Alex Keble says tactical flexibility, control and hard work have been key to Villa’s transformation
Alex Keble looks at why it is time to start considering Aston Villa as potential Premier League title challengers.
When asked, in the aftermath of victory over Arsenal, whether Villa were in the title race, Unai Emery said something wholly unexpected: “We are in.”
With those three small words, Emery has abandoned the cautious manager-speak and given Villa supporters permission to dream of the unthinkable.
And why not? In the space of four days, Villa beat last season’s top two without conceding a single goal.
They obliterated Manchester City, restricting them to only two shots and none after the 11th minute, and then they dug deep to edge past Arsenal despite suffering for long periods.
We are firmly in “whisper it quietly” territory here. Defeating Man City in that manner showed Villa are as good as anyone in the Premier League. But beating Arsenal when second best? That, some might say, is the mark of champions.
Since his first match in charge on 6 November 2022, Emery has won 84 points from 40 matches, with only Liverpool, Arsenal and Man City winning more in that time.
Most points since 5 Nov 2022
Man City Arsenal Liverpool Aston Villa
Matches 40 41 41 40
Points 90 89 88 84
It’s a points tally seven or eight short of what it takes to win a Premier League title. Villa, then, need only a fractional improvement to be amongst it in May.
Here’s how Emery turned the club around – and why Aston Villa are considered challengers.
Hard work and total control
Nine of the 11 players who started both wins over Arsenal and Man City played under Steven Gerrard.
Yes, Villa have spent a fair chunk of money, but Emery’s achievements are first and foremost about elite coaching and the structure that Villa’s owners have put in place around him.
Emery is renowned for spending dozens of hours researching upcoming opponents to find flaws, before passing this information on to his players in excruciating detail during long video analysis sessions.
It is a methodology that has rubbed people up the wrong way in the past, but at Villa there is total buy-in, thanks in no small part to the streamlined hierarchy behind the scenes.
That buy-in extends to the club owners, Nassef Sawiris & Wes Edens, who have given Emery unprecedented control.
He has brought in close confidantes Monchi, as President of Football Operations, and Damian Vidagany, who arrived as Emery’s personal assistant, but is now Director of Football.
— Premier League (@premierleague) December 11, 2023
Together, these three form a triangle of control, overseeing transfer activity and virtually every other aspect of the club.
Emery’s power is such that Villa even announced a partnership with third-tier Spanish side Real Union in November, a club owned by the Villa head coach.
Unique tactical formula is constantly evolving
All that hard work and all those long team meetings would count for nothing if it wasn’t for Emery’s truly world-class tactical acumen.
He is among the most accomplished tacticians in the sport, mixing his unique philosophy with a restlessness that leads to reactive tweaking from match to match.
The foundation of Emery’s football can be defined in two broad categories: on-the-ball and off-the-ball.
In possession, Villa look to bait the opposition press with high-risk passing out from the back, with the aim being to spin round the pressers and attack quickly as if on the counter-attack.