“First of all, good ebening.”
That damn phrase and his unique interpretation of “evening” turned Unai Emery into a bit of a laughing stock during his time with Arsenal. This was a three-time Europa League winner, a manager who’d won titles with Paris Saint-Germain, but he departed north London with his reputation in tatters – certainly among English supporters – following his dismissal from the Gunners in November 2019.
But an astute tactician is never down for long, and Emery returned to more familiar territory in 2020 as he succeeded the impressive Javier Calleja at Villarreal. Within a year, he was a Europa League victor again, guiding the Yellow Submarine to the Champions League group stages for the first time since 2011/12.
Villarreal have struggled domestically since his arrival, but Emery’s credentials as a canny operator in European competition have been laid bare.
Unai Emery & Massimiliano Allegri are similar operators which meant this tie was always going to be tight
Massimiliano Allegri’s Juventus represented a stern test for the Yellow Submarine, but the Spanish outfit proved in the first leg that they wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the similarly pragmatic Bianconeri despite conceding within the opening minute.
As a result, the two sides headed into Wednesday’s second leg locked at 1-1 after Dani Parejo cancelled out Dusan Vlahovic’s record-breaking opener and what played out in Turin was a chess match of the highest order between two coaches that align with one another on the philosophical continuum.
During the first half, the similarity of Emery’s Villarreal and Allegri’s Juventus was on full display. Both boast lopsided structures in possession with the left-back advancing and right midfielder holding the width on the opposite flank. One of the front two operated between the lines, while the other attempted to provide depth and penetrate in behind. Arnaut Danjuma was more flexible than Dusan Vlahovic, mind.
Out of possession, both adopt 4-4-2 mid to low blocks which morph into a 5-3-2 depending on the position of the right midfielder, who’s tracking the advancing left-back. Yeremy Pino and Juan Cuadrado performed this role for their respective managers.
The addition of Manu Trigueros, playing Villarreal’s version of Adrien Rabiot’s function, aided the visitors’ technical security in the middle of the park while taking up some smart positions that overloaded the Juventus midfield and confused their defence. As a result, Villarreal enjoyed much of the ball in the opening period with Juve reluctant to press. Their control was stale, though, and, much like the first leg, they lacked any cutting edge in the final third.
The hosts were undoubtedly more dangerous and the vast majority of their total 1.1 xG was accumulated during the opening 45 minutes. Gerónimo Rulli, however, kept the Yellow Submarine afloat and half-time presented Emery with an opportunity to change tack.
Let the masterclass ensue.
How Emery outfoxed Allegri in the second half to send Villarreal through
The Villarreal boss must’ve realised that in settled possession during the first half, Juventus posed little to no threat. The Bianconeri were much more proficient when attacking space, while Juan Cuadrado’s crosses had caused one or two issues.
Thus, Emery opted to deploy total Catenaccio after the break. He ceded control to the hosts and asked them to penetrate his ever-deepening block. Villarreal’s flexible 4-4-2 out of possession structure became a 5-3-2 and, at times, a 5-4-1 with Pino, then substitute Samuel Chukwueze joining the defence. Serge Aurier became an extra centre-half to help protect against crosses, while a more concerted effort was made to nullify Cuadrado down the right.
Emery’s change was undoubtedly ‘negative’, and it appeared that he was playing for extra-time and penalties, but the ploy was key in Villarreal advancing into the Champions League quarter-finals at Juventus’ expense.
Allegri’s Old Lady were completely flummoxed after the break. Villarreal’s block was so compact and so well-drilled, with spaces in the attacking third proving hard to come by. The visitors were certainly aided by Juve’s cautious midfield, but Emery deserves immense credit for recognising their weakness against deep-lying defences.
The more Juve toiled, the more inevitable the eventual outcome became. The Villarreal manager blinked first with his changes, and it was substitute Francis Coquelin who won the away side a penalty following a rare attacking sequence.
That ignited a collapse within the Bianconeri ranks as the reactive Allegri went full desperation mode. He sacrificed all structure by replacing Paulo Dybala for Daniele Rugani, and Juventus didn’t lay a glove on a resolute Villarreal, who scored twice more to seal a flattering 3-0 triumph, in the closing stages.
Villarreal were excellent defensively after the break and it’s Unai Emery who deserves full credit for overseeing the utter nullification of a monotone Juventus in the second period. The change in tack was perhaps subtle, but it was crucial in the Yellow Submarine’s eventual convincing triumph.
He beat Massimiliano Allegri at his own game, in his own backyard.