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How conceding eight in two games embarrassed Unai Emery – and sparked Aston Villa’s remarkable rise

Aston Villa head coach Unai Emery gestures during the Premier League match against Brighton
Unai Emery shows his emotions during the win over Brighton

Even at 6-1 to the good, Unai Emery’s demeanour remained unchanged. Aston Villa were cruising to a statement victory over Brighton, yet the Spaniard remained a typically animated touchline presence.

Emery is not a tracksuit manager, but he perhaps ought to be: matchday is effectively a 90-minute yoga class, each muscle strained to the point of snapping as he tries to control on-field matters.

And while externally Emery insisted afterwards there remains plenty to improve, plenty of wrongs to right, a sense of deep satisfaction will surely have set in as Saturday evening passed.

After all, his side ended the weekend fifth, just three points shy of leaders Manchester City. In 2023, just two sides have bettered Villa’s 58-point haul – the current Premier League champions and Arsenal.

Saturday’s lunchtime exhibition was an Emery tactical masterclass, a head-turning result. Brighton’s reputation as the country’s most exciting side to watch right now has been deservedly earned. Under Roberto De Zerbi they have developed a unique style, a deep tease, drawing opponents into a Brighton square formed on their own penalty area.

But whereas others have dangled toes into the trap believing – often falsely – they can outwit their opponents, Emery planned around it.

The outcome was emphatic, and, for all the mutual respect both managers voiced for each other pre-match, Emery has now claimed all nine points from their meetings.

Of Villa’s six Saturday strikes, the most pleasing was their first, the one that set Ollie Watkins en-route to a second hat-trick of the season. The finish was simple, the build-up patient. John McGinn eventually threaded a precise pass that blindsided Kaoru Mitoma, Matty Cash’s overlapping run leading to a cross for Watkins. But the celebration – one which took Emery from warrior pose into something more akin to cross-fit – suggested training ground labour had borne fruit.

That began a devastating dozen minutes in which a trio of goals effectively secured a 10th-successive home league victory for Villa.

“Our game plan was to try to avoid the duels,” Emery explained afterwards when asked whether – first goal aside – a more direct approach than usual had been deliberate. “Try to avoid their defence against us finding the players. We can fight against them man to man, and when they did that, we tried to avoid the first build-up, playing with the players who are close to the goalkeeper.”

Emery had found a way and implemented it.

It is easy to forget that as recently as February, Villa lost back-to-back home games 4-2 to first Leicester then Arsenal. Emery labelled the latter result “embarrassing”.

“To concede eight goals in two matches at home is not normal. The performance can’t continue like that,” he said. “It’s not normal and I don’t like it. It’s not the way.”

In picking up a full 30 points since, Villa have conceded just four. And with that, what could have become a fractious relationship between supporters and manager has developed into one of synergy, of love. Holte Enders appreciate Emery’s blend of pragmatism and just the right dose of excitement.

He has a squad of players largely available to his predecessor dancing to the Emery tune; Ollie Watkins has 21 goals and eight assists in 37 all-competition matches; Douglas Luiz and Boubacar Kamara have become a formidable midfield pairing; Ezri Konsa is Emery’s defensive rock. Weave in Pau Torres, Moussa Diaby and Nicolo Zaniolo and what you get is delightfully efficient.

Emery now has 20 league wins with Villa from just 32 matches. Extrapolate his record across an entire season and you get at least enough points to finish third in any of the last five campaigns. Perhaps then, it is time to take Villa seriously?