In the steepest part of the Basque coast, in the jungle valleys of the Urumea, the Bidasoa, the Oria and the Urola, a group of coaches has emerged that is shaking up European football. Imanol Alguacil, head of an epoch-making Real Sociedad; Xabi Alonso, leader of the Bundesliga with Leverkusen; Andoni Iraola, who dismantled United with Bournemouth at Old Trafford (0-3) on Saturday; Unai Emery, coach of Aston Villa, revelation of the Premier League, and Mikel Arteta, until this matchday first classified with Arsenal and since yesterday unhorsed to second place at Villa Park to the glory of their countryman. Under Emery, Villa won 1-0, won their 15th consecutive win at their stadium – a Birmingham club record – and moved into third, two points behind new leaders Liverpool.
Emiliano Martínez, Diego Carlos, Ezri Konsa Ngoyo (Matthew Cash, min. 66), Pau Torres, Digne (Álex Moreno, min. 77), McGinn, Leon Bailey (Moussa Diaby, min. 45), Boubacar Kamara (Leander Dendoncker, min. 66), Douglas Luiz, Tielemans (Jacob Ramsey, min. 56) and Ollie Watkins
David Raya, William Saliba, Ben White, Zinchenko (Reiss Nelson, min. 93), Gabriel, Odegaard, Declan Rice, Kai Havertz, Gabriel Jesus (Eddie Nketiah, min. 81), Bukayo Saka and Martinelli (Trossard, min. 69)
Goals 1-0 min. 6: McGinn.
Arbitrator Jarred Gillett
Yellow cards Zinchenko (min. 28), Digne (min. 52), Douglas Luiz (min. 62), McGinn (min. 72), Declan Rice (min. 77) and Diego Carlos (min. 87)
"I've never had a 15-match winning streak in my career," Emery said after the match. "And it's going to be very difficult for him to get it again."
Not in Bizkaia, not in Álava, not in Navarre. All five were born and educated within the confines of Gipuzkoa, to the fascination of analysts in search of esoteric coincidences. If there is a hidden pattern that explains the situation, in addition to the common geographical destiny, the answer should be ventured by the Toulouse master Juanma Lillo, one of the patriarchs of football in the region, Pep Guardiola's right-hand man on the City bench. But when consulted, the oracle does not take long to issue its verdict: "Coincidence!"
Mikel Etxarri, the longest-serving teacher at the Gipuzkoa Federation's School of Coaches and former sporting director of Real Sociedad, knows first-hand all the members of the saga. "If you take a point on the map and make a circle with a radius of 40 kilometers, you find the place where they all grew up," he says. "Julen Lopetegui was from Asteasu; Xabi de Tolosa; Unai de Fuenterrabía; Imanol de Orio; Iraola de Usurbil. The only one who was born in San Sebastian is Arteta."
Spirit of the cooperative
"As coaches, they have nothing in common," says Etxarri. "Everyone formed themselves. But as people they are part of a particular culture. Life in Gipuzkoa is non-stop. In immigration, in industry, where societies are formed. Here in Mondragón, cooperativism took root. There is a foundation of solidarity, of camaraderie, of having to work together for a common and economic good, which is a very important value of football. Everything is done for money here. Even in the pediment. It's effort and competition compensated with money. All this is integrated into the education of the Basques and also into football. It's survival. This culture that children nurture is the only explanation I see for the appearance of so many good coaches in Gipuzkoa".
Coach of the Basque Country for 16 years, Etxarri does not hide his preferences. "The one I worked with the most in the field was Imanol," he recalls. "Not even if I was drunk would I have believed that Imanol was going to be a coach! He was a shy, introverted boy, he spoke very little, he was a good guy. And then you discover that as a coach he has character, vision, command..."
"I had Unai for three years when I was coaching Real B," says Etxarri. "He was one of those I liked: argumentative. I'd answer you right away. Those are the players who make you grow as a coach because they make you doubt what you're telling them. Arteta spent a year with us at Real Madrid but we didn't have much of a relationship. He's more introverted. Unlike the others, he didn't practically make a life of football in Gipuzkoa".
Emery beat Arteta on Saturday at Villa Park. From the outset, the most senior manager's plan was to put pressure on Arsenal to isolate Odegaard. The Norwegian midfielder is by far the player with the greatest ability to guide his team's play under pressure. Between McGinn, Douglas and Kamara, Villa took care to surround him so that he did not receive comfortably in hot areas. The ball went more through the feet of Rice, or Zinchenko, overwhelmed and unsupported. As Havertz did not offer to build but to get away from space, Arsenal stumbled before reaching the final third of the pitch. Conditioned by the tactics of their rivals, the team that led the championship in recent weeks lost rhythm and touch because they never occupied the places where their creativity emerges with continuity. McGinn's goal after a dizzying counterattack, in the 7th minute, resulted in the final 1-0.
Alonso: "I learned it at home"
The day secured Villa in third place in the standings – City are five points behind them and with a game in hand – and cemented Emery's reputation as the author of the most eye-catching adventure of the season so far in England. After knocking out City 1-0 last Wednesday, Emery had the pleasure of interrupting Arsenal's five-game winning streak. The club that sacked him in 2019 has signed players worth more than €800 million since then. In the same period, Villa have not exceeded 500 million in signings. The templates reflect an inequality. The cunning of the coach from Fuenterrabía saved the step.
Xabi Alonso, who visits Stuttgart today to defend the Bundesliga lead against Bayern (thrashed 5-1 by Eintracht), has won 19 games and drawn just two this season. From the continent, the Toulouse native attends the roar produced by his countrymen in the Premier League. When Jorge Valdano asked him why there are so many Gipuzkoans on the benches, he made his conjecture thinking of his father Periko, who, like him, started out as a reference at La Real and ended up as a coach. "It's a lot about character," he said; "For looking at the collective and wanting to shoulder the responsibility of thinking about what is best. I learned it right at home."
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