A An Arsenal man, a Spurs man, a Watford man and a QPR man enter the Allianz Arena. No joke: Villarreal are in the semi-finals of the Champions League. It may be the smallest city to ever see their side lift a European trophy, and the president may have said their recent victory over Bayern Munich was the greatest night in their history, an almost unfathomable feat , but they got a little help from a city 180 times bigger. A whole country, in fact.
And yes, Francis Coquelin says smiling as he lies in the sun 805 miles south of the city where he spent eight years of his life still audible in his accent, “I think it’s something who helped us.” When Villarreal beat Bayern 2-1, their entire midfield had been in London: Coquelin joined Arsenal aged 18, also spending a month at Charlton. Giovani Lo Celso is on loan from Tottenham. Étienne Capoue was also present and played more than 180 games at Watford. Dani Parejo still winces at the first tackle taken as a teenager at Queens Park Rangers.
It’s not just them. Of Villarreal’s 11 starters at Bayern, eight have been at English clubs, although Gerónimo Rulli and Pervis Estupiñán have never made appearances for Manchester City and Watford respectively. Two of the three substitutes used, Alfonso Pedraza and Serge Aurier, played there. Former Leicester midfielder Vicente Iborra and Liverpool full-back Alberto Moreno did not travel to Munich. A dozen men, nine teams. Then there is the manager, Unai Emery.
In Coquelin’s case it was Arsenal, Charlton and, he reveals, almost QPR, following a season-long loan to Freiburg where there was no connection with manager Christian Streich, but he there were lessons. “I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard and, looking back, it helped me: I realized that you can’t take everything for granted. At Arsenal, even when you weren’t playing, you felt like family, everything was fine, sometimes you just don’t push each other. Leaving and going through a difficult experience made me realize that I had to keep working.
Coquelin came here via Valencia, where he had wanted to play under manager Marcelino García Toral and in the Champions League. Robert Pires and Santi Cazorla encouraged him to join Villarreal next. “They said ‘yes, you should definitely go’ and I knew we could do something special. I don’t think I was wrong.
It’s a common theme and common ground, the country they all left behind to prepare and share their experiences. They have also been adversaries quite often. “We talk about the English connection and I watch a lot of games. Go to Turf Moor and the atmosphere is special,” says Coquelin, and if the example is inspired by Burnley being where Thierry Henry gave him the nickname Columbo – “because he said I was like a policeman , arresting everyone” – the sentiment is genuine.
“Each stadium has a little something that you only find in England: the football there is different,” he said. It is also, it turns out, useful. This is not pure coincidence; it is an increasingly conscious plan. There is money and talent in England, a surplus of footballers makes it an interesting market to find players who, in the right “ecosystem”, offered another opportunity, can perform. Which they certainly have, the success of the policy making it self-sustaining.
“The Premier League is probably the best league in the world and the physical nature helps when you go there [elsewhere]said Coquelin. “We always have a Spanish mentality playing in Spain: possession football, playing from the back. It is more at this stage of European football that it is important to have a physical and technical background.
“You see a team like Bayern: obviously technically they are good but physically they are also very strong. They would really have their place in the Premier League. And I think experience in English is something that did help us there. The manager has been there and a lot of players know what it is. Hopefully it will be an asset against Liverpool.
Emery’s stay was brief, especially compared to Arsene Wenger. “You are talking about two people in love with football. Two great managers,” says Coquelin. “They know everything. I learned a lot. I was 10 years at Arsenal and I went there so young, so Wenger was like a second father. Do you still hear his voice sometimes? Coquelin smiled. “To be honest, Arsene was not someone who talked a lot. If you wanted to talk, you knocked on his door. But just with the eye contact, you knew if he was happy with you.
Emery is more intense. Another smile, slightly conspiratorial this time. “Yes a little bit.” Did Arsenal lack patience with him? “In many places,” Coquelin replies. “Look at Paris Saint-Germain: look at what they are doing now and it’s not better than when he was there. Unfortunately, football has no patience. For Unai, I think the barrier of the language was difficult. He has to get his message across to his players. He does it easily here; it was more difficult at PSG and Arsenal. He has huge credit here and deserves it.
“The whole team is behind him. He really works the details and the video is a big part of that. It helps: we watched very closely how Bayern played against Salzburg and now we are in the semi-finals.
There was also an emotional element, with Parejo citing Bayern’s assumption that they would go through with Julian Nagelsmann hoping to settle the first-leg draw. “When you spit up, it goes back down,” said the former QPR midfielder.
“When you see something like that, it gives you a bit more bite,” Coquelin says. “It was a little lack of humility, I would say. I can understand it a bit: when you’re the biggest team, you don’t do it on purpose but sometimes it’s natural to think: ‘Well, we’re playing against the easiest team.” And like Dani said, you don’t know what can happen.
“They achieved in the first leg, because we could have scored three or four. I thought they would think, ‘Maybe we talked a bit too much. But then they did the exact same thing. So they didn’t learn the lesson. And all the chances we didn’t take in the first leg, we took them in the second leg. We had one and scored it. That’s why they have been eliminated.
“But you go to the Allianz and it’s always difficult, you know. Especially when you miss so many chances in the first leg. I was a little… not scared, because I was convinced that we would have a chance, but you think, ‘I hope we don’t regret it.’ Luckily it wasn’t, but we have to learn from that because I think Liverpool are stronger than Bayern. We have to take a chance because in two minutes they can punish you. They are in for a huge moment.
The same goes for a familiar figure, the one Coquelin faced throughout his youth, including the European Under-19 Championship final 12 years ago now: “The best player in our generation 91 with Eden Hazard. We had a lot of battles and it will be another Wednesday with Thiago Alcântara. He and Hazard were the best players of my generation and you see his career with Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Liverpool. It settles, plays very well.
“There is something in the Spanish culture, the genetics: small players who have to adapt, small midfielders who are delicate with this culture, the philosophy of keeping the ball, of playing. Then there is his family [genetics]: his father and his brother, a family of footballers.
As well as Thiago, Coquelin offers a catalog of Liverpool qualities that speaks of admiration. He insists that Anfield is truly ‘different’, ‘the atmosphere between the team and the fans is something you don’t really get in football’.
He begins: “Liverpool is probably the team that presses the best. I don’t really see where their weaknesses are. They attack so well and now they have [Ibrahima] Konaté in competition with [Joël] Matip. Left-back and right-back are like forwards. They have two players fighting for the Ballon d’Or, [Mohamed] Salah and [Sadio] Mane. Now they’ve signed Luis Díaz and he’s settling in like he’s been there for five years.
“It’s the best team in Europe but, as a footballer, what do you want? To play this kind of game, go around Europe. We have a dream in mind to play in a Champions League final. We know it’s hard but the whole team, the whole city, is excited. It’s difficult but we have confidence: we eliminated Bayern Munich and Juventus and we are going there to compete. We’re not going there just to watch Anfield.
Well, of course not. After all, it’s no joke and most of them have been there several times.