Unai Emery returned to the Premier League with a chip on his shoulder, with plenty to prove and with a terribly difficult mission of managing struggling Aston Villa. Yet, using clever tactics, Villa are one of the top teams at the start of the 2023/24 campaign.
Using the box midfield shape, daring progressive passes and a robust defensive structure, Emery has turned the Villans into unlikely European competition challengers.
Today we look at the tactics of Unai Emery that got Aston Villa here and just what happens next.
Unai Emery’s Pre-Aston Villa Career
Unai Emery is, depending on who you ask, one of the most underrated managers in top football. While some remember Emery primarily for his ill-fated tenure as manager of Arsenal, the Spaniard has won Ligue 1 titles with Paris Saint-Germain and four Europa League trophies, three with Sevilla and one with Villareal.
Emery also enjoyed a respectable, if uneventful, playing career. He was active during the 1990s, most often in the Secunda Division, spending the most amount of playing time with Toledo, a team from Castille-La Mancha.
The first thing of note about Emery is that he is a results-oriented manager. He has won trophies with teams that had very limited budgets as well as nearly limitless budgets. Emery is not tied to one set philosophy either in setting up his teams or in terms of recruitment. He plays to the strengths of his personnel.
Emery is a manager obsessed with minute details. He tends to have his teams set up in a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 formation. His teams are balanced. They tend to attack through the centre of the pitch. Defensive midfielders and central defenders work together to form a box shape. They must coordinate in setting up attacks or stopping the opposition.
Against more powerful opposition, Aston Villa, like Emery’s other teams, employs quick counterattacks. Against opponents who do not have the same level of technical skill, his teams try to boss possession.
Villa is usually brave in its pressing. They adopt a high press. Emery’s teams have always featured quick, strong defenders. In fact, the one constant when it comes to recruitment is a focus on physical strength.
Formation and tactics
Unai Emery has sparked a remarkable transformation at Aston Villa since taking the reins at Villa Park just before the World Cup. In a short span, Villa has risen to become one of the Premier League’s top teams under his guidance, consistently competing with the likes of Manchester City and Arsenal in terms of points earned.
This dramatic shift in fortunes has set them apart from the Aston Villa managed by Steven Gerrard. Frankly speaking, that version of Villa was dangerously flirting with the EPL relegation.
Aston Villa in Attack
Unai Emery encourages patience and composure during the build-up phase, with the option to play long when the opportunity for a direct pass arises. Ollie Watkins serves as the focal point in attack, capable of holding up the ball or making runs behind the defence, offering versatility in the build-up.
In settled possession, Aston Villa transitions to a 2-4-3-1 system. The two central defenders and holding midfielders maintain their box shape, while full-backs offer width and overlapping runs. The wide midfielders and one forward drop deeper to occupy central positions, creating opportunities for intricate play between the lines. Ollie Watkins occupies the central defenders, potentially exploiting space behind the defensive line.
Emery encourages the isolation of wide players, allowing them to engage in one-on-one situations against their markers. This tactic is particularly effective for players like Villa’s wingers, who possess the dribbling skills and creative flair needed to beat defenders and deliver dangerous crosses into the opponent’s box.
Villa’s full-backs are key to their attacking prowess. They provide width by making overlapping runs from deep positions. Meanwhile, the team’s central midfielders play a crucial role in initiating attacks. They are responsible for distributing passes to wide areas and creating openings between the lines of the opposition’s defence.
Aston Villa intermittently presses high within the opponent’s third, particularly following deadball situations, to create turnovers and goal-scoring opportunities. Their compact 4-4-2 mid-block forces opponents to play around or over the block, maintaining a high defensive line. The image below illustrates this defensive approach.
Moreover, Aston Villa employs a 6-2-2 low block in certain situations to safeguard against direct balls into the box. This defensive setup ensures there’s always a spare defender to handle challenging situations and prevents opposition teams from achieving numerical superiority in wide areas.
Emery and Villa’s Futures
Unai Emery is one of the most successful managers in world football. His sole quasi-failure was the brief stint managing Arsenal. What he is now achieving at Aston Villa helps prove any naysayers wrong about his ability to manage a Premier League side.
At the time of speaking, Villa’s potential for success is tremendous. Statistically, these things don’t last forever. EPL teams, outside of the Big Six are expected to have slumps in form. Furthermore, Emery is not a coach who spends too much time at any single club.
For the moment, however, the Villans are treated to a potentially marvellous era, and so are neutral fans.