09 May 2012

As the Los Che World Turns aka the Unai Emery story

 This article originally appeared on the excellent Forza Futbol website. Be sure and check out their regular podcast features on iTunes. Link to the original article here.

Special Guest writer and friend of Forza Futbol, Joseph Sexton joins us to pay tribute to the underappreciated Unai Emery. You can find more of his fabulous work at STV, the Irish Examiner, among others as well as talking on various shows and podcasts including WPFI and Forza Futbol! 

When the news broke last week that Valencia would be parting company with Unai Emery, it came as no great shock. The intolerance of los che supporters may be legendary by now. But the writing had been on the wall for some time.

On Monday, president Manuel Llorente paid tribute to the Basque trainer while confirming what we already knew- that former defensive stalwart Mauricio Pellegrino would be taking his post. Llorente’s words were kind, and they were also the truth. “We wish to thank Unai for four year’s great service at the club. His success in leading us into third spot again this season is something we are all grateful for”.

And is well worth reflecting upon that success. His predecessors- and Llorente’s- had led the club the brink of financial meltdown. Two league titles had been secured by Rafael Benítez, following on closely from two Champions League final appearances under Hector Cúper. It represented the most successful period in the club’s history.

But with wage costs already reaching unsustainable levels, Benítez departed under something of a cloud in 2004. Prior to that second title success, he had clashed repeatedly with the board over the provision and control of transfer funds in a manner rather reminiscent of his later travails atLiverpool. But rather than improve, the club’s fiscal position grew steadily worse.

There were the dud signings, a raft of whom followed in Claudio Ranieri’s second spell at the club. Not only were they duds on the pitch. What now appear to be ludicrously generous contractual terms were sanctioned, making it difficult to move them on elsewhere.

Managers were hired, fired, and compensated. Stability remained elusive. But what on the face of it looked to be a smart investment in the club’s future proved to be albatross around its neck.

A new stadium development was sanctioned, but before it was completed the bottom fell out of the Spanish property market. SuddenlyValencia were landed with two stadiums; one they couldn’t sell, and another they couldn’t afford to finish.

They were also stuck with €500m of debt.

To put that debt into perspective in relation to the club’s finances, they earned as much from domestic television rights last season as West Ham United did in England.

In England, West Ham had finished bottom of the pile.

It was into this environment that Unai Emery arrived four summers ago. What he has managed to achieve in that time represents something of a minor miracle. Year upon year, he’s been forced into selling off his best players. Yet every season, he’s kept them competitive on the pitch.

The club took a calculated gamble in 2009 in holding on to David Villa and David Silva in the hope of securing Champions League qualification and the financial fillip that would come with it.

That gamble was to pay off. Emery’s reward was to have both sold off to Barcelona and Manchester City. But he never complained.

Instead, he set about rebuilding the squad. As older players retired- or left- younger ones were brought in for lower fees, and more manageable contracts. On the park, they barely skipped a beat. Unable to match the behemoths of Real Madrid and Barça, they at least managed to plant themselves firmly ahead of the rest of the pack.

The fans never really took to Emery, however. A pragmatic, intelligent, and tactically flexible coach, he was accused of being too negative; too defensive. These criticisms seemed harsh. But then these are the same fans who booed both Benítez and Cúper before him.

Valencia could get down and dirty, as they did earlier this season in dumping Stoke City out of the Europa League. But they also remained capable of playing dazzling technical football. The curious aspect of Emery’s downfall is that his perceived negative streak never really sufficed to help them see out big games, while the more proactive aspects of his approach went unheralded.

They never managed to defeat Barcelona, despite coming agonisingly close on occasion. They never could live with Madrid. They never could get close to them in the league rankings either. Despite their final rankings under Emery, they never finished within 20 points of the pair.

At times, Emery was arguably guilty of over-thinking things. Rarely selecting the same personal or system in consecutive games, he preferred to cut his cloth to measure on a match by match basis. A man supremely confident in his own tactical nous, his chopping and changing became legendary. Sadly for him, so too did his side’s propensity for tossing away leads. In his four year tenure,Valencia have managed to surrender winning positions on more than 45 occasions.

That statistic at least allows us to see the fans’ ire in a more generous light. They were consistent, but at times also infuriating. That will go down as the greatest paradox of his reign. Good enough to set about what they were expected of, but not in a manner satisfactory to the Mestalla crowd.

They secured third spot again last weekend, but came worryingly close to throwing away what had been a commanding position there. They went out of the Europa League semi-final against Atlético Madrid with a whimper, losing 1-0 in their home leg have scraped a scarcely merited 4-2 defeat at the Vicente Calderon. And that is what ultimately sealed his fate. He departs having failed to secure any silverware.

At least he will be among old friends. Valery Karpin and Dmitry Popov- both former team-mates- are on the administrative staff at Spartak Moscow. Karpin indeed, is stepping aside from the manager’s seat following a turbulent period in the club’s history.

The east represents something of a never-never land for Western European coaches. Juande Ramos’ already dipping stock remains irreparably damaged following his disastrous tenure across town at CSKA though somehow he managed to rebound at Dnipro in the Ukraine. Luciano Spalletti has overseen a decisive shift in power to former capital at Zenit of Saint Petersburg. It is the Italian’s example Emery will seek to emulate. But to do so, he’ll have to unseat the former AS Roma boss as Russia’s top dog.

Meanwhile, what will happen next at Valencia is anyone’s guess. We have no way of judging how Mauricio Pellegrino will fare as boss. His experience to date has come solely in a supporting role, as first team coach and later assistant to Rafa Benítez at Liverpool & Inter. Top scorer, Roberto Soldado, spoke to French television on Monday about the possibility of joining Paris Saint-Germain. His international colleague Jordi Alba is poised to move the Camp Nou as Eric Abidal’s successor. Once again, the club will have to rebuild, and so with cut-price replacements.

Having got what they so evidently wanted, one now wonders if the supporters will be left learning that sometimes it is prudent to be careful what you wish for.

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