Coaching Insights

The rise of Unai Emery and Aston Villa

19 Jan 2024
Unai emery

Adrian Clarke analyses Emery's transformative tactics that helped reshape this Villa side

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How Emery has turned Aston Villa into title contenders

Claiming 85 Premier League points across 2023, more than double their tally in the previous calendar year, Aston Villa have made extraordinary progress under the astute leadership of Unai Emery.

The Spaniard inherited a side languishing close to the relegation zone just under 15 months ago, but as it stands, they are in strong contention to claim a top four finish at the end of this campaign.

With a clear tactical identity, expert organisation and individual players who are tailor-made for their style of play, Villa’s rise is a triumph for their tactical approach.

Congesting space

One of the standout principles applied by Emery is a high defensive line, designed to crowd their opponents when in possession.

In a narrow 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1, Aston Villa will sit off in a mid-block and screen passes into rival forwards, but unlike many teams they push their back four up as close to the halfway line as possible.

This strategy clogs up the middle third, shrinking the pitch into a 20 to 25-yard area, as shown below in their 1-0 win against Arsenal.

Villa's high line

Defensive midfielder Boubacar Kamara (circled) will often drop in to shield service into a striker, with the remaining five outfielders tucking in to make sure there is very little room for opposition players to operate in.

This screenshot from Villa’s outstanding 1-0 victory against Manchester City (below) again highlights the role Kamara plays when they set up to squeeze space in this manner.

Initially he drops in to make a back five by effectively man marking Julian Alvarez…

Kamara, Aston Villa #1

Then, as the ball is bounced off Erling Haaland for the spare man between the lines, Kamara quickly shuffles across to make a terrific interception, denying Alvarez the opportunity to profit from his third man run…

Kamara, Aston Villa #2
Kings of the offside trap

Leaving so much space in behind for runners to surge into, can be risky.

Emery though, has his back four exceptionally well-drilled when it comes to knowing when to hold their line, when to step up, and when to track runners.

Trusting teammates to apply strong enough pressure before a pass is released, Aston Villa are superb at catching rival strikers offside.

Premier League 2023/2024 Offsides provoked
Aston Villa 106
Tottenham Hotspur 67
Fulham 54
Chelsea 46
Burnley 43

And as this chalkboard (below) displays, a large proportion of those provoked offsides occur just inside their own half.

Emery’s men roll the dice to good effect on most occasions.


When runners do manage to time their runs and stay onside, Villa’s goalkeeper Emi Martinez is usually there to clear up any danger.

Holding his starting position high, the World Cup winner sweeps up as the last man more than any other Premier League custodian.

Premier League Goalkeepers 2023/2024 Keeper sweepings Accurate keeper sweepings
Emiliano Martinez 28 27
Guglielmo Vicario 23 22
Wes Foderingham 17 16
James Trafford 15 15
Robert Sanchez 13 12

In 1v1s Martinez is also one of the world’s best shot stoppers too, but the stats prove Villa’s dicey defensive set up has proved to be remarkably robust.

After 21 matches Aston Villa had faced the third fewest shots from open play (150) behind just Manchester City and Arsenal.

Creating a box midfield

Emery’s other distinctive tactic is the way his team fluidly create a box of four players in central midfield when they enjoy quality possession.

His starting XI will often look unbalanced with one out-and-out winger on the right, Leon Bailey, and central midfielder John McGinn stationed on the other flank.

Aston Villa starting position

Yet when they have control of the ball, McGinn slides inside to play as a left sided No.10, while support striker Moussa Diaby (sometimes, Youri Tielemans) will drop in and mirror that role to the right.

You can clearly see below from their average position map against Everton, how their shape changes…

Aston Villa in posession

This ‘box’ will regularly create 4v3 overloads in central areas, allowing Villa to play through the lines with confidence.

McGinn’s change of position takes him into a half-space that asks difficult questions for his markers, while Diaby does the same, with centre backs sometimes unsure whether to follow him into midfield.

Emery is also clever in the way that he offsets any potential imbalance in other areas of the field.

His use of central defender Ezri Konsa at right back means his team ends up with a back three of sorts in the build-up phase.

The width out on the left is supplied by a far more adventurous full back, either Lucas Digne or Alex Moreno.

So Villa’s 4-4-2 becomes more of a 3-2-4-1 when they are on the front foot, similar to the shape which was so successful for treble winners Manchester City last term.

A terrific example of how this tactic works can be shown in the build-up to John McGinn’s winner against Arsenal. (below)

Emery’s side drew three players to Bailey on the right before squaring the ball inside where their box quartet enjoyed a significant midfield overload.

Kamara fed Tielemans who had dropped off the front to escape Gabriel’s attention, and he in turn released Bailey who was the provider for McGinn’s finish.


Other core strengths

These are the tactical nuances successfully implemented by Emery, who provides his players with clarity because of the consistent use of this style.

They have plenty of other qualities too, and much of those are centred around the speed and movement of striker Ollie Watkins.

With their inverted left winger dragging full backs inside, Villa like to exploit Watkins’ pace by firing passes from deep areas into that channel.

This turns opponents, helps to gain territory, and forces rival head coaches to perhaps drop off five to ten yards as matches progress.

Bailey down the right offers an outlet for lengthy distribution too, which suits centre backs Diego Carlos (7.82 long passes per 90) and Pau Torres (6.5), plus Douglas Luiz who makes 3.35 successful long passes per match, ranking him sixth among top-flight midfielders with at least 10 starts.

Turning defence into attack quicker than most, so much of Aston Villa’s attacking threat comes from direct attacks.

Premier League Clubs Most direct attacks
Liverpool 55
Tottenham Hotspur 50
Aston Villa  47
Chelsea 47
Brilliant at both ends

For all of Unai Emery’s quality coaching, and he is undoubtedly the key to Aston Villa’s massive improvement, they have also been efficient at both ends of the pitch. 

To succeed at any level of the game that is imperative. 

In goal Emi Martinez is the second most dominant custodian inside his own box when it comes to claiming catches, and he is also a world class shot stopper. 

In attack the Villains have also been superb this season. 

Luiz and McGinn have both scored twice from outside the box to help Villa plunder a division high seven goals from beyond 18 yards, which is a bonus. 

In addition, the teams’ overall shot conversion rate of 19.55 per cent is also second only behind Manchester City. 

When you bundle together these factors, and couple them with Emery’s outstanding work on the training pitch, it is little wonder Aston Villa are enjoying a season to remember. 

It is no fluke that they are challenging for a place in next season’s UEFA Champions League. 

Coaching insights part 1: Lionel Djagba
Coaching insights part 2: Ed Brand
Coaching insights part 4: Added time

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