How Villarreal’s Eye for Value shattered the Champions League code

A great way to understand how Villarreal – a football team from a city of just 50,000, playing in a stadium that holds just under half of them – finds itself in the Champions League semi-finals is to think about cleaning products at Spain’s leading supermarket.

The supermarket, Mercadona and the football club are the cousins ​​of the companies. Villarreal’s president and benefactor Fernando Roig has a minority stake in Spain’s largest retail chain in Mercadon, but his brother Juan, the majority shareholder, is credited with making the latter a major case study for business schools around the world. .

At the heart of this approach is the idea that customers are ultimately responsible. After all, they are the ones who determine what should be in stock in their stores. To ensure that these needs are met, Mercadona invites its most trusted customers to the test laboratory every time.

They are held in ten shops across Spain, and each is dedicated to a specific area of ​​business: pet care, snacks, or personal care. Customers are not only asked to give feedback on the different products – packaging, price, taste, smell – but also to advise Mercadona staff on how to use them.

Thus, Mercadona discovered that although many people bought white wine vinegar as a seasoning, they also used it as a stain remover. “That’s how they created the vinegar cleaner,” Miguel Blanco, a professor of business economics at King Juan Carlos University, once told the Wharton School of Business in Pennsylvania. Mercadona, like Villarreal, understands that the attractiveness of a product depends on how it is used.

At first glance, Villarreal does not follow a plan drawn up by a handful of teams from outside the exclusive chapel of the stunningly wealthy clubs that have dropped the goal in the Champions League semi-finals in recent years.

Monaco in 2017 and Ajax in 2019 looked like a glimpse into the near future of football. It was in Monaco that ran from Manchester City and Borussia in Dortmund that Kylian Mbappé, Bernardo Silva and Fabinho first became more aware of the sport. Ajax’s losses to Real Madrid and Juventus on the way to the semi-finals two years later helped make Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt stars.

RB Leipzig, who made it to the final four in a strange ghostly pandemic tournament in 2020, also looked like a top team. It featured people like Dayot Upamecano and Christopher Nkunku, and was supervised by Julian Nagelsmann, the flag bearer of the first post-Pep Guardiola coaching work.

Villarreal, on the other hand, has no vision of the future. The core of the Unai Emery team is dominated by Gerard Moreno, Yeremi Pino, Alfonso Pedraza and especially Pau Torres.

Apart from the 19-year-old Pino, no one is very young, not in the sense of football. Even Torres, the club’s locally sourced jewel, is 25 years old, which means he’s unlikely to incite the kind of nutritional frenzy de de Ligt caused in 2019 among the top predators in the transition market.

Among its graduates, Villarreal gives the impression that it is a vintage Premier League boy, whose team is endowed with faces that are vaguely familiar to short-lived fans of English football. There’s Vicente Iborra, a 34-year-old midfielder who struggled to make an impact in Leicester City, and Pervis Estupiñán, a young Ecuadorian leftist who sniffed for a while at a large Watford loan factory.

Étienne Capoue, 33, spent six years on Vicarage Road establishing himself as a rare constant on Watford’s team, defined by constant change. Liverpool released Alberto Moreno with a free transfer. Francis Coquelin first appeared in Arsenal. Dani Parejo had a short time in Queens Park Rangers. Arnaut Danjuma had flickered and shook Bournemouth.

And then there is the Tottenham contingent: Juan Foyth, the defender who was lost; Serge Aurier, same; and Giovani Lo Celso, an extravagantly talented midfielder who found himself in the cold after Antonio Conte arrived as Spurs manager at the end of last year.

Even Emery returned to Spain, of course, after being replaced by Arsène Wenger at Arsenal. His team in Villarreal, which lost to Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals, which blocked Liverpool’s way to the third Champions League final in five years, is built on the so-called Premier League failures.

People familiar with Villarreal’s strategy say it is not a deliberate policy. The club’s sports director, Miguel Ángel Tena, and its CEO, Fernando Roig Negueroles – and the president’s son – have not set out to screen out those who are being pushed aside by the Premier League’s wasteful consumption frenzy.

Instead, there has been some opportunism. When Emery needed a physically imposing and technically skilled midfielder halfway through last season, he remembered that Capoue had impressed him during his stay in England. Capoue, who has admitted that he does not watch football, did not even know where Villarreal was when the offer came; he was simply touched by Emery’s faith in him.

Danjuma was another manager-recommended contract: Villarreal’s analysts had never watched him when Emery suggested that after Villarreal won the European League last season, the team should pay around $ 20 million for a player who had just fallen with Bournemouth. . However, the club paid a fee. Villarreal now believes that Danjuma, its star, could one day earn $ 100 million.

Others have benefited from the club’s eidetic memory. Villarreal has long had ties with South America in general and Argentina in particular: when he last reached the semi-finals of the Champions League (2006), it was with a team of Boca Juniors. Foyth and Lo Celso have long been selected by its intelligence network.

Villarreal was unable to compete for the first time with money from England – or Paris St.-Germain in the case of Lo Celso – but the club knows well enough that football can always be a second chance, especially given how quickly England clubs are throwing players away.

It is this insight that has enabled Emery not only to offer Villarreal’s first major honor – last year’s European League – but to take the team 180 minutes away from the biggest game of all: knowing that the product may have an alternative purpose is more important than the packaging.

And it is precisely this approach that may not make Villarreal as appealing or exciting as Monaco or Ajax, perhaps making this story a little more mimicable, a little more inspiring in an era dominated by both superclubs and increasingly financial Premier League power.

Monaco’s success was largely based on the unprecedented talent of its chief Luis Campos. Ajax’s was a tribute to the club’s great gift of growing and promoting promises. But both also contained the trace elements of lightning strikes: difficult – if not impossible – to repeat or repeat.

Villarreal, however, offers a template to follow, a vision of how clubs could thrive without Premier League funding or the weight of continental European giants. This shows that it is possible to grow strong from party relics and thrive in an increasingly anglocentric ecosystem, bearing in mind that the attractiveness of a product depends on its use.

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