The Crouching Wizard — Flavour of the month or genuine article?

By Lyndon Lloyd 22/05/2016  0 Comments  [Jump to last]

It's natural that Cup success can throw a bright spotlight on a team and its players and make the winning manager the flavour of the month when it comes to speculation around open positions in Europe's biggest leagues. Just ask Bill Kenwright, who was enamoured by Roberto Martinez in part because he had just steered lowly Wigan Athletic to the FA Cup in 2013.

One trophy success is enough to make people sit up and take notice... but three, in successive seasons no less, is the stuff of footballing dynasties and Unai Emery has just achieved that remarkable feat with Sevilla with that thrilling come-from-behind victory over Liverpool in Basel last week.

Bloated by a Champions League-style group stage and then made all the more difficult by clubs from its more illustrious sibling parachuting in at the Round of 32 stage, the Europa League is a gruelling and difficult competition, as Everton found out in 2014-15. Even though they were one of the tournament favourites at one stage due to their brilliant form on the group stage and their destruction of Young Boys of Bern in the knockout phase, the Blues were dumped out on a harrowing night in Kiev.

While Sevilla were one of those teams to drop into the Europa League this season after only finishing third in Champions League Group D, losing home and away to Manchester City in the process, they won it the hard way the two seasons before that under Emery. Los Rojiblancos topped their (admittedly weak) group in 2013-14 and knocked out Real Betis, FC Porto and Valencia before beating Benfica in the final. In 2014-15, they finished runners-up to Feyenoord in Group G but beat Borussia Mönchengladbach, Villarreal, Zenit St Petersburg and Fiorentina before taking care of Dnipro in the final in Warsaw.

Becoming the first club to win three European trophies on the bounce since Bayern Munich in the 1970s is an impressive feat no matter how you look at it and it has elevated Sevilla's 44-year-old manager to the list of desired candidates for Everton supporters as the club looks to replace Martinez in the coming weeks. If a report in the The Telegraph is true, he has also caught the attention of the Goodison Park hierarchy as well who are apparently keen to talk to him this week.

Whether Emery, who is on record as saying he would consider staying at Sevilla for as long as they wanted him, would be ready to jump to the Premier League remains to be seen but he has obvious qualities that have endeared him to Evertonians, not least his touchline energy, motivational skills (he was able to turn his side around after a toothless first 45 minutes in Basel) and, of course, ability to beat Liverpool! The quick passing and rapier-like moves that tore Jurgen Klopp's side apart in the second half of that final were very much in contrast to the laboured style favoured by Martinez and, yet, they were evocative of the Blues when they were at their best under the Catalan.

The fact that Sevilla failed to win away from home in either La Liga, the Champions League or the Europa League apart from at Bilbao in the semi-finals this season until their triumph on neutral territory in Switzerland last week has been flagged as an issue of serious concern among supporters, however, and it helps explain why Emery's team only finished 7th in Spain this year. Nevertheless, their league record was significantly better over the two preceding seasons and the Hondarribia-born coach has a fairly impressive curriculum vitae that makes him worthy of consideration for a club whose fortunes need to be resurrected in short order.

An unspectacular playing career spent mostly in Spain's second tier after a single season in Real Sociedad's senior side was brought to an end by a knee injury when he was 32 but it afforded him an immediate route to management when he took over the reins at Lorca Deportiva, the club he had played for in that 2003-04 season.

He guided Lorca to promotion for the first time in their history in his first season and almost took them into La Liga the following year but fell five points short. Snapped up by Almeira in 2006, he steered them into Spain's top flight for the first time ever in 2007 and achieved an eighth-place finish in La Primera the following season.

That alerted crisis-ridden Valencia who replaced the struggling Ronald Koeman who lured him to La Mestalla in 2008 and, after stabilising Los Che with a 6th-place finish, Emery managed them to 3rd-place finishes behind Spain's big two in each of the next three seasons, the last of which despite the sale of David Villa and David Silva. That qualified Valencia for the Champions League, injected much-needed funds into the club's coffers and enhanced Emery's reputation but he was unable to break Barcelona and Real Madrid's stranglehold in Spain or land any silverware which led to impatience among Valencia's fans.

I live football as passion and emotion. When I coach, I take that responsibility seriously because I know people have trusted in me and there are thousands of supporters whose emotions are bound up in what we do.

Unai Emery

Still, he had achieved enough in his first three managerial assignments in his homeland that it was he to whom Sevilla turned when they needed salvation themselves following a poor run in the first half of 2012-13. The move in January 2013 was beneficial for both parties. Emery had endured a brief but difficult spell in Russia with Spartak Moscow who had sacked him the previous November and his return to Spain has yielded those three Europa League titles and relative consistency in La Liga with two 5th-place finishes and, now, 7th place.

Described by FourFourTwo magazine as having "the intensity and dry humour of Diego Simeone; the ire and scowl of Luis Enrique; the shrugging, ‘whatever' coolness of the now-departed Carlo Ancelotti," and compared most closely to Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa given his "obsession with preparation, tactics and an endless fascination with the mechanics of footballing philosophies," Emery would certainly add a new dimension at Goodison Park.

Nicknamed the Crouching Wizard because of his Bielsa-like touchline squat, he favours quick wingers and playing with two strikers alternating between one striker and a 4-3-3, pressing from the front, flexibility and inter-changeability from a three-midfielder formation, and employs in-depth (bordering on obsessive) research of opposition teams and tactics. And, if that final against Liverpool is any indication, he also possesses excellent man-management skills despite his intensity. Indeed, his team's "intangible ability to come back, to return from deficits, and display the grit and determination" has been noted before.

As an analysis by Outside Of The Boot acknowledges, his career has been notable for the manner in which he has come in and stabilised clubs in difficult fiscal circumstances where performances on the field have been affected as a result. While the financial dimension won't apply at Everton, there is no doubt that the Blues' ship desperately needs to be turned around on the field and Emery's energy would seem to fit in that regard.

With Everton's youth system potentially poised to produce a number of first-team calibre players in the coming years, it's also worth noting that Emery has helped nurture and develop (see addendum) the careers of other notable stars like Juan Mata, Jordi Alba, Ivan Rakitic, Alvaro Negredo, Jesus Navas, David Albelda and Argentine midfield star Ever Banega who is now a linchpin in his Sevilla side. Gerard Deulofeu, who failed to impress him on loan at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán last season might not necessarily agree but Emery undoubtedly saw the talent in the young winger even if he doubted that he yet had the maturity to put it to good use.

Any manager represents a gamble but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Emery would have what it takes to succeed in England in terms of his attention to detail and tactical awareness. The fact that he is more attuned to the Spanish game might count against him in the eyes of some supporters but it's pleasing at least to know that his teams like to move the ball quickly rather than rely on the "tiki-taka" passing and possession game made famous by Barca and the Spanish national team over the past decade. Success in Europe means being able to conquer teams of all styles and philosophies and he has proved to be the master of that over the past three seasons.

Despite the fresh speculation that Farhad Moshiri and the Goodison board will hold talks with Emery, he probably remains a long shot given his rising profile and, perhaps, his desire to continue building on his achievements to date at Sevilla. He may have started on his managerial road early but he is still comparatively young, has plenty of time to achieve any wider ambitions outside of Spain and may have been chastened by his experience in Russia.

Nevertheless, the fact that one of Europe's most interesting and desired coaches is even being talked about in the same breath as Everton represents significant progress on three years ago when the likes of Malky MacKay, Alan Stubbs and the little-known Ralph Rangnick were among the leading candidates for the Goodison hotseat. Long may "the Moshiri effect" continue in that regard!

Addendum

I've had it put to me that the influence of Monchi, Sevilla's director of football, in their Europa League successes should not be underestimated and in terms of player development (he will have had an important hand in the nurturing of some of those players mentioned above), tactics and strategy, he would have played a crucial role.

He won't, of course, have come into the equation of Emery's other relative successes at Lorca, Almeira or Valencia, nor would he be responsible for the man-management or game-management that has underpinned some of their European success but it was remiss not to mention his importance in the overall picture vis-a-vis Emery's time at Sevilla.

And, of course, while the former goalkeeper would be highly unlikely to follow Emery to Goodison, the manager would bring a lot of knowledge from working under Mochi with him, not to mention familiarity with a Sporting Director set-up which Everton are said to be considering.

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