundesliga is underlined by the expenditure of Manchester City and Chelsea, whose gross outlay is around double the total spent by Germany’s biggest two clubs. Dortmund have made their name in selling talent, hence their income from transfers over 10 years is dramatically higher than Bayern’s. While their income was higher than their expenditure, Bayern had a net spending deficit of € 376 million. Basically, they don’t need it to be any other way as the club has made a profit for 29 consecutive years.

So it is clear – Bayern can win Bundesliga titles quite comfortably given their financial model and cultural position in Germany, but where does that leave them (indeed, Germany) in Europe? We have seen the power of the Premier League over the past three seasons and the 2021-22 final may well be another all-English affair, but Germany is increasingly becoming a little uncompetitive at the very highest level. This season, three of the four Bundesliga teams went out at the group stage (Leipzig, Dortmund and Wolfsburg). In 2020-21, German interest ended at the quarter-finals. In 2020, Bayern were champions and Leipzig semi-finalists. There has been something of a decline, which may be temporary or may become exacerbated by the Premier’s economic advantages.

Furthermore, Bayern’s dominance in Germany may not necessarily be good for them in terms of making them competitive beyond their domestic league. RB Leipzig and Borussia Dortmund are their biggest rivals, they have occupied positions two and three in the Bundesliga for four of the last five years, but they are way behind FCB on and off the pitch. As for the rest, few clubs are consistent (or rich) enough to put excessive pressure on Bayern.

Whether Nagelsmann can ride the stormy weather ahead is open to question, although it cannot be denied Bayern have, at times, played superbly in 2021-22. Yet some Bayern fans want him to leave and others don’t always warm to his demeanour. Nagelsmann has said his first campaign has not been a success, but that inevitable Bundesliga title will be his first major trophy. One big landmark for a relatively young man, one small step for his employer.