Villarreal’s story was summed up for this game by the scorer of their only goal, Gerard Moreno. “Stopped at the gates forever,” he said.
As hopefuls outside of the city’s coolest nightclub, Villarreal could never get past the doormen. 2006 Champions League semi-finalists; UEFA Cup 2004 semi-finalists; Semi-finalists Europa League 2011 and 2016; Semi-finalists Copa del Rey 2015; La Liga second place 2008. No further. Name is not down, does not enter.
Unai Emery was brought in to change that. Wednesday night he did. Unai Emery took the seventh best team in La Liga and led them to European glory. Again.
His glory, in his tournament. The one he made himself. This is his fourth Europa League trophy, but the first cup of any kind for Villarreal. A city with 50,000 inhabitants; a football club as old as Hornchurch FC.
They brought in Emery to change their story and he did. What a coach he has proven to be.
Unai Emery celebrates with his Villarreal squad after winning his fourth Europa League
Emery again worked his magic in the Europa League when Villarreal shocked Man United
On Wednesday there was a broken heart for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his United team in Gdansk
Sevilla finished fifth when he won this race with them in 2014; fifth again when he held it the following year; then seventh when he made it a hat-trick. In total, he has coached in five of the last eight Europa League finals and won four. He was only short at Arsenal.
And that makes him a figure of fun in this country. Too boring, too tactical, not charismatic enough. What are they to think when they watch this? Is Arsenal better off without him now? Barely.
Admittedly, the penalty shootout was the only truly outstanding event of the match, an incredible 21 successful strokes until David De Gea missed from the spot. No guilt there, ghost.
Goalkeepers don’t expect to be called upon on these types of occasions. At least not to score. De Gea will feel more grief for the 11 he couldn’t stop, even though it was Villarreal’s Geronimo Rulli who seemed to get a firmer hand on some of United’s attempts.
Still, thanks to Villarreal and Emery for the way he mapped this out. He knew what he had. He knew how he wanted to play. He put in five sets of fresh legs for the extension. He made use of his sixth substitution in extra time. His tactics were also perfect, he thwarted United, choked Bruno Fernandes and reduced them to two chances in the entire game. And to have every member of his last 11 score in a shoot-out.
That does not happen by accident either. Perhaps not since Steaua Bucharest against Barcelona in the 1986 final of the old European Cup have we seen a team so expertly prepared for any event, including sudden death. They must have some big brains at Arsenal that they can throw it overboard after 18 months.
Villarreal eventually reigned supreme after the most dramatic penalty shootouts
David de Gea has been comforted after missing the penalty that brought United to a defeat
No wonder the local journalists following this club at the Emirates Stadium earlier this month serenaded the players and manager from the press box after passing Arsenal.
For Villarreal, just being in Gdansk on Wednesday evening was huge. Despite Spanish clubs’ record against English in recent European finals – nine consecutive Spanish wins and Liverpool’s last win against Alaves in 2001 – Villarreal was largely the underdog here. The bottom line is that if United want a Villarreal player, they’ll take him – just like Eric Bailly did in 2016. In short, they expected to win.
Still, it didn’t look like it when the match unfolded. Yes, United enjoyed a lot of possession, but they did little with it. As always, too much came off the cuff, everyone was waiting for Fernandes or Marcus Rashford to rescue them in a moment.
Emery, on the other hand, was a man with a plan. He is a serious player of modern coaching, misinterpreted for a failed spell in England. And no, it was not his best hour.
Still, after more than two decades, Emery succeeded one of the great coaches in Arsene Wenger and couldn’t match him. Given Manchester United’s struggles after Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure, it’s hardly dishonor. Nor has Mikel Arteta sent Emery’s years to the trash can of history. It was a tough job, but look at Emery’s track record. Maybe it wasn’t entirely to blame.
Certainly, taking Villarreal to their first trophy in 98 years, and to win it unbeaten, suggests a keen tactical brain. In the first half – and for a large part of the match, certainly extra time – Manchester United was not so much outclassed as outclassed. They saw a lot of the ball, but tactically, intellectually, Villarreal controlled the game.
Edinson Cavani drew the level of Man United from close by in the 55th minute in Gdansk
Too often United ran into a yellow wall, with four-block blocks, with Fernandes unable to operate as he wanted between the lines. Daniel Parejo, who made the mistake of setting up the free kick to create the first goal – and then took it beautifully – was exceptional, and Villarreal just looked older, wiser, veterans natural and distance; even though they are none of these things.
Emery is, however. Especially compared to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as a coach. There was a story recently suggesting that Mino Raiola was praising Erling Haaland around Europe’s elite clubs, with a clear bottom line. Sure, you have a project. Sure, you recruited a name coach to deliver it. Everyone has. You are all no different from each other. Now show us the money.
Yet that is not true at Manchester United. They might claim to have a project – restoring the club to its glory years, or even Jose Mourinho’s two-trophy campaign – but the tent’s name coach is missing. Solskjaer is a legend, but only within the confines of Old Trafford.
He’s not Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, Zinedine Zidane, Thomas Tuchel, Antonio Conte, not even Carlo Ancelotti or Mauricio Pochettino. And he’s not Emery either. Not a coach collecting European trophies. He recently described them as a shop window.
Solskjaer’s last final was in 2013 with Molde. Emery got the job at Villarreal because the club wanted to upgrade relentlessly to win; Solskjaer arrived because United was looking for a feel-good factor after a rancorous denouement. Solskjaer didn’t even bring a pedigree of success in major domestic competitions.
Gerard Moreno had put Villarreal ahead just before half an hour on Wednesday evening
The fans loved Ole behind the wheel because it was nostalgic; his presence, his hotline to Sir Alex, brought back memories of happier times.
On Wednesday evening they saw Sir Alex congratulating Sir Alex, not his protégé, but a cunning old fox who knows how to win. Solskjaer never came up with a guarantee of success. That’s exactly what Villarreal property was looking for at Emery.
Villarreal knew what they were about from the first quiver of Clement Turpin’s whistle. Is there a Manchester United way under Solskjaer? Only when losing a goal and building a spirited revival in the second half counts. It happens so often it could be considered a tactic.
So, as usual, United went behind and looked like a different team after half time. They played with more intensity, they moved the ball faster and they leveled for ten minutes through Edinson Cavani.
Can they score? Do they always score? That was the comment that preceded Manchester United’s most famous European victory and Solskjaer’s best night in a United shirt. And his teams have some of that too.
They recovered 31 points from losing positions in the Premier League this season, more than any other club. And because they have better players than most of their contemporaries, it often works.
Then they come across a team with structure, organization, the brains to deal with the defense and counterattack for long, tiring periods. They run into an Emery team in Europe. And then expensive improvisation is no longer enough. Villarreal’s window display is preferable to United’s empty shelves.