Unai Emery and Sevilla, in many ways, has been the perfect match. They’ve been together since January 2013, and came to be at a time when prosperity had gone awry for both parties. While Emery’s Eastern European adventure with Spartak Moscow had fallen before it began, Sevilla had blitzed through three managers in as many seasons; finishing ninth in the season before the 43-year-old arrived.
Together, they were fragile. But in time they would facilitate each other’s resurgence.
From 2013 to 2015, his team asserted themselves as the Europa League’s finest by a sizable margin. Although their first win was by no means routine, the struggle in doing so gave them something more profound. It meant that in the following season, Emery’s Sevilla would find true meaning in the defence of their trophy; a unified goal which would support their every move as a club, and dispel the theories of European obligations being a hindrance to that of the domestic kind.
The Europa League thus became something very special to the club – despite it’s reputation elsewhere. Sevilla’s success in the competition permeated into their other responsibilities, and bonded their part of the city in a way Emery could only have dreamed of. “We love this competition,” he echoed throughout the year. And it was no wonder. Where the current financial barriers of La Liga prevent them from aspiring beyond Champions League qualification, their escapade in Europe’s other competition gave romance to theirs and Emery’s journey.
But having emerged from their two-year high, and with paradigms changing within the club, Emery’s honeymoon has come to a rather abrupt halt. Sevilla’s new common goal has become ambiguous. And for the first time in the Basque’s spell, the legitimacy of his quest at the club isn’t so forthcoming.
At present day, we find a team lurching between competitions with no such substance in any. In La Liga, they sit in 12th position, closer to the relegation zone than Europe, and already trailing fourth-placed Atlético Madrid by eight points. Meanwhile, their Champions League dreams are heading for a blunt, anti-climactic end, barring back-to-back wins in their final two group games. Never before has Emery’s Sevilla felt so unfulfilling.
“Football is emotion,” Emery told the Guardian, back in May. “There’s an economic [imperative] but what fans really want is to enjoy their team. If you have money but don’t generate feeling, it’s worthless. You play the Champions League but get knocked out in the group, losing all your games, and [the fan says:] ‘Sure, you’ve made €20m, but that means nothing to me.’”
Now, Emery’s worst fears are coming true. His hopes of taking Sevilla to the next level in Europe’s premier competition, after two years of dominance in the Europa League, are the very reason that the 44-year-old decided to stay at the club in the summer. And it’s all disappearing before his eyes; like a runaway train mowing through all of the foundations they have been building since 2013.
Though it’s admirable in many ways that Emery decided to take on a contract extension that could make or break him, the dangers of doing so were evident from the start. He knew it himself. In the selling nature of the club, no Sevilla team in history has been able to sustain success (by their standards), beyond a stretch of two seasons. The reality of not only prolonging, but progressing a club, under such circumstances has come down on Emery’s project hard.
Sevilla spent more in the summer than they ever have before, too. In collating the most expensive squad in club history, intentions were set for something great. But at the same time, it spoke to desperation for them to achieve as such; as if blinded by hope and love-struck by what could be a now frontier. While searching for the accelerator, they appear to have hit reverse.
Unfortunately for Sevilla and Emery, his two full seasons in charge have left the club in an awkward space. In essence, he has become a victim of his own success. They are too good for their beloved Europa League and have outgrown it, but they aren’t good enough for the greater horizon that captured their imagination in the summer. And in pursuit of the latter, Sevilla have lost the driver behind what produced two of their most enjoyable seasons in recent memory.
Their constant rebuilding of squads – as accomplished as they have been in the last two years – has proven far from foolproof. Over the summer, they lost talismanic figures in Carlos Bacca, Aleix Vidal and Stephane Mbia. They were pillars of all that Emery’s team achieved last season, and in hindsight, crucial members of what was a perfect storm. By the way of their budget, ambitions and realistic reach, Sevilla had a team that was – until then – untouched by Europe’s bigger clubs, and perfectly suited for Emery’s ideas. Things are different now.
Of the double-digit number of signings the club made over the summer, only Yehven Konoplyanka has become a sure thing in Emery’s preferred XI. And even then, the move has had repercussions given that the Ukrainian’s presence has seen Vitolo, the man who played on the left wing throughout last season, ushered out to a less natural right wing berth.
“In Europe, we want to move forward. And if not, we will continue in the Europa League,” Emery said on Tuesday evening, following their comprehensive defeat at the hands of Manchester City. Except, defending a defence doesn’t sound quite so rousing for a man who stuck around to try and make Sevilla something more than that.
Together, Emery and Sevilla saved each other, but they have ventured too far down the corridor of possibility. And unfortunately, it seem as if stagnation is becoming an increasingly likely best-case scenario for this once-stirring match.
About the author – Jamie Kemp
Jamie is a freelance sportswriter, who writes on English and Spanish varieties of football in the main. He is also the creator of the popular blog El Rondo; a spot where you can find regular musings on the world of La Liga.