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

Villarreal – a soccer team from a town of only 50,000 souls, playing in a stadium that can be considered cleaning 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, but is credited with turning the latter into a staple case study for business schools around the world .

Central to that approach is the idea that customers are ultimately in charge. They are the ones, after all, who decides what their stores should stock. Mercadona, every so often, invites a selection of its most reliable customers to take part in a testing laboratory.

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

Mercadona discovered that while a stain remover did not, they were also using it as a condiment. “So they created a cleaning 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 depends on how it is used.

Villarreal does not, at first glance, follow the handful of teams from outside the exclusive cabal of wealthy clubs who have gate-crashed the Champions League semifinals in recent years.

Monaco in 2017 and Ajax in 2019 felt a little 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 sport’s consciousness. Ajax’s defeats of Real Madrid and Juventus on its way to the semifinals two years later helped turn Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt into stars.

RB Leipzig, which made the final four in that strange, ghostly pandemic tournament in 2020, looks like a team from the cutting edge, too. He 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, on the other hand, it doesn’t feel like a vision of what is to come. The core of Unai Emery’s team is homegrown, with the rise of Gerard Moreno, Yeremi Pino, Alfonso Pedraza and, in particular, Pau Torres testament to the outstanding work of the club’s widely admired academy.

Apart from Pino, 19, though, none are especially young, not in soccer terms. Even Torres, the club’s locally sourced jewel, is 25, meaning he is likely to inspire the sort of feeding frenzy among the transfer market’s apex predators that de Ligt generated in 2019.

Instead, around that cadre of graduates, Villarreal gives the impression of being a Premier League vintage store, its team stocked with faces vaguely familiar to cursory followers of English soccer. There is 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 great Watford loan factory for a while.

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

And then there is the Tottenham contingent: Juan Foyth, a defender who had lost his way; Serge Aurier, ditto; and Giovani Lo Celso, the extravagantly gifted midfielder who found himself out in the cold upon Antonio Conte’s arrival at manager at Spurs late last year.

Even Emery, of course, 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 quarterfinals, the one that blocks Liverpool’s path to a third Champions League final in five years, has been built on the Premier League’s waifs and strays.

Those familiar with Villarreal’s strategy say that it’s not a deliberate policy. Miguel Ángel Tena, the club’s sporting director, and Fernando Roig Negueroles, its chief executive – and the son of the president – have not set out to do so by the Premier League’s wanton, wasteful consumerism.

There has, instead, been a degree of opportunism. When, halfway through last season, Emery needed a physically imposing, midfielder, he was remembered in Capoue while he was in England. Capoue, who admitted he didn’t watch soccer, didn’t even know where Villarreal was when the offer came; he was just touched by Emery’s faith in him.

Danjuma was another signing recommended by the manager: . The club, though, don’t pay the fee. Villarreal now considering Danjuma, its breakout star, could one day fetch $ 100 million.

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

Villarreal could not compete with the money from England – or Paris St.-Germain, in Lo Celso’s case – when they first come to Europe, but the club knows that English clubs, in particular, discard players.

It is not only possible to provide the first major honor in Villarreal’s history – last one Europa League – but that alternative purpose, a more significant role, than the one stated on the packaging.

And it may be that it does not make Villarreal as compelling or as exciting as Monaco or Ajax, it may be might of the Premier League.

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

Villarreal, though, offers a template that might follow, and the weight of the giants of continental Europe might be able to thrive. It shows that it is possible to grow strong on the scraps from the feast, to thrive in soccer’s distinctly Anglocentric ecosystem, by remembering that the appeal of a product depends on its use.

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