Does Unai Emery have the huevos to guide Sevilla into Spain’s top four?

Michael Scott would love the title of Unai Emery’s book. While in charge of Valencia in 2012, the 43-year-old released a book called Mentalidad Ganadora: Emery’s Metodo (A Winner’s Mentality: Emery’s Method). It’s exactly the type of title the boss from the The Office’s U.S. edition would want, albeit with his face smiling back at the customer.

But the intrigue behind the Sevilla boss goes beyond the book. There’s also his detailed, Rafa Benítez-esque website, along with the now famous patches on his suit jacket’s elbows. There was a time when he wouldn’t be seen without them, even if they tend to appear with less frequency these days. Yet Emery is probably best known for being completely infatuated with his job, to the point of describing himself as “restless.” You only have to watch him pounding around his technical area or during an uneasy post-game press conference to see that tension.

More than just being a candidate for a Spanish sitcom, Emery’s also been one of the country’s most impressive coaches for the best part of a decade. However, even when he led Valencia to three consecutive third place finishes during a time that overlapped with José Mourinho (at Real Madrid) and Josep Guardiola (at Barcelona), some questioned whether he has the huevos to truly step among the elite.

Valencia fans didn’t think so. While Emery was in charge of the club, fans sent him a letter telling him as much; they scoffed at the ideas in his book, as well. And on Sunday night, those same fans lined the Mestalla to watch their team beat Emery’s Sevilla, 3-1.

“We lost the battle, but not the war,” Emery said after giving up La Liga’s final Champions League spot to Los Che – the spot where all the money is.

FC Barcelona v Sevilla FC - La Liga

Not that Valencia necessarily needs that money. New owner Peter Lim has taken control of the club, while super-agent Jorge Mendes has his fingers in its transfer business, handing them a distinct advantage in the Primera División’s race for fourth. Given its newfound wealth, Valencia should, in theory, be able to break away and join Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid, leaving Sevilla and Villarreal to tread in its footprints.

The landscape leaves Emery in a state of nothingness. When he was at Valencia, the saying went that he regularly won the “other league” – the league below Madrid and Barça. What if he’s now in yet another league, one where finishing fifth is the best that can be expected? At least when Valencia was finishing third, it was qualifying for the Champions League. Now, qualifying for Europe’s elite competition may prove an exception rather than a rule.

Even that level looked uncertain after Emery’s his first half-season on the job, with the Rojiblancos sitting in ninth place after the 2012-13 campaign. Only Málaga and Rayo Vallecano’s exclusion from European play for financial reasons allowed Emery’s team to qualify for Europa League. But by the end of the season, Sevilla’s form in league and Europa triumph restored the club’s belief in its manager, keeping him from joining the paro queue with millions of other Spaniards.

While meticulous, Emery’s methods aren’t always appreciated by his players. He given his players homework, putting information on a USB drive for them to read up on and watch ahead of their next opponents. Except the players don’t always bother to do their homework. Would you? Emery found this out by handing a player a blank USB once and then asking for his thoughts on the information. “Yeah, he looks dangerous,” came the reply.

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Then there are the rotations. If Emery’s demeanor is restless, then his rotations are relentless. Only one player, Colombian forward and former bus conductor Carlos Bacca, has appeared in every league match; none have started every game; and only six have begun at least 15 of the club’s 19 La Liga fixtures.

Barça duo Denis Suárez and Gerard Deulofeu, both on loan in Andalusia, have been brilliant at times, but both have also been pulled in and out of the team. It’s all been too much for Iago Aspas, borrowed from Liverpool, who was spotted making mocking gestures on the bench during a recent game.

Still, there’s a food chain in Spain, and it looks like Sevilla knows its place on it. The regularity of its wins against those below it in the table has allowed it to keep pace with the jungle cats above, but the regularity of losses to Barcelona (5-1), Atlético Madrid (4-1) and Valencia (1-1, 3-1) is likely to see a stop sign on the road it wants to travel. Not to mention Sevilla still has to play Real Madrid. Twice.

Even success in the Copa del Reythe competition everyone can win this year — looks difficult after last week’s first leg defeat to Espanyol. In And Europa League, Bundesliga side Borussia Mönchengladbach pose a genuine threat to Sevilla’s defense, while the team may have to get past the likes of Liverpool and Roma if it does beat the Germans.

But if Sevilla falls short of last year’s results, it won’t all be on Emery. He can ill-afford to lose the likes of midfielder Ivan Rakitic (his best player last campaign, now with Barcelona) every season. Michael Scott would suffer the same if is he was stripped of Jim Halpert. And Rakitic is just one example: Alberto Moreno, Jesús Navas, Álvaro Negredo, Federico Fazio and Geoffrey Kondogbia are all among those lured from Sevilla over the last 24 months.

“If you think you are going to die before a match, you will die twice,” Emery once said in an interview with El Pais. But if the Valencia project goes as planned and Atlético maintains its stability under Diego Simeone, it’s going to be difficult for Sevilla to think any higher than fifth. Optimism may be all it has when next season rolls around.

 

Photo credits, from top to bottom: David Ramos/Getty Images; MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP/Getty Images.

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