Ex-Arsenal manager Unai Emery would probably have settled for 15 points from his first eight league games in charge of Villarreal. The Yellow Submarine have held Atletico Madrid to a goalless draw in the Spanish capital and beaten Valencia at El Madrigal among their results, so they sit third in La Liga as a result.
For Emery, a man with something to prove back in his homeland after high-profile departures from tough jobs at Paris St-Germain and the Gunners, it is a strong start to his latest role. He hasn’t managed in Spain since steering Sevilla to a hat-trick of Europa League triumphs between 2014 and 2016.
Whatever criticisms Arsenal fans may throw at him, including the disastrous appointment of Switzerland holding midfielder Granit Xhaka as captain, he is plotting a course with the Yellow Submarine that could bring Champions League football with it. Emery and a squad packed full of quality can dream big based on their fine start to the campaign.
Spain striker Paco Alcacer has found his international career to be a little stop-start, but a midwinter move from Borussia Dortmund back to La Liga is starting to pay off. Like his current coach, Alcacer has been shipped out from big clubs but his talent, eye for goal and fine form may force Luis Enrique to bring him back into the national fold.
This Villarreal side lost the heart of its engine room over the summer when club stalwart Bruno Soriano hung up his boots after long struggles with injuries, and popular playmaker Santi Cazorla ended his second spell at El Madrigal. Emery replaced them with Valencia cast-offs Dani Parejo and Francis Coquelin. They look like astute additions, both out to show Los Che were wrong to transfer them.
Japanese wide prospect Takefusa Kubo joined on loan from Real Madrid, while Argentina duo Juan Foyth and Geronimo Rulli create competition for places at the back. The latter’s arrival from high-flying Real Sociedad has helped number one Sergio Asenjo raise his game between the sticks.
What the Yellow Submarine have are options in most positions. Former Liverpool and Leicester City players Alberto Moreno and Vicente Iborra are also at Emery’s disposal. The former’s fellow left back, Pervis Estupinan couldn’t get a work permit to play for parent club Watford, so the Ecuador international is in Spain for keeps too.
It’s not all about Paco in attack either. Gerard Moreno poses plenty of threat and now veteran Colombia hitman Carlos Bacca played under Emery at Sevilla. With strength in depth on the roster, it’s no wonder that Villarreal are priced at 11/4 for a top four finish in the La Liga betting markets, as of November 4th.
There is room for improvement of course. The Yellow Submarine’s defence could be tighter, after leaking a goal per game on average from their first eight in La Liga. They have simply outscored the opposition in the Europa League group stage so far as Emery targets yet another lengthy campaign in Europe.
Manuel Pellegrini, another coach who swapped Spain for the Premier League eventually, famously steered Villarreal to a Champions League semi-final in 2006. Emery will be looking to better that in Europe’s other club competition though. However, a top four finish would be an excellent start to his reign at Villarreal as he seeks to restore his reputation.