Aston Villa had a disappointing start to the 2022-2023 season under the leadership of former Liverpool and England captain Steven Gerrard. The team managed to secure only two victories in their first 11 matches, leading to Gerrard’s dismissal by the club in October 2022.
The club then appointed Unai Emery as their new head coach, who has joined from Villarreal with the aim of turning around their disappointing start to the season. Emery brings with him a wealth of knowledge and a proven track record of success, having won multiple domestic and continental titles with his previous clubs.
Unai Emery is know for his tactical versatility and attention to details. He has coached some of the biggest clubs in Europe, including Valencia, Sevilla, Paris Saint-Germain, Villarreal and Arsenal. Emery’s coaching philosophy revolves around several key principles, which we will discuss in this article.
One of the most fundamental point of Unai Emery’s coaching philosophy is to build from the back through short passes. The goal is to get the ball from a certain situation where players know what the conditions will be, and they can progress the ball down the field in repeatable ways so that they arrive in the final third with the ball in the same place and attacking ideas in their heads.
Unai Emery on the importance of keeping ball possession and playing extra passes during the build-up phase.
“It was my philosophy 20 years ago. Try to keep possession. If we have the ball, I feel better than being without the ball. My idea is to convince players with results.” pic.twitter.com/LcyQrCRHpD
— Gaurav (@GauravAnlyst) April 9, 2023
Building up from the back is also about control and consistently playing patterns of play, which is essential for a team like Aston Villa under Emery, that wants to compete for the European spot in the Premier League. While there may be short-term benefits to playing long from goal-kicks, building up from the back offers a higher chance of controlling and winning games.
One of the down side of Emery’s deep build-up system is that the patterns of play are quite scripted and requires bravery to execute. While the system has pressure values built in, opposition managers can easily work out how to nullify it. There is a important aspect between Emery’s build-up compare to managers like Roberto De Zerbi and Mikel Arteta, who prioritise flexibility in the build-up phase to solve problems. The ability to be flexible in the build-up phase could be why he has succeeded at mid-table sides but may struggle against tougher opponents.
Importance of Transition
The concept of transition is a very important aspect of Unai Emery’s philosophy. It is not just the period of time between losing or gaining possession of the ball but also what happens after that moment. The important thing is to be prepared for what comes next. The concentration on details is crucial in this sport, as even small ones can make a big difference. Defending well tactically and knowing the rival are essential skills these days.
The importance of being able to adapt to opponents who play at the limit of the rules is very high. His Aston Villa side showcases that the concept of transition is the transition from one phase to another, and that players must train and handle these moments well whether attacking or defending.
Villa under Emery highlights the importance of having a clear game plan and being aware of the opposition’s strengths and weaknesses while maintaining offensive and defensive intensity. Emery prioritises having a strong structure while also being mobile and adaptable in possession with more compactness during defence organisation.
Defending is another important aspect of Unai Emery’s tactical setup. He is know for his low-blocks and the central compactness which provides stability for his teams to maintain a solid structure and cover spaces around the field. The role of central defenders and their ability in the defensive phases are crucial for Emery. Villa’s defending highlights the importance of concentration, decision-making, and teamwork in defensive plays, including the prevention of crosses and the execution of defensive counterattacks.
Different teams have their own strategies for defending the zone and the role of the central defender in these techniques but Emery emphasises quality defending in zones, not just individual responsibility for one area but taking charge of the entire space.
It is also important to note that Emery takes a great pride in correcting individual behaviors in football to achieve effective defending. The various defensive strategies such as marking, zoning, and defending against different players requires a great level of concentration to execute the game plan. The lack of concentration during defensive plays will have significant problems.
Emery believes in playing with verticality and having a clear objective in possession while prioritising solidarity and team responsibility in defense. To execute this, the spaniard plans for 12 weeks of training where they will focus on coordination, education, and developing a training plan including aspects such as conditioning, resistive training, and positional systems.
They will spend two weeks working on conditional and resistive training with exercises of possession and pressing focusing on resistance and style of play. They will also work on positional systems and maintaining positions, with a revision of who to utilise the system, and positioning the conductors.
The work on pressure lines and foundations situations with various exercises that fits into the system; attacking combinations, investing in pivots for a successful transition, all these requires a strategic training plan with the emphasis on the importance of communication and training modules that enables the team to adjust their performance.
Aston Villa is overperforming in terms of their results compared to their underlying numbers. The expected numbers suggest that Villa has overperformed by scoring eight more goals and conceding six fewer goals than they should have. This means that their performances suggest that they should not have gotten as many points as they have. However, that is not to say that Villa is a bad team as even Arsenal has overperformed their expected points this season. It is clear that Aston Villa is getting a little bit lucky, but that showcases the work Unai Emery has done so far with this squad.
Aston Villa only picked up 12 points in their first 13 Premier League matches of 2022-23… then Unai Emery took charge.
These are the top 10 sides in the Premier League since Emery’s first Premier League game on 6 November 2022. ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/8PhPSlgiTi
— Opta Analyst (@OptaAnalyst) April 13, 2023
Ollie Watkins’ on-field performances has changed massively under Emery’s management. Since Emery became the manager, Watkins’ actual goals have significantly increased and he has been overperforming his underlying numbers. Emery has designed a structured system that allows Villa to possess the ball, move it into advanced areas, and create more space and opportunities for Watkins to thrive in his preferred attacking position.
50 – Ollie Watkins (37 goals 13 assists) is the 10th player to reach 50 Premier League goal involvements for Aston Villa and is the second fastest to reach this milestone for the club (102 games) after Christian Benteke in May 2015 (88 games). Spearhead. pic.twitter.com/tOFGdC9M1n
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) April 15, 2023
The impact of Emi Martinez in Emery’s system has also been very crucial. Having a reliable goalkeeper who is able to participate in first-phase build-up through his ball-playing skills is crucial to the team’s success. In contrast, Manchester United’s build-up play suffers because their goalkeeper is not reliable in this aspect. Despite Martinez being one of the best ball-playing goalkeepers in the world, his adequacy in this role is essential and crucial to Aston Villa’s performance.
The Path Forward
The underlying concept behind Aston Villa’s transformational strategy is the recognition that playing a certain brand of football is essential for competing with the best and achieving sustained success. This realisation prompted the club to undergo a series of fundamental changes, starting with the appointment of Unai Emery as their head coach.
The decision to embrace short-term pain involves making difficult choices, acknowledging mistakes, and learning from them. Aston Villa’s management understood that transforming a team’s playing style and culture would not come without hurdles and setbacks. However, the vision of long-term gain propelled them forward, encouraging a steadfast commitment to the transformation process.
While acknowledging the mistakes made along the way, it is equally important to recognise the positives that have emerged. Despite the initial struggles, Aston Villa has shown glimpses of their potential and the benefits that lie ahead. In moments of adversity, the team has exhibited resilience, determination, and flashes of the desired playing style, instilling optimism for the future.
Aston Villa’s journey toward sustainable success requires perseverance, patience, and continued belief in their transformational approach. It is crucial for the club and its supporters to remain steadfast in their commitment to the long-term vision. This includes supporting the coaching staff, players, and management as they navigate through the transitional phase.
Unai Emery is a systematic coach who pays close attention to every aspect of his team’s performance, and his ability to adapt his tactics to suit the strengths of his players and exploit the weaknesses of the opposition makes him a highly sought-after coach in the world of football.
Emery’s tactical system is based on the balance structure and allowing players to solve problems on the field. His long-term approach is to carry everyone higher up the league with a better structure and attracting better talents with the overall focus of making the team flexible in build-up, creative going forward, and solve problems in the final third.
Overall, the appointment of Unai Emery brings positive hopes for the club to reclaim their spot in European football, and his arrival has sure generated excitement among the fans.