Unai Emery and the ‘legion’ of non-elite-team specialists

Unai Emery and his unusual success have established him as one of the non-elite-team specialist managers in the top leagues.

Emery once again steals the spotlight in the Premier League this season as his team, Aston Villa, is currently sitting in the top four. It is their first since the EPL era. So far, they have defeated Arsenal and Manchester City. The Villans could compete in the reformed Champions League in 2024/25.

The former Valencia manager has transformed Emiliano Martínez and company from relegation strugglers to title contenders. Last season, Emery helped them finish seventh and qualify for the UEFA Europa Conference League this season.

His success in Birmingham appears to have cemented his image as a non-elite-team specialist manager. The Spanish manager is known for guiding non-giant sides to victory, as he did with Valencia, Sevilla, and Villarreal. From 2010 to 2012, he led Los Ches to a place in the Champions League for three consecutive seasons. In Sevilla, the former Almeria manager won the Europa League three years in a row, from 2014 to 2016. He even won another one for The Yellow Submarine in 2021, which is their first and currently only ever silverware in history. He also led them to Champions League semifinal in 2022

Nevertheless, Emery has failed to impress the fans while at the helm of the elite teams. His reign at PSG was more notorious for their humiliating 6-1 loss against Barcelona in the Champions League back in 2017, despite winning quadruple domestic titles in 2018. He was also trophyless with the Gunners and Russian giant Spartak Moscow before getting sacked.

Working for an elite team undoubtedly presents more challenges for the manager. Handling a star-studded squad to the bigger pressure to constantly win, the fans’ high expectations for silverware, the management’s lack of patience, and limited control and support for the long-term project can be considerable factors. Such conditions may not suit peculiar figures like Emery and those with unique profiles. Here are some of the notable non-elite-team specialists in the top league.

David Moyes

The current West Ham boss is certainly included on the list. He was the key figure in Everton’s consistent form during his 11-year spell from 2002 to 2013. Moyes led the Toffees to finish within the top ten in nine seasons, including sitting fourth in the 2004/05 campaign, the club’s highest in the Premier League era. At that time, Tim Cahill and co qualified for the Champions League playoffs, but lost to Manuel Pellegrini’s Villarreal. Everton also managed to reach the FA Cup final in 2009, their first since lifting the trophy in 1995, before losing to Chelsea in the final.

Unfortunately, the Scottish gaffer could not replicate his success at Manchester United. Despite being referred directly by Sir Alex Ferguson, Moyes even failed to finish his season debut at Old Trafford. He was eventually replaced by the caretaker, Ryan Giggs.

Nevertheless, the former Preston North End manager proved his worth again during his second spell at West Ham. He guided them to the Europa League semifinal in the 2021/22 campaign, followed by winning the Europa Conference League last season, The Hammers’ first notable continental silverware since clinching the Cup Winners Cup in 1965.

Roy Hodgson

The current Crystal Palace manager is the next one on the list. Hodgson has been well known for his great reputation in Northern Europe, particularly in Sweden, where he began his managerial career. Back in the 1970s, the former Halmstad BK and Malmö manager had a significant influence on Swedish football with the zonal marking and 4-4-2 formation.

At club level, Hodgson was relatively more successful with non-elite sides such as Blackburn Rovers, Fulham, and West Bromwich Albion. He led Fulham to finish sixth in 1998, seventh in 2009, and tenth in 2012, respectively. The Craydon-born gaffer was even able to help the Cottagers advance to the Europa League final in 2010 before suffering a narrow defeat in extra time against Atlético Madrid.

On the international stage, he helped Switzerland qualify for the World Cup 1994 and the Euro 1996, which was their first major competition in 30 years. Hodgson even guided La Nati to progress to the round of 16 but, lost 3-0 to Spain with the young Luis Enrique and Pep Guardiola in it. He almost replicated his success in Finland, as they missed the EURO 2008 final round by just three points in the qualifiers, elevating Jussi Jasklainen and co to 33rd place in FIFA rank, the highest in Finnish football history.

Unfortunately, Roy Hodgson was never meant to succeed with the elite sides. He failed for Internazionale, Liverpool, and the England national team. He was even dismissed by the Reds in the middle of the 2010–11 season.

Christophe Galtier

The French gaffer does have a reputation for lifting low-and-mid-table teams to success. He did it with Saint-Étienne, Lille, and Nice. Galtier brought Saint-Étienne from avoiding relegation in 2009 to consistently finishing in the top ten during his eight-year spell. He also won the Coupe de la Ligue in 2013, their first silverware in 32 years. The current Qatar’s Al Duhail boss even won Ligue 1 in 2021 with Lille after being the runners-up in 2019. In Nice, Galtier guided them to sit fifth and advance to the Coupe de France final in the 2021/22 campaign.

Such accolades did not seem sufficient to help him thrive in PSG. The former Marseille man did clinch the Ligue 1 title in 2023 but had a disappointing campaign in the Champions League despite having Kylian Mbappé, Neymar, and Lionel Messi in the squad.

Claudio Ranieri

He is probably one of the most underappreciated managers in football history. Ranieri might be more well-suited for the non-elite sides due to his notable stints in Fiorentina, Valencia, Sampdoria, and, surely, Leicester City. The Tinkerman won the Coppa Italia and the Italian Super Cup in 1996 for La Viola, their latest major trophy. In Valencia, he won the Copa del Rey in 1999 and guided them to stay in the top four. Furthermore, he brought Samp to safety in the top flight in 2020 before lifting them to ninth in the following season.

His most memorable season was definitely 2015/16, when he won the Premier League title with Leicester City. Ranieri managed to lead Jamie Vardy and co to become one of the most unlikely champions in English football history. It was an unbelievable Cinderella story since the Foxes barely avoided relegation in the previous season.

However, his spells at big clubs were simply forgotten. The current Cagliari boss never impressed the fans or the management while taking charge of AS Roma, Juventus, Inter Milan, or Chelsea since he failed to deliver any silverware for them at the end of the season.

Otto Rehhagel

This German former manager cannot be overlooked when discussing minnows’ successful campaign. He has done it at both the club and international levels.

Rehhagel won the DFB Pokal in 1980 for Fortuna Dusseldorf and guided Werder Bremen to clinch two Bundesliga titles in 1988 and 1993. That also includes success in the DFB Pokal in 1991 and 1994, and the UEFA Cup Winners Cup in 1993. He also helped Kaiserslautern instantly win the German top flight in 1998, despite being the newly promoted side at the time.

Yet, his most incredible triumph was at EURO 2004 as he led Greece to lift their first and only international trophy. He inspired the side to ease past the defending champions France and the favourite Czech Republic at the knockout stage. Then, the Greeks stunned the host and star-studded team, Portugal, twice at the opener and the final. The former defender guided them to the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa, their only second World Cup appearance after USA 1994.

Sadly, his spells with two German elites, Bayern and Dortmund, ended trophyless. Rehhagel only led the latter finish at the midtable in the late 1970s. His reign in Bavaria even ended prematurely due to being relieved before the season was completed.

Honourable mentions:

Those names are certainly not the only ones befallen by this so-called distinguished ‘legion’. Several other managers could be labelled the same in the future, even if they are still proving that they can succeed anywhere they go. The likes of Mauricio Pocchettino, Julen Lopetegui, Luciano Spalletti, Marco Rose, or even Julian Nagelsmann could be the next ones in line.

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