Unai Emery – Aston Villa – Tactical Analysis

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Written by Charlie Ellis and Rhys Desmond

Unai Emery has been one of the most esteemed managers of the modern era, to little fanfare given that much of his managerial success has come in competitions like the Europa League and Ligue 1. But Emery is yet to truly fail in a managerial role, and looks prepared to only continue his incredible reputation at Aston Villa.

When he took over from Steven Gerrard, Villa were hovering around the relegation zone, desperately trying to stay afloat. Now they’ve attained four wins from their last six matches, in a robust 4-4-2 system that has dragged them all the way toward the top ten. Here is our analysis of how Emery has achieved so much success in his early days at Villa Park.

System of Play: 4-4-2

Since Emery took charge, Aston Villa have favoured a 4-4-2 system. Previous managers often favoured a midfield three that incorporated John McGinn off the left, and Emery has remained flexible in playing some of his central midfielders from the wing, and then using his fullbacks to aid the cause in attack. He’s also continued to prioritize a defensive edge to life in the Premier League, with a sense of quick verticality on the break via the Channel Runner that is Ollie Watkins.

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That defensive edge has been bolstered by the improvements from the likes of Tyrone Mings, Ezri Konsa and Emi Martinez, each of whom started to falter under Steven Gerrard. He’s completely restored their confidence at the back, and you can see how brilliantly leaders like Mings and Martinez have reacted in sewing up the defense again. They’ve conceded just 7 goals in 7 league matches under Emery, an unsurprising statistic given his track record. But new signing Alex Moreno aside, these are the exact same players that Gerrard failed to effectively manage. Lucas Digne’s continued at left-back, and Emery’s even reinstalled faith in 37-year-old Ashley Young to add even more leadership to his defense.

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At Villarreal, Emery often utilized three central midfielders spread across a compact midfield quartet, alongside more of a maverick on one of the wings. He’s taken on a similar approach at Villa Park, with Emi Buendia upping his game under the freedom provided, and John McGinn often shifting slightly to the right or left. Emery’s continued to prioritize Douglas Luiz and Boubacar Kamara at the heart of his midfield, ensuring his back-four have plenty of cover. This has been quite an intelligent decision from Emery, ensuring that it doesn’t have to be a case of one or the other screening the defense. He still has Jacob Ramsey to impact the match at his will, and Leon Bailey might grow into a wider role depending on Emery’s attack-minded endeavours.

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For now, Bailey’s been more likely to play up front alongside the team’s undeniable striking star – Ollie Watkins. Danny Ings has now been sold to West Ham so he’ll be off the books, and that may mean Emery’s attention turns to the market for another goal-scoring centre-forward capable of banging in the goals. Nevertheless, Emery has achieved what we all expected Aston Villa to be capable of achieving based on their illustrious squad. The best part though is that it’s taken him only a handful of games to completely turn Villa’s fortunes around.

Defensive principles

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A major benefit of employing Emery is the organization and compactness of his 4-4-2 system. No matter who he manages, the defensive side of his team will inevitably frustrate the opposition with a stern rest-defence that quickly makes an impact upon opposition regains. That often occurs through the steady double midfield pivot provided by Douglas Luiz and Boubacar Kamara, who generally remain in close proximity to Mings and Konsa at the back.

Between the two of them, you may see Kamara more likely to ‘Anchor’ the midfield and hold more of a centrally-dominant position. Douglas Luiz on the other hand may be more likely to shuttle in the half-spaces by shifting up and down vertically. As the dynamite destructors that they are, Luiz and Kamara are capable of exploding opposition attacks all on their own, without even needing the solidity Emery structures in behind.

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Add in an extra central midfielder to that quartet and the added edge turns all the more defensively sound. Even attack-minded players like Buendia and Ramsey have taken to their role with discipline and defensive responsibility, under the clearly defined expectations that Emery has for his players.

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He’s not one to overcomplicate the game into absurdity, instead taking a pragmatic approach that many of the players will have grown up playing inside that 4-4-2. And while his full-backs will provide an attacking threat down the wing, they too prioritize the defensive side of the game.

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It’s then no surprise that Emery’s team sets up to defend in that natural 4-4-2 shape, typically preferring to engage the opposition within their mid-block. Players like Watkins and Bailey come from backgrounds around pressing high up the pitch and pushing the envelope, and can enact moments of individual closing down and pressurizing when appropriate. But the over-arching strategy would be to win the ball back in the middle of the pitch by narrowing the field and forcing the opposition out wide, where the entire team will shuffle together and limit progression.

Central midfielders may step or hold depending on the moment, and full-backs like to get touch-tight to strikers that drift into their zone, freeing up the centre-backs to contest uncontested aerial duels.

The one caveat is that since Emi Buendia frequently inverts in attack, his side can often become immediately exposed on the break. It helps having him on the right side rather than the left to ensure that defensive cover is in place, but Emery has often opted for the former Norwich man to play off the left instead. The ability for the central midfielders to then shift wide and help to create defensive 2v1’s with the full-backs is therefore imperative.

Key to the defensive process is not only compaction horizontally, but vertically in between their lines. This means that the defensive line will leave little space in between themselves and the midfield, and that close proximity of connections can occur instantly upon regains.

When they carry that type of close proximal connections over to the attack, it then means that they can quickly compact and counter-press when they lose the ball. The work rate of players like Kamara and newboy Alex Moreno will embody this approach and only make Villa stronger as they grow under Emery’s guidance.

It’s not a particular surprise that Emery has completely transformed the Villains into what their name implies from a defensive perspective, but a positive one nonetheless.


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Not only has Emery improved the Villains in defense, but he’s also provided more of a guiding framework as to how they can impose themselves on the attack.

In the earliest of stages as part of their build-up, the frequent shape will usually form into a 2+3 to 2+4, with Douglas Luiz and Kamara taking turns to slot in front of the centre-backs and form that diamond quartet with the keeper.

Emi Martinez himself is a decent ball-player, and the Villains won’t waste much time in getting the ball forward when they see the opportunity. Ollie Watkins benefits from being able to run the channels and expose the gaps, and players like Mings and Digne are adept at finding the moments to loop one over the top for the striker to chase.

While it may be lamented by certain fanbases, the fact that Villa can play to their strengths is an important point to raise, especially within their current system of play. A 4-4-2 means that they may be outnumbered in the midfield and suffer from being able to properly progress through the thirds. The likes of Buendia, Coutinho, Ramsey, and Bailey are all capable progressors when it comes to carrying and breaking lines on the dribble, but they lack that same cutting edge when it comes to passing through the thirds in quick succession.

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If you can instead immediately find your top targets in the attacking third and then allow the rest of the team to catch up and create closer to goal, why not instill that mentality?

As Emery’s team then moves closer to goal, Villa may maintain possession in more of a 3-2-3-2, with Digne/Moreno galloping forward and Ashley Young staying at home. At the height of his career Ashley Young was an incredibly dynamic creator and crosser of the ball, but now his role is more about organizing and leading situations off the ball. Giving him that reserved role means he can see more of the pitch, and have less work to do in coming all the way back in defensive transitions.

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As we mentioned, it also means that Villa are well set up to contend those opposition counter-attacks, and that Luiz and Kamara can hold more of a centrally focused position. In a 2+2 (or even 4+2) rest-defense, they may have more ground to cover out wide. Villa set up in a way where they can guarantee numbers around the ball at any moment, benefiting their attacking play as much as their defensive attributes.

Speaking of the centre of the park, the compactness that Emery provides can often continue into the attacking phase. Buendia and McGinn will want to come inside rather than staying strictly wide, and that can then allow for strikers and fullbacks to float up into open spaces down the wing and pull defenders with them in process. Douglas Luiz can even see his moments to gallop forward, knowing that he has the defensive stalwart in Boubacar Kamara waiting in the wings (or rather the centre).

At the very front end of the pitch, you have two strikers who can play on either side of the attack depending on the moment. Bailey is the one who will drop off to receive the ball and drive forward, whereas Watkins will push the opposition defensive line back toward their own goal, and push and probe until he wins his team a foul or creates a dangerous scoring opportunity.

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In place of Ings, we may now see Jhon Durán enter the fold in a similar vein to Bailey, after his move from Chicago Fire. Not only is Durán a competent dribbler, but he’s deadly in front of goal – having scored or assisted every 124 minutes in his only season inside the MLS.

All and all, Villa have much to be optimistic about, and can consider themselves lucky to have a four-time Europa League winner at the helm. Villa will have aspirations to expand into the Europa League places in the future, and Emery is the best man for the job.


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Since Emery took charge in November, Villa have drastically improved their form in the league, with just one draw and one loss from their past seven matches. He’s rallied around a side that haven’t looked the same since Jack Grealish left for the big-time at Man City, reinstalling faith and confidence back into players like Mings, Martinez and Konsa. In the process, this has allowed for greater stability at the back, which he’s also achieved via a stern 4-4-2 system that positions a double-pivot in front of the back-line. With the defensive side sured up, Emery can now turn his focus toward enhancing the team’s attack, and ensuring their rise up the table continues all the way for the rest of the campaign.

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So there it is! Our tactical analysis of Aston Villa from Charlie Ellis and Rhys Desmond. Be sure to check out more of our Team Analyses, and follow on social media @mastermindsite! Thanks for reading and see you soon.

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