How Villarreal’s eye for valor has cracked the Champions League code

A great way to understand why Villarreal – a football team from a country of only 50,000 souls, who play in a stadium that can hold just under half – find themselves in the Champions League semi-finals is to consider the product lane for the cleaning of the main Spanish supermarket.

The supermarket, the Mercadona and the football team are corporate cousins. Fernando Roig, president and beneficiary of Villarreal, has a minority stake in Mercadona, Spain’s largest retail chain, but it is his brother, Juan, the majority shareholder, who is credited with transforming the latter. in a pivotal case study for business schools around the world.

At the heart of that approach is the idea that customers are ultimately in command. After all, it is they who determine what their stores should stock. To ensure that the company meets their needs, Mercadona occasionally invites a selection of its most trusted customers to participate in a test laboratory.

These are held in 10 shops around Spain, and each is dedicated to a particular line of business: pet care, for example, or snacks or personal hygiene. Customers are asked not only to offer feedback on the various products – the packaging, the price, the taste, the smell – but to advise the Mercadona staff on how to use them.

Thus it was that Mercadona discovered that while many people bought white wine vinegar as a condiment, they also used it as a stain remover. “So they created a vinegar-based cleaning product,” Miguel Blanco, professor of business administration at King Juan Carlos University, he once said in a Wharton School business journal of the University of Pennsylvania. Mercadona, like Villarreal, knows that a product’s appeal depends on how it is used.

Villarreal, at first glance, are not following the plan established by the handful of teams outside the exclusive cabal of fabulously wealthy clubs that have crashed the Champions League semi-finals in recent years.

Monaco in 2017 and Ajax in 2019 seemed a bit like glimpses into the near future of football. It was in Monaco’s run beyond Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund that Kylian Mbappé, Bernardo Silva and Fabinho first pierced the wider consciousness of the sport. Ajax’s defeats to Real Madrid and Juventus to the semi-finals two years later helped turn Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt into stars.

Even RB Leipzig, who reached the bottom four in that weird and spooky pandemic tournament in 2020, looked like a cutting edge squad. It featured the likes of Dayot Upamecano and Christopher Nkunku, and was led by Julian Nagelsmann, the flagship of the first generation of post-Pep Guardiola coaching.

Villarreal, on the other hand, don’t feel like a vision of what’s to come. The core of Unai Emery’s squad is homegrown, with the rise of Gerard Moreno, Yeremi Pino, Alfonso Pedraza and, most notably, Pau Torres, testifying to the outstanding work of the club’s widely admired academy.

Apart from Pino, 19, however, no one is particularly young, not in terms of football. Torres, the club’s locally-sourced jeweler, is also 25, which means he’s unlikely to inspire the sort of frenzy among market-high predators that de Ligt spawned in 2019.

Instead, around that group of graduates, Villarreal gives the impression of being some sort of vintage Premier League store, their squad stocked with faces vaguely familiar to the superficial followers of English football. There’s Vicente Iborra, a 34-year-old midfielder who struggled to make an impact at Leicester City, and Pervis Estupiñán, the young Ecuadorian left-back who struggled for a while at Watford’s big loan factory.

Étienne Capoue, 33, spent six years on Vicarage Road, establishing himself as a rare constant in a Watford team characterized by permanent change. Alberto Moreno was released on a free transfer from Liverpool. Francis Coquelin first appeared at Arsenal. Dani Parejo had a short stint at Queens Park Rangers. Arnaut Danjuma had shivered and stammered in Bournemouth.

And then there is the Tottenham contingent: Juan Foyth, defender who had lost his way; Serge Aurier, ditto; and Giovani Lo Celso, an extravagant and gifted midfielder who found himself in the cold on the arrival of Antonio Conte as manager at Spurs late last year.

Emery, of course, has also returned to Spain after being given the somewhat daunting task of replacing Arsène Wenger at Arsenal. His team at Villarreal, the one that eliminated Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals, the one that blocked Liverpool’s path to the third Champions League final in five years, was built on the grids and strays of the Premier League.

Those familiar with Villarreal’s strategy say it is not a deliberate policy. Miguel Ángel Tena, the club’s sporting director, and Fernando Roig Negueroles, its chief executive – and the president’s son – have not decided to screen those who have been sidelined by the unbridled and wasteful consumerism of the Premier League.

Instead, there was a certain opportunism. When Emery needed a physically imposing and technically skilled central midfielder midway through last season, he recalled getting hit by Capoue while in England. Capoue, who admitted not watching football, didn’t even know where Villarreal were when the offer came; he was only touched by Emery’s faith in him.

Danjuma was another coach recommended buy: Villarreal analysts had never seen him when Emery suggested, in the aftermath of Villarreal’s Europa League victory last season, that the team should have paid around $ 20 million for a player who had just been relegated with Bournemouth. The club, however, paid the dues. Villarreal now believes that Danjuma, his blockbuster star, could one day make $ 100 million.

Others benefited from the club’s eidetic memory. Villarreal have long nurtured ties in South America in general and Argentina in particular: when they reached the final Champions League semi-final in 2006, they were with a team stocked with Boca Juniors alumni. His scouting network spotted Foyth and Lo Celso a long time ago.

Villarreal couldn’t compete with the money offered by England – or Paris St.-Germain, in Lo Celso’s case – when they first arrived in Europe, but the club knows well enough that football can always bring a second chance, especially given the speed with which English clubs, in particular, discard players.

It is that intuition that allowed Emery not only to deliver the first great honor in Villarreal’s history – last year’s Europa League – but to bring the team to 180 minutes from the biggest game of all: the knowledge that a product may have alternative purpose, a more significant role than that reported on the packaging.

And it is that approach that, while it may not make Villarreal as compelling or exciting as Monaco or Ajax, perhaps makes their history a little more imitable, a little more inspiring in an era dominated by both super clubs and increasingly from the finance power of the Premier League.

Monaco’s success was built, in large part, on the unmatched eye for talent of its scout leader, Luis Campos. Ajax was a tribute to the club’s unrivaled gift of nurturing and promoting the promise. But both also contained trace elements of lightning: difficult, if not impossible, to repeat or replicate.

Villarreal, however, offer a model that could be followed, a vision of how clubs without Premier League finances or the weight of continental European giants might be able to thrive. It demonstrates that it is possible to grow strong on the scraps of the party, to thrive in the increasingly anglocentric ecosystem of football, remembering that the appeal of a product depends on its use.