With the team fighting for Champions League qual­i­fi­ca­tion, we go behind the scenes of Emery’s tactical approach at Villa Park

Right in the fight for Champions League qualification and playing some hugely entertaining football under managerial maestro Unai Emery, it's been a joy to watch Aston Villa flying high this season.

Holding their own emphatically in the ultra-competitive Premier League on their way to recording statement wins over the likes of Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, all while juggling Europa Conference League commitments and suffering a host of injuries, they deserve immense credit for their achievements so far.

Currently sitting fourth and capable of beating anyone, there's been much to admire about the magnificent work being done by Emery, who took over the managerial reins from Steven Gerrard back in October of 2022, as he continues to get the best out of the team individually and collectively.

2023-24 Premier League table after 25 matches

To start with their defined defensive philosophy, which sees them most notably play a very high line, and this has been a key towards their style and success (fourth-best defensive record in the EPL).

With Emery so diligent in organizing his team and clearly putting in the work on the training ground, the way he's instilled his philosophy to ensure his team have grasped the finer details of playing so high has been enormously impressive.

Drumming into his players the fundamentals and principles, how the players know when to push up, drop back, shift across, play opponents offside or track runners has been extremely striking. Alert to triggers to move the line when opponents are under pressure or have time, they do a fine job of executing this high-risk, high-reward strategy.

The fact they press in a strategic and coordinated manner and condense the playing room for their adversaries compounds issues for opponents trying to build out from the back.

Seeing as Villa leave so much space in behind, this not only means keeper Emiliano Martinez has to be ready to come off his line to mop up danger, but also that the defenders have had to perfect their base side on body posture and footwork so they can explode to track runners in behind, plus move laterally or follow foes when they drop deep. And that they do, with them reacting powerfully to triggers and their opponents’ movements.

Ranking first in the league for catching opponents offside, this serves as a further testament to their execution of Emery's defined demands.

Whether defending in their usual base 4-4-2 or morphing into something resembling a 6-3-1 when defending deeper, the way they remain compact, connected and all on the same page has seen them largely cover key spaces and defend in a successful, coherent manner.

To focus on their intense high pressing, and it's admirable how they protect the center and usher teams wide to use the sideline as an extra defender, with their smashing 6-1 win over Brighton & Hove Albion a prime example of this.

Doing a terrific job of shifting, blocking passing lanes using their cover shadows, compressing the available space and adjusting to the opposition shape, opponents are usually in for a tough time especially when also factoring in their high line.

As a result, Villa are masters at forcing turnovers in advantageous zones to then attack opponents who can tend to be out of shape to create quality opportunities.

In addition, their compactness when defending ensures they have great access to instantly counter-press to swiftly regain possession in promising areas in order to quickly maraud upfield to get at unset defensive units.

Handy at defending deeper as well, where they show discipline, and organisation and use their towering defenders to clear danger from crosses, this adds to their effectiveness even though they can be caught out by precise deliveries into the box if positioned overly high and thus leaving too much of a gap between the keeper and their last line.

Aston Villa ball recoveries map from their recent games

Meanwhile, on the offensive side, Emery's got his team playing brilliantly too, for he's implemented his framework superbly to ensure Villa are a major force to be reckoned with going forward.

Eager to build out from the back whenever possible from their base 4-4-2 formation that often looks like a 4-2-2-2, 4-2-3-1, or a 4-2-4. With their central defenders usually splitting wide on either side of the keeper and the double pivot offering central support while the full-backs provide wide outlets, Emery’s setup means the ball holder usually has a host of options.

Average position example from their win over Fulham

Then, with the wingers often indenting and the central attackers primed to cause havoc, this gives them a strong central presence between the lines and when populating the box, meaning there’s always a plethora of targets to pinpoint (which notably features late-arriving runs from the central mids and full-backs).

Through passes graphic from their recent Wyscout report

Moreover, with vast space typically available down the channels due to their infield positioning, this duly generates room for Ollie Watkins' devastating runs in behind, and for the likes of Moussa Diaby and the full-backs to exploit.

Through ball graphics

With the midfielders staggering themselves to help create different passing angles and to open passing lanes by manipulating markers, this increases their chances of beating the press.

The addition of Pau Torres has been tremendous for their desire to pass out from the back, as his masterful passing and dribbling add another dimension to their ball progression abilities, for he excels at carving open opponents and drawing pressers to manufacture gaps for colleagues.

Key passes graphic

Happy to go long into outstanding forward Watkins to bypass the press too, where he provides a fine target to win second balls high and to hold the ball up to bring forward-facing teammates into play to immediately add momentum into offensive passages, this has given them an extra weapon.

Watkins' Shot Map

A colossal threat on the counter as well, once they recover possession, their connected shape and dynamism mean they have many outlets and the quality to turn defense into attack rapidly. With pace to burn, quality passers and dribbling wizards, they're a challenging outfit to stop when in full flight vs. backpedaling, shorthanded defenses.

Villa's shrewd rotations, quality set pieces and how they can transform into three-at-the-back shapes, which then sees them play with five attackers across the frontline, increases their capacity to wreak havoc and cause constant dilemmas for opposition rearguards.

Aston Villa's shot map from their recent matches from their Wyscout report

Blending control and directness while occupying ideal areas to make a nuisance of themselves centrally to combine sharply in close proximity, and wider, where the nominal wingers, Watkins and the full-backs alternate at adding width and depth to attacks to stretch backlines, their ability to hurt opponents in a variety of ways is an immense asset.

“Huge credit to them, huge credit to Unai and the coaching staff for what they’ve done,” Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta said ahead of their game earlier in the campaign. “They’ve turned things around, the way they play, they’re going to be a really tough opponent."

"Tactically they are really well set up, they do two or three different things, they are really brave to play from the back. They really attack you because they have players between the lines that can really hurt you; they have players in open spaces who are constantly threatening you. But not only that, the spirit that they have created, the atmosphere, the intensity, and the belief that they have at the moment that they can go on and beat anybody.”

"He always improves the players, the team, the club and he’s Basque, like I am, and he’s a manager that I really admire for what he’s done in the game. He’s done it in various countries in different levels and has always been successful, so I’m really happy for him. I think he’s the most experienced and the most successful [of Basque managers] by quite a long distance for everything that he has achieved in the game, and what he’s won. So obviously I admire him, yes.”

Deserving all the praise that comes his way for the remarkable job he's doing at Villa to elevate them into one of the elite outfits in the Premier League, he's yet again demonstrating what an outstanding manager he is.

Aston Villa stats overview

With still plenty of room for refinement to develop his game plan and the talented squad at his disposal, expect this captivating Villa to keep flexing their muscles both domestically and in Europe in their quest for silverware and to continue going from strength to strength.

Given the Villans were just three points off the drop zone and languishing when Emery took over nearly 18 months ago, how the Spaniard's turned around their fortunes has been nothing short of remarkable.

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