Unai Emery’s first 6 months at Villa have been nothing short of a revelation. Prior to the Spaniard’s first game in charge, Villa were 17th. Since then, Emery has implemented an effective style of play and most importantly got the best out of these talented players. We now sit 6th place in the Premier League, on a ten game unbeaten run of form. I thought I’d break down the style of play, and demonstrate why it’s got Villa so many points under Unai Emery.
EMERY’S VILLA SETUP
Unai Emery lines Villa up in a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1 formation. He likes his RB to play a more conservative role, whilst his LB stretches the pitch and picks up much more advanced positions. This style suits Villa perfectly - Alex Moreno is an energetic, direct LB and Ashley Young is much more effective in a more reserved role. At the age of 37, he is still contributing strongly to Villa’s success.
Next is the double pivot, consisting of Douglas Luiz and Boubacar Kamara (when the whole squad is fit). I think Emery has found a nice balance at Villa, with a destroyer (Kamara) and a player who can link the buildup to the attack (Luiz). Despite Kamara’s injuries, he’s been an excellent signing. He’s one of the best young no.6’s in the world for sure, I’m totally convinced. As for Luiz, a definite contender for player of the season. The Brazilian has flourished under Emery.
Just ahead of the double pivot lies two inverted wide players, Emery has mainly used John Mcginn and Jacob Ramsey in these areas. This again compliments Villa’s profile of players nicely as I believe both these players, especially Mcginn, play their best football in the half spaces. Their inverted positioning also enables Alex Moreno to attack the space down the left, you’ll notice how a lot of Villa’s chances over the last month have come from Moreno’s combination play and movement on the left flank.
Emiliano Buendia has been deployed just off Ollie Watkins but also been given the freedom to move across the frontline and combine with Mcginn, Ramsey, Moreno. The Argentinian’s eye for a through ball works perfectly when you’ve got an in form Ollie Watkins up top as well. Emery has adapted Watkins’ play to be more central and exploit the space beyond CB’s which has lead to his 12 goals post World Cup.
VILLA’S APPROACH TO MATCHES
Before we look into how Emery has Villa playing, it’s important we establish the style of play. Unai Emery football is not about unlimited chance creation, nor will we always keep Emiliano Martinez untroubled. So underlying numbers like xG, xGA will not be where maybe we’d like them to be - but it’s crucial to remember HOW we play. Villa are reliant on transitions (turnovers of the ball) in order to score goals - Emery likes us to win it back and free it quickly to forward runs. Against top teams especially, Villa don’t want all the ball, they are happy to sit back in their shape and attempt to hurt teams as soon as they lose the ball.
TWO SIDES TO AVFC
However, now we’re 6 months into Emery’s reign, I believe we have been exposed to two different approaches to games. The first is what I’ve already touched on, games where Villa stay compact and try to take their chances through waves of pressure, rather than sustained attacking football. For example, Chelsea (a) and Spurs (a) - both won 0-2 by Villa. We got lucky at times in both games, but ultimately Villa’s defensive setup was too hard to break down and our attacking quality showed as we took our chances.
After taking a 0-2 lead at Stamford Bridge, Villa frustrated Chelsea with their 6-2-2 defensive shape. This is where the wide players will cover the outside of the full backs which limits any penetration to our box, completely restricting the opposition. Villa have done this many times this season too, teams struggle to find pockets between our backline due to how compact we are. This approach is not necessarily good on the eye or entertaining, but it’s Emery placing full faith in his side to carry out a plan in order to steal points off the top sides.
The second approach is much more free flowing, one of pure control in the game. Over the past 13 games, Villa have had more than 50% possession in 10 out of the 13 matches. This is evidence of how much discipline Emery has instilled at Villa. Often against lower places teams, Villa control the pace of the game through our build up with CB’s and this lets our attacking players flourish. Such a difference in approach to games was seen at Villarreal under Emery too. In La Liga, they controlled possession and often accumulated a higher xG - rather than in Champions League games, where metrics like possesion, xG were lower as well as a higher PPDA (passes per defensive action. Emery's side were much more reserved and pragmatic in UCL games.
photo thanks to hto_MUFC on TikTok
This is Villa’s setup vs Bournemouth back in March. I want to draw attention upon the box midfield. Ramsey and Buendia enter very inverted, almost central, positions whilst Mcginn and Luiz help support any sort of turnover. This box would swarm the ball if we lost it, to execute an effective counter-press. The box also provides progression options for the pivot, helping us to break opposition lines.
As I’ve already mentioned, Villa’s use of Moreno is very interesting.
Signed from Real Betis in January, Moreno is a fast, pacy, direct LB who likes to dominate 1v1 scenarios. This implementation of Emery’s allows Moreno to attack the space we have created for him on the left, he is a very strong source of chance creation for the team. He’ll either look to beat his man or combine with Ramsey, with whom he has a beautiful synergy. Moreno also linked up with Watkins on multiple occasions in the 3-0 win vs Newcastle which was pure quality on show.
Unai Emery’s Aston Villa play out from the back. This isn’t like Gerrard football where we hoof long to Watkins and pray, it’s much more progressive and structured.
The CB’s show for the ball in usually quite deep positions, just ahead of them is the double pivot. The pivot supports either side of the build up through the creation of triangles around the press. For example, if the ball is played to Konsa, Luiz will shuffle over creating a triangle of Cash x Konsa x Luiz - in the hope that we can evade any press and progress the ball. This structure also majorly relies on having technically secure midfielders and composed CB’s. Mings and Konsa in particular have matured incredibly under Emery.
At the time of writing, Villa are in 7th place but Brighton (8th) have 2 games in hand. European football is still a big possibility. Regardless of whether we are competing in Europe next season, Emery has made an excellent impact at Villa Park and he’ll no doubt be equipped with the financial tools to guide us back to Europe once again.
thanks for reading, UTV!