Adrian Clarke looks at key tactical points and players who can be decisive in Matchweek 7.
Two of European football’s most highly-respected tacticians pit their wits against one another for the third time as Premier League head coaches this weekend.
Both men have improved their respective teams brilliantly since taking the helm, and this promises to be a high-class strategic duel.
Same shape, different styles
The duo both currently use a 4-2-3-1 formation, but they coach their players within that system in very different ways.
Emery sets his side up to shrink the size of the pitch when they are out of possession, crowding space before exploding into life on counter-attacks.
By contrast, De Zerbi wants to make the pitch as stretched as possible.
Possession-heavy in his outlook, De Zerbi’s core principles revolve around creating overloads that help his side pass through the thirds.
Once the ball is lost, he demands high-intensity pressing aimed at regaining possession quickly wherever his players are on the pitch. Conversely, Emery’s men usually retreat into a mid-block before they pressure opposing players.
Villa’s four-time UEFA Europa League winner has his back four, midfield and attacking units close to one another, leaving little space between the lines.
He asks his wide midfielders to tuck inside too, which is an approach that clogs up key central areas, making it easier for Villa to break up play.
Duo combine for winner v Chelsea
Big players for big moments. 😍— Aston Villa (@AVFCOfficial) September 24, 2023
Ollie Watkins with the winner at Stamford Bridge! 👌 pic.twitter.com/sJLvVsJDTk
No Premier League side have had more direct attacks or shots from fast breaks so far this season than Villa.
Villa's threat on the break 2023/24
|Shots from fast breaks||Direct attacks|
|Aston Villa||12||Aston Villa||22|
Squeezing space in the middle third means that they regularly hold a high defensive line.
In moments where their crowding approach does not apply enough pressure to the man on the ball, rivals can hurt Villa with passes aimed at runners who surge into the space behind.
Brighton are sure to target Villa’s high line, with the pace of Kaoru Mitoma an obvious threat.
Mitoma's MW6 goal v Bournemouth
De Zerbi’s opposite approach
Under De Zerbi Brighton have scored in 33 of their last 34 Premier League matches, so his adventurous tactics have proved incredibly effective.
To show how strong they are in different ways, the Seagulls top the Premier League rankings for open-play goals, passes between the lines and shots from high turnovers.
By using their goalkeeper as a spare outfielder, they lure opponents onto them to create 4v3 and 5v4 overloads that allow them to play into midfield.
Brighton's PL attacking threat 2023/24
|Passes between the lines||183||1st|
|Shots from high turnovers||17||1st|
This risky tactic can cost Brighton goals – like it did against AFC Bournemouth last Sunday – but they are usually excellent at manoeuvring the ball upfield, and they often push four players into attack from those situations.
Brighton also have a Plan B. When opponents press man-to-man in advanced areas it can create huge spaces in midfield, where a forward can collect a simple long pass played from defence or the 'keeper.
Led by the canny Emery, Villa may not allow this to happen, so look out for Brighton instead launching even longer 70-yard passes aimed in beyond the last man.
A game of cat and mouse
Emery’s style of play matches up well against De Zerbi’s bold side, who can leave themselves open to counter-attacks.
West Ham United scored twice from slick breakaways against the Seagulls earlier in the campaign.
Zaniola's highlights v Chelsea
The space for Brighton will be out wide on the flanks and Villa's main concern will be those long passes played in behind their high line.
Brighton are second only to Manchester City for accuracy from longer passes, with 59.5 per cent, and have made the third-highest number of successful long passes this season.
De Zerbi's men have the quality to hurt Villa if they are afforded time to pick out a team-mate with a run that beats the offside trap.
This contest between two fast-improving teams with contrasting strategies will be a fascinating watch.