With Liverpool taking on Villarreal in the Champions League Semi-Final tomorrow, we wanted to get the inside scoop on the Yellow Submarines, so we spoke with Zach from Villarreal USA.
TLO: Unai Emery has a bit of a funny reputation in England for his time with Arsenal, but he’s seemingly done an interesting job with Villarreal, turning them into a giant killer in European competitions. At the same time, it seems like Villarreal’s league form isn’t quite where it should be. What’s your read as a supporter of the team? Are you happy with where things are?
VUSA: As I told Bavarian Football Works before we faced Bayern Munich, I think Bayern (and now, of course, Liverpool) was the only team we had faced to that point in European competition who would actually finish above us in La Liga. We’ve been missing our best player, Gerard Moreno, for about half the season and despite that, we’ve had the fourth-best points return in La Liga since the beginning of November which is when Unai Emery started playing a bit less out from the back and more direct. Despite a dreadful start to the season we still have a pretty good chance at a Europa League position for next year and five of the six teams ahead of us right now in the league have significantly more financial muscle than we do.
I find it amusing the way you delicately framed your question that he has a ‘funny’ reputation and that he’s done an ‘interesting’ job here. For my part, he’s still on all available evidence a better manager than his replacement at Arsenal (who does seem to have them finally turning around, though) and he was given a raw deal in England because his English isn’t completely crisp and he wasn’t a lieutenant to Pep Guardiola who gets absurdly fawned over the world round. Unai Emery, with all due respect to Manuel Pellegrini, is in my estimation the best manager Villarreal’s ever had and I expect us to eventually finish top four under his watch if there’s ever a season where we aren’t rotating all the way into May to make room for late-round European knockouts.
TLO: Can you tell me a little bit about Emery and Villarreal’s setup? What should I expect from a tactical perspective? Who are the players I should look out for?
VUSA: Emery’s going to roll out two banks of four for this one. That’s just what he does against sides with more resources than us. It will be compact and well-disciplined but it won’t be the sort of cynical absurdity you guys saw in the derby over the weekend. We play positionally sound defensive football because Emery believes it is the right thing to do not because he’s afraid of people, and if your defenders commit themselves too far forward we will at least give you some heavy nerves on the counterattack.
If Gerard Moreno is fit, he’s the cog that makes it all go. Against Juventus, we played 160 minutes without him and were 1-1 with them over that time. In the 20 minutes, he played we outscored them 3-0. I don’t think the example overestimates his value. He’s brilliant in dropping back to assist in buildup play and deadly in big moments finishing the ball. Arnaut Danjuma, who has been linked with Liverpool on and off this season (I think the Diaz move should probably end that rumor though) is our next best attacker and he and Samu Chukwueze are pure electricity when given space. Dani Parejo will be who turns them loose on his releasing balls and he and Etienne Capoue have formed a midfield pair that isn’t often overwhelmed.
In terms of your attack, I think you’re going to find Juan Foyth at right-back and Raul Albiol at CB surprisingly hard to find joy against.
TLO: Without sounding too arrogant about the matchup, this is about as “David v. Goliath” as a Champions League Semi-final can get. What’re your expectations for the tie? Dream a little bit, what would knocking Liverpool out mean for you and the club?
VUSA: I think it’ll be close. Football is a sport dictated heavily by chance, so often close ties come down to the way a ball bounces late on in a second leg, but having beaten Bayern Munich I don’t think Villarreal supporters are blinded by the bright lights here. Making a Champions League Final would be the continuation of a dream ride we’ve been on over the last two years, but time and again Unai Emery and this group of players show they fear no one and can compete with anyone. I expect to see our club do that again.
TLO: BONUS: Do you love Alberto Moreno and his hoverboard as much as we do?
VUSA: Alberto Moreno has been a wonderful person to have on the team! He’s versatile as a player, and an absolute delight in the media and in the locker room! He can stay here as long as he wants.
You can read our answers to VillarrealUSA’s questions here.