Talking Tactics

Will Emery or De Zerbi win battle of master tacticians?

By Adrian Clarke 29 Sep 2023

Adrian Clarke analyses how Villa and Brighton head coaches use the 4-2-3-1 formation differently

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Aston Villa v Brighton

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.

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Aston Villa host Brighton & Hove Albion in an encounter that sees Unai Emery chase a hat-trick of victories over Roberto De Zerbi in just over 10 months.

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.

Emery’s outlook

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.

From there they like to use the pace and dribbling ability of frontmen Moussa Diaby and Ollie Watkins to hurt the opposition.

Duo combine for winner v Chelsea

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
Everton 8 Man Utd 19
Wolves 7 Spurs 19

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.

Here are two examples from last Sunday's 1-0 win at Chelsea, where they had goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez to thank for saving them on both occasions, first from Raheem Sterling and then Ben Chilwell.

Thiago Silva releases Raheem Sterling with a long pass
Cole Palmer splits the Villa defence as he picks out Ben Chilwell

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
  Brighton PL rank
Open-play goals 16 1st
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.

Villa are unlikely to engage high up the field very often and will tuck wide players John McGinn and Nicolo Zaniolo inside to block passing routes down the spine of the pitch.

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.

Also in this series

Part 2: How Hudson-Odoi and Elanga can speed up Forest's evolution
Part 3: How trio have re-energised Liverpool's midfield

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