November 13, 2019 By Ben Victor
There are two managers in European football you cannot trust with a lead in a game, whatever lead. The first is current Arsenal’s head coach, Unai Emery, and the second is current Barcelona’s, Ernesto Valverde. Valverde is on his third season at Barcelona, while Emery is on his second. The similarities between these two managers are astonishing, making one to wonder whether they are one and the same thing.
Both Spaniards are over-conservative in games, distrust creative midfielders, dislike away games, and love losing leads (a new trend for Valverde at least). If Valverde has done it, Emery has done it better. If Valverde has excelled in bottling, Unai Emery is Tottenham Hotspur personified, the paradox notwithstanding. Both managers’ football is so care-free, you wonder if anybody ever learnt anything from José Mourinho.
The UCL Curse?
“Roma have risen from their ruins! Manolas, the Greek God in Rome!Peter Drury
Twice, consecutively no less, leading in the first leg by a healthy margin, Barcelona’s Valverde has lost UEFA Champions League ties. In the 17/18 season, Barca thrashed Roma 4-1 at the Camp Nou. The Roma goal serving nothing but a consolation in a demolition. Ernesto Valverde would lead his charges to Rome. And just like they had done more than two centuries ago, the Romans prevailed against the Spaniards. A.S. Roma pulled a sensational comeback, scoring three and progressing. If you don’t remember the game, perhaps you remember Peter Drury’s dramatic commentary “Roma have risen from their ruins! Manolas, the Greek God in Rome! The unthinkable unfolds before our eyes. This was not meant to happen, this could not happen… this is happening!”
Well, you would think lightning does not strike twice. In the 18/19 campaign, Ernesto thrashed Liverpool 3-0 at the Camp Nou. As if he did not know about Anfield, he fielded a cautious line-up, failed to score, and lost the tie 4-3 on aggregate. Belgian forward of Kenyan heritage Divock Origi snatching a brace in the absence of talisman Mohammed Salah and Roberto Firmino.
Peak Unai Emery
Was there a better man to replace Arsène Wenger at Arsenal than a man, who, like Wenger, knows how to throw away a 4 goal advantage?
If you thought Valverde is the worst bottler in football management, then clearly you have not heard of Unai Emery. Was there a better man to replace Arsène Wenger at Arsenal than a man, who, like Wenger, knows how to throw away a 4 goal advantage? You couldn’t get a better CV if you had all the time to look.
Unai Emery stunned the football world when he whopped Barcelona 4-0 at the Parc des Princes. The MSN had nothing on PSG on that night. In peak Unai state, he went to Camp Nou, dropped the mercurial Presnel Kimpembe for the experienced Thiago Silva. He also dropped Ángel Di María, who was Man of the Match in Paris, for Lucas. His in-game substitutions were as baffling as his team selection. A full back (Aurier) for a winger when the aggregate is 5-3 in PSG favor. Then a defensive midfielder for a full back (Meunier) when the tie is 5-5 on aggregate, with PSG poised to go through on away goals. Of course, Aurier dozed off, left Roberto to meet Neymar’s delivery into the box to win the tie. Peak Tottenham player, peak Tottenham personified Unai.
In addition to losing leads, Unai and Valverde have a severe phobia for playing away from home. Ernesto Valverde may be late to the party, having started stumbling in the 19/20 campaign. But not Unai Emery. Unai is the master of ghosting away from home. In his final season for Sevilla (15/16), Unai’s team went 19 games, away from home, without winning any match. The team drew 9 and lost 10.
Again, if Arsenal were looking for something similar to Arsène Wenger, Unai was the closest thing. Whereas Arsène mastered an entire campaign without losing a game, Unai mastered an entire campaign without winning a game (away from home). You got to give it to Unai Emery’s PowerPoint Presentation to the Arsenal hiring team. “A source close to the North London giants described Emery’s attention to detail as Pep Guardiola-like.” One can only wonder what they are smoking over there at the Emirates.
The Midfield Question
Valverde has turned Barcelona’s midfield into a game of Russian rouletteJaime Rincón
Unai and Valverde’s team selection sometimes look like a matter of guesswork. Typically, established elite coaches seem to have a defined style of play. This is epitomized by how they set up their midfield combinations, especially. Well, not Unai, and definitely not Valverde. Marca even went ahead to claim that Valverde has turned the Catalonia midfield “into a game of Russian roulette.” In 16 competitive games so far this season, Valverde has not played the same midfield 3 in more than 2 games. His favorite permutation is Arthur Melo, Sergio Busquets, and Frenkie de Jong. The two times Valverde has used this permutation, he has won the first game, drawn the second, and reverted to a different permutation.
Unai Emery’s PSG had Adrien Rabiot, Thiago Motta, Marco Verrati, Julian Draxler, Ángel Di María, Giovanni Lo Celso, Javier Pastore, and Hatem Ben Arfa. Despite the attacking and creative options available to him, Unai always favored a cautious midfield 3 of Thiago Motta, Adrien Rabiot, and Marco Verrati. The creatives, Javier Pastore, Hatem Ben Afra, and Ángel Di María, found themselves frozen from the team. Even those selected were asked to play a conservative role. Adrien Rabiot, in particular, was angered that Unai never allowed him to play as a box-to-box midfielder.
At Arsenal, Unai has the options of error-prone Granit Xhaka, solid Lucas Torreira, inexperienced Matteo Guendouzi, creative Dani Ceballos, and controversial Mesut Özil. No prizes for guessing. In 18 months at Arsenal, Unai Emery has yet to settle on a proper midfield permutation and has a strong dislike for creative midfielders. Özil can barely get a place on the bench, Guendouzi is his favorite, Torreira is playing part-time as a creative attacking midfielder, and Xhaka was a favorite until he epically sabotaged himself.
End of Era of Attractive Football?
75 percent of the last 8 goals scored by Arsenal are set-pieces (6). 50 percent of the previous 10 goals scored by Barcelona are set-pieces (5).
Barcelona’s days of playing attractive football that blows teams away are long gone. Arsenal’s 15-year decline that was characterized by occasional attractive football is gone. Arsenal seem to have regressed under all metrics during Unai’s tenure. So much for his protagonists football. Valverde’s tenure at Barcelona has always felt uneasy and unconvincing. Both clubs have deemed it fit to traumatize their fandom, with managers who, now, cannot string two consecutive excellent performances together.
Valverde seems lost without Lionel Messi’s brilliance and rescue. Unai Emery has failed to get the most out of one of Europe’s most lethal forwards. Both Valverde and Unai cannot get a functioning midfield combination. 75 percent of the last 8 goals scored by Arsenal are set-pieces (6), excluding the Carabao Cup madness. 50 percent of the previous 10 goals scored by Barcelona are set-pieces (5). Make of that what you wish.
Didn’t anyone learn anything from José Mourinho and his eyesore football?
Both Unai Emery and Ernesto Valverde are knock-offs of whatever football philosophy they subscribe to. These managers are so bad, that fans are tempted to start dreaming of José Mourinho’s brand of football. At least José would never surrender a lead, worse, a 3 goal or 4 goal lead, right? Curiously, Unai made a mockery of Mourinho football by claiming “I prefer to win 5-4 than win 1-0.” Quite rich, given he cannot defend a 1-0 lead, or any lead for that matter.
PS: Raul Sanllehi was Barcelona’s Director of Football when Ernesto Valverde was appointed Head Coach at Barcelona in 2017. Curiously, Raul Sanllehi was also Head of Football at Arsenal when Unai Emery was appointed Head Coach at Arsenal in 2018. I don’t know about you, but this Sanllehi character smells like the football Anti-Christ.