Aston Villa: How will Unai Emery play?

Aston Villa manager Unai Emery while at Valencia directs his players during the La Liga match between Villarreal and Valencia at Estadio El Madrigal on January 8, 2012 in Villarreal, Spain.
(Image credit: Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)

Unai Emery is the new Aston Villa manager, replacing Steven Gerrard and leaving Villarreal midseason for another crack at the Premier League. 

And yet, the former Arsenal manager is still a mystery to many. The Basque boss spent around 15 months in north London, tinkering and tweaking away with his side until his demise. Since then, he's re-energised his career back in his native Spain – naturally, winning the Europa League once more.

It's fair for Villa fans to expect the unexpected from a manager who's seemingly switched styles, formations and ideas across his career. It's hard to know exactly which version of Emery they're going to be getting. 

Unai Emery arrives at Aston Villa with a new reputation for rehabilitating careers

Giovanni Lo Celso of Villarreal CF looks on during the LaLiga Santander match between Cadiz CF and Villarreal CF at Estadio Nuevo Mirandilla on October 01, 2022 in Cadiz, Spain.

Giovanni Lo Celso of Villarreal looks on during the La Liga match between Cadiz and Villarreal (Image credit: Fran Santiago/Getty Images)

The two most expensive players in the history of football were signed on Emery's watch. Of course, the Spaniard didn't have too much to do with either Neymar or Kylian Mbappe joining Paris Saint-Germain while he was manager there, though. 

In the time since leaving Arsenal, however, Emery has re-configured his image. No longer the big-name appeaser, he's become more of an underdog at Villarreal: outcasts have arrived at the Yellow Submarine, looking to re-find form and somehow, Emery led a group you might label as misfits to a Champions League semi-final. 

Serge Aurier, Etienne Capoue, Juan Foyth, Gio Lo Celso and Francis Coquelin were all former squad players of North London giants, reimagined as much more important players for Emery. Arnaut Danjuma was thought to be not good enough for the Premier League by many but has become a revelation in La Liga, Geronimo Rulli never got a chance at Manchester City, while Pervis Estupinan has since earned his big move to England. 

There is scope similar uplift at Villa Park. The likes of Tyrone Mings, John McGinn, Philippe Coutinho and Emi Buendia have all been under heavy scrutiny this season and could all benefit from a back-to-basics approach from a new coach. 

Emery favoured a 4-4-2 at Villarreal – but might not at Villa Park

Danny Ings and Leon Bailey of Aston Villa celebrate after Ings scored their team's second goal in the Premier League match versus Brentford on 23 October, 2022 at Villa Park, Birmingham, United Kingdom

Danny Ings and Leon Bailey of Aston Villa celebrate after Ings scored their team's second goal in the Premier League match against Brentford (Image credit: James Williamson – AMA)

Unai Emery's Twitter (opens in new tab) header is perhaps the best indication of how he sees himself as a manager: professorial, standing in front of a chalkboard of formulas and formations, a master able to adapt to any scenario. 

That's partly true. Emery favoured a 4-4-2 at Villarreal, with automatisms out wide while attacking and pressing the opposition to the touchlines in a compact shape while out of possession. But that's not set in stone: just because Aston Villa have two out-and-out strikers in Ollie Watkins and Danny Ings, it doesn't mean that the pair will start together. Leon Bailey could well be an option in the frontline, while Coutinho could play behind a striker in more of a 4-4-1-1, for a start.

At Arsenal, Emery eventually ended his first season with a 3-5-2 shape, having Mesut Ozil behind Alex Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – something that could definitely work with the players at his disposal in the Midlands – while Villarreal often had a workhorse midfielder on the wing in Coquelin: something Douglas Luiz could be tasked with. Lucas Torreira was used as a kind of anti-No.10 under Emery, too, tasked with being a ball-winner higher up the pitch – a tactic that Pep Guardiola used to effect with Javi Martinez at Bayern Munich (opens in new tab)

Expect the unexpected – and don't be surprised if Emery drops big names in favour of youth. He was never afraid to do that at Arsenal, either.

We're more likely to see the "real" Emery at Villa than we were at Arsenal

Unai Emery VIllarreal Europa League

Unai Emery with the Europa League title (Image credit: PA)

Sometimes in a relationship, one party wants the other to be something that you're not. When Unai Emery first arrived in the Premier League, he infamously claimed he'd rather win 5-4 than 1-0 (opens in new tab), only to set up Arsenal very differently. The Gunners would go one goal ahead in games, only to sit back and cede the ball, much to the chagrin of a generation raised on champagne Wengerball. 

Much of the conversation revolved around whether or not he actually had the players to play attacking football, as he began his second season with a 4-3-3 formation after being backed that summer – but things are likely to be different at Villa. This is a team who don't expect to dominate against bigger sides and with so many teams playing possession football outside the top six, too, now – think Brighton, Newcastle, Fulham and Crystal Palace to name a few – looking to outwork and outthink the opposition might be the way forward. 

The template could well be the home match against Manchester United last season where Gerrard brought Coutinho on to electrify his side. Villa didn't control proceedings but weren't passive either, looking to move the ball quickly and sharply, devastating United's momentum and drawing on a raucous atmosphere. Emery has spent time improving as a coach since Arsenal, leaning more on his own ideals than flipping between styles to appease fans and now seems to relish this kind of role as a high-octane underdog.

Villa are definitely hiring a more rounded manager than the one we last saw in English football – and one seemingly more confident in his own abilities. If Villarreal's spirited performances against the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool in recent years are anything to go by, he's not finished putting fear into Premier League giants yet. 

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Mark White
Staff Writer

Mark White has been a staff writer on FourFourTwo since joining in January 2020, writing pieces for both online and the magazine. An encyclopedia of football shirts and boots knowledge – both past and present – Mark has also been to the FA Cup and League Cup finals for FFT and has written pieces for the mag ranging on subjects from Bobby Robson's season at Barcelona to Robinho's career. He once saw Tyrone Mings at a petrol station in Bournemouth but felt far too short to ask for a photo.