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How Villarreal’s Eye for Value Cracked the Champions League Code


An awesome approach to understand the way it is that Villarreal — a soccer team from a town of only 50,000 souls, playing in a stadium that may hold a little bit lower than half of them — finds itself within the semifinals of the Champions League is to contemplate the cleansing products aisle of Spain’s leading supermarket.

The supermarket, Mercadona, and the soccer club are corporate cousins. Fernando Roig, Villarreal’s president and benefactor, has a minority stake in Mercadona, Spain’s largest retail chain, however it is his brother, Juan, the bulk shareholder, who’s credited with turning the latter right into a staple case study for business schools world wide.

Central to that approach is the concept that the shoppers are ultimately in charge. They’re those, in spite of everything, who determine what their stores should stock. To make sure the corporate is meeting their needs, Mercadona, occasionally, invites a collection of its most reliable customers to participate in a testing laboratory.

These are held at 10 stores around Spain, and every is dedicated to a selected strand of the business: pet care, for instance, or snacks or personal hygiene. Customers are asked not only to supply feedback on various products — the packaging, the pricing, the taste, the smell — but to advise Mercadona’s staff on how they use them.

That was how Mercadona discovered that while numerous people were buying white wine vinegar as a condiment, they were also using it as a stain remover. “So that they created a cleansing product made with vinegar,” Miguel Blanco, a business economics professor at King Juan Carlos University, once told a business journal from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Mercadona, like Villarreal, understands that the appeal of a product relies on the way it is used.

Villarreal doesn’t, at first glance, follow the blueprint laid down by the handful of teams from outside the exclusive cabal of fabulously wealthy clubs who’ve gate-crashed the Champions League semifinals in recent times.

Monaco in 2017 and Ajax in 2019 felt a little bit like glimpses into soccer’s near future. It was in Monaco’s run past Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund that Kylian Mbappé, Bernardo Silva and Fabinho first pierced the game’s broader consciousness. Ajax’s defeats of Real Madrid and Juventus on its approach to the semifinals two years later helped turn Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt into stars.

RB Leipzig, which made the ultimate 4 in that strange, ghostly pandemic tournament in 2020, appeared like a team from the innovative, too. It featured the likes of Dayot Upamecano and Christopher Nkunku, and was guided by Julian Nagelsmann, the standard-bearer for coaching’s first post-Pep Guardiola generation.

Villarreal, then again, doesn’t feel like a vision of what’s to come back. The core of Unai Emery’s team is homegrown, with the rise of Gerard Moreno, Yeremi Pino, Alfonso Pedraza and, specifically, Pau Torres testament to the outstanding work of the club’s widely admired academy.

Other than Pino, 19, though, none are especially young, not in soccer terms. Even Torres, the club’s locally sourced jewel, is 25, meaning he’s unlikely to encourage the form of feeding frenzy among the many transfer market’s apex predators that de Ligt generated in 2019.

As a substitute, around that cadre of graduates, Villarreal gives the look of being something of a Premier League vintage store, its team stocked with faces vaguely familiar to cursory followers of English soccer. There’s Vicente Iborra, a 34-year-old midfielder who struggled to make an impact at Leicester City, and Pervis Estupiñán, the young Ecuadorean left back who noodled around the nice Watford loan factory for some time.

Étienne Capoue, 33, spent six years at Vicarage Road, establishing himself as a rare constant on a Watford team defined by everlasting change. Alberto Moreno was released on a free transfer by Liverpool. Francis Coquelin first emerged at Arsenal. Dani Parejo had a brief spell at Queens Park Rangers. Arnaut Danjuma had flickered and sputtered at Bournemouth.

After which there may be the Tottenham contingent: Juan Foyth, a defender who had lost his way; Serge Aurier, ditto; and Giovani Lo Celso, an extravagantly gifted midfielder who found himself out within the cold upon Antonio Conte’s arrival as manager at Spurs late last yr.

Even Emery, in fact, returned to Spain after being given the somewhat daunting task of replacing Arsène Wenger at Arsenal. His team at Villarreal, the one which eliminated Bayern Munich within the quarterfinals, the one which blocks Liverpool’s path to a 3rd Champions League final in five years, has been constructed on the Premier League’s waifs and strays.

Those acquainted with Villarreal’s strategy say that will not be a deliberate policy. Miguel Ángel Tena, the club’s sporting director, and Fernando Roig Negueroles, its chief executive — and the son of the president — haven’t got down to sift through those forged aside by the Premier League’s wanton, wasteful consumerism.

There has, as an alternative, been a level of opportunism. When, halfway through last season, Emery needed a physically imposing, technically adroit central midfielder, he remembered being impressed by Capoue while he was in England. Capoue, who has admitted that he doesn’t watch soccer, didn’t even know where Villarreal was when the offer got here; he was just touched by Emery’s faith in him.

Danjuma was one other signing really helpful by the manager: Villarreal’s analysts had never watched him when Emery suggested, within the aftermath of Villarreal’s winning the Europa League last season, that the team should pay $20 million or so for a player who had just been relegated with Bournemouth. The club, though, paid the fee. Villarreal now believes Danjuma, its breakout star, could in the future fetch $100 million.

Others have benefited from the club’s eidetic memory. Villarreal has long nurtured connections in South America typically and in Argentina specifically: When it last reached a Champions League semifinal, in 2006, it was with a team stocked with Boca Juniors alumni. Its scouting network picked out Foyth and Lo Celso way back.

Villarreal couldn’t compete with the cash on offer from England — or Paris St.-Germain, in Lo Celso’s case — after they first got here to Europe, however the club knows well enough that soccer can all the time bring a second likelihood, particularly given how quickly English clubs, specifically, discard players.

It’s that insight that has allowed Emery not only to deliver the primary major honor in Villarreal’s history — last yr’s Europa League — but to brush the team to inside 180 minutes of the largest game of all of them: the knowledge that a product can have another purpose, a more significant role, than the one stated on the packaging.

And it’s that approach that, while it could not make Villarreal as compelling or as exciting as Monaco or Ajax, perhaps it makes its story a little bit more imitable, a little bit more inspiring in an age dominated each by the superclubs and increasingly by the financial might of the Premier League.

Monaco’s success was built, largely, on the unparalleled eye for talent of its chief scout, Luis Campos. Ajax’s was a tribute to the club’s unmatched gift for nurturing and fostering promise. But each contained trace elements of lightning strikes, too: difficult — if not unattainable — to repeat or replicate.

Villarreal, though, offers a template that is perhaps followed, a vision for a way clubs without the funds of the Premier League or the load of the giants of continental Europe might have the option to thrive. It demonstrates that it is feasible to grow strong on the scraps from the feast, to thrive in soccer’s increasingly Anglocentric ecosystem, by remembering that the appeal of a product relies on its use.

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