Talking Tactics: How Emery can transform Aston Villa and the Villarreal players who can help him

Unai Emery is nothing if not diligent. His tenures at Paris Saint-Germain and Arsenal might have gone awry for a variety of reasons but nobody could question his commitment, tenacity, and inexhaustible work ethic when it comes to tactical analysis.

He studies his opponent for dozens of hours looking for a weakness and will spend however long it takes adapting his team’s tactics to exploit it.

Aston Villa fans already have experience of this. Their 3-1 victory over Manchester United on Sunday afternoon was textbook Emery, from the broad strokes of the tactical battle-plan to the minutiae of the detail he put into exposing the flaws in Erik ten Hag’s side. In just three days he got enough ideas across to transform Villa into a coherent team who knew exactly what was required of them.

Emery lined up in a surprise 4-2-2-2 formation, the narrowness of which overwhelmed United’s strongest area of the pitch: their new two-man midfield partnership of Casemiro and Christian Eriksen. Villa neutralised these two by surrounding them with a box-shape four, which in turn forced United into a more narrow shape than they would like, opening up space for Lucas Digne and Matty Cash to burst into.

United looked confused and, for long periods, they were blown away, giving Villa their first home win over Man Utd since 1995. It could hardly be more different from the Steven Gerrard years, and it was enough to get Villa supporters excited for what is to come.

Emery’s core tactical beliefs

His flexibility will be a key feature, but beneath the tweaks is a foundation of tactical beliefs that have been consistent throughout his career. Considering Emery’s mixed record, it is no surprise that his tactical philosophy is best suited to mid-table or under-dog clubs and most effective in cup competitions.

Off the ball, Emery sits his teams in a safe midblock 4-4-2 that looks to minimise space between the lines. His teams will rarely press high (although they will do so to prevent short goal kicks), instead remaining patient before pouncing into action with aggressive and targeted pressing traps in the middle third of the pitch. The reason for this goes beyond defensive caution; it is all part of the plan to use the transitions to attack at speed.

When in possession that 4-4-2 swings into a far more attacking system. One wide midfielder will join the front line and the other will move infield to form a 4-3-3, although – as the United game showed – the actual configuration of bodies can change from game to game. What doesn’t change is the attacking principle: Emery coaches meticulous automatisms (moves drilled in training like an American Football set play) to take place at speed through the lines, either via straight counter-attacks, just after the ball is turned over (when the opposition is out of shape), or via ‘artificial counters’.

Artificial counters are an increasingly common phenomenon in football and Emery can claim to be one of the godfathers of the tactic. Villa will, like all Emery teams, look to pass the ball around in dangerous areas deep in their own half in order to draw the opposition press, at which point they will look to evade this wave to reveal huge counter-attacking-like spaces behind.

Behind the midfield line, that is, because what separates Emery from other counter-attacking managers is that he has little desire to play direct football over the top of a defence. Instead, the pre-set rhythms of passing once possession is won are aimed at drawing the opponent to press in the wide areas, revealing big gaps in central midfield. This is where his more creative players will pop up – ready to surge forward in the dribble.

This is a highly sophisticated – and risky – approach that takes a lot of work in training. It tends to work better at clubs like Sevilla or Villarreal, where fans don’t mind having less possession or seeing the odd mistake, whereas at Arsenal supporters were let frustrated by the high number of misplaced passes in their own third. But Emery will not compromise; it won’t be long before we see Villa finding novel ways to break at pace into the final third.

Aston Villa’s squad suitability

Anyone who watched Villarreal in the Champions League last season will have noticed the fruits of these tactical ideas. Bayern Munich, Juventus, Man Utd, and Liverpool were all stunned to find themselves suddenly exposed – as if by magic – as four or five yellow shirts sprinted into wide open spaces from what appeared to be safe positions. United might even have felt a little déjà vu watching this happen at Villa Park on Sunday.

Jacob Ramsey is very well suited to Emery because of his unusually daring ability to dribble through the heart of midfield and pop up in Lampard-esque fashion to score from the edge of the box. Emiliano Buendia, a hard-working playmaker willing to listen to strict pressing instructions and capable of subtle passes through an onrushing wave of pressure, is also tailor-made for Emery’s tactics, while Danny Ings, Ollie Watkins, and Leon Bailey are the direct runners the new manager needs.

Things are good at the top end of the pitch, then, although there isn’t much strength in depth considering Philippe Coutinho is likely to be the first casualty of the new era. Villarreal’s 20-year-old winger Yeremi Pino, wanted by top clubs around Europe, has inevitably been linked with Villa.

In midfield, Douglas Luiz and John McGinn should be capable of adapting while Leandro Dendoncker looks to be an early favourite, and with Boubacar Kamara to come back from injury this is the area of least concern. The same cannot be said for the defence.

Emery’s risk-taking in possession demands a much better ball player than Tyrone Mings, who is prone to defensive errors much in the way Shkodran Mustafi used to undermine the system when Emery was at Arsenal. Pau Torres, again a star for Emery at Villarreal, was linked with Villa throughout the summer and a deal should be easier now.

Torres and Pino would be excellent January additions – and quite possibly the one two Villa would need. Emery has inherited a squad capable of absorbing his tactical instructions, and has landed at a club of exactly the right size – and growth potential – to match his achievements at Villarreal, Sevilla, and Valencia.