As Mikel Arteta’s staff began preparations for Saturday’s increasingly important Premier League clash at Aston Villa, they noticed elements that were profoundly different from Unai Emery’s time at Arsenal. Some were even markedly different to last season.
Emery is playing far higher up the pitch than he has ever done in his career. A sporting director at one major club was shocked by it, as it went against acres of analytics they had from the Spaniard’s previous teams. Even some of the Villa players were initially surprised, immediately sceptical given the risk of it. Emery, contrary to both perceptions of his coaching and his time at Arsenal, was more than willing to take that risk. His belief similarly meant the players were more than willing to buy in. They were soon fully sold as results immediately improved, and have gone on to reach new levels.
It has all served to set up one of the Premier League’s standout performances of recent years, in the way Villa simply obliterated Manchester City on Wednesday. The 1-0 scoreline didn’t do them justice. The European champions didn’t deserve anything out of the game. They created nothing, because they could barely get on the ball. It is not an exaggeration to say that just isn’t done to a Pep Guardiola side. It’s hard to even think of similar games. You probably have to go back to Guardiola’s first months in England, when both Everton and Leicester City each put four past a nascent Guardiola team. That was a side still learning his way, though, and those oppositions really just hit the glass jaw of the City at the time, rather than smashing them to pieces in the way Villa did.
The significance of this went beyond even a win over the champions, though.
It was one of those transformative performances for a team and a manager, that changes the way teams think about them. Some around City likened it to when Liverpool put it up to the eventual champions in the 2013-14 season, which brought a realisation Brendan Rodgers’s team were more than just a growing side. They were proper challengers.
While it’s far too premature to talk about Villa in such a way, it now feels clear there is more to this than just a solid club on respectable form. Emery can already aim higher, as he has finally started to at least mention a potential return to the Champions League for the first time since 1982-83, when they were European champions.
That is because there is evidently more to the Basque, too. Arsenal obviously don’t regret their decision to sack Emery in 2019 given where they are under Mikel Arteta, but there will be some reconsideration of how he was seen at the time. That will be complemented by generous personal praise when he meets figures from his former club on Saturday. There is genuine warmth there. Emery is widely viewed as one of the game’s gentlemen, a rare manager who has won major trophies but is far removed from the egotistical intensity that can lend itself to a real prickliness in the elite.
Some have argued that this is why he has fallen short at the top bracket of clubs. The perception has been he didn’t quite have the charisma or outlook for that level. A common statement within the game has been that Emery is good at taking lower clubs above themselves but brings higher clubs below themselves. It was as if the continent’s secondary competition, the Europa League he has won four times, was his natural level. This was a view articulated by the agent of Thiago Silva, Paolo Tonietto, after Paris Saint-Germain’s 6-1 defeat to Barcelona.
“The person foremost responsible for la Remontada is Emery,” the agent said. “He’s a good coach to play in the Europa League, not the Champions League. The suit was too big for him. He was a terrible coach for PSG.”
It was an opinion that spread. No super club has wanted to touch him since Arsenal. Part of that was also his football. It was seen as too reactive and opposition-dictated for the elite level, where Guardiola’s holistic positional play ideology has dictated everything.
Those who defend Emery would say it was always unfair to judge him on PSG and Arsenal. The Qatari-owned club have long been a “basketcase”, where it’s virtually impossible for any manager to impose themselves. Arsenal were then always going to suffer a vacuum after a moment as historic as Arsene Wenger’s retirement. Even Arteta had to work through some of the repercussions of that from his first months in the job.
One figure who knows Emery well puts it more artistically. “Look at it in terms of a painting – he wasn’t anywhere near finished. People didn’t see the full picture.”
Perspective is also more important in other ways. One of the most crucial factors in Emery’s success with Villa is that it is a surprisingly rare case of a coach’s profile completely fitting the club. That goes beyond more immediate issues like the style of play. It’s that the ambition is the same, as well as the outlook.
The most illustrative counter-example is Tottenham Hotspur under Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho. Daniel Levy appointed two managers renowned as big names, but who inevitably thought they were bigger than the job. That created a disconnect and a dysfunction, in a way Spurs don’t have at all with Ange Postecoglou.
It is the same with Villa. That reminds us that the fit of a manager is often as important as the quality. It should be acknowledged Emery was walking into a situation that was favourable, too. Before his appointment, Steven Gerrard had everyone playing beneath themselves. The reality was that Villa had built a squad in a very smart manner over the previous few seasons, with a lot of balance. Douglas Luiz now looks a domineering midfielder. You can see why Arsenal tried to sign him on the last day of the summer 2022 window, and why Villa wanted a price of £40m rather than £20m. It seems cheap now.
Some at other clubs add that Villa built a squad in a rather costly manner, too, having spent the sixth most in the Premier League over the past few years. Moussa Diaby is understood to be on close to £200,000 a week.
That still has to be put in the context of how the Champions League clubs are spending much more. Villa are still overperforming. Emery saw the picture for this team much more quickly.
That touches on a more philosophical point, which is perhaps the most interesting element of Emery’s revitalisation of one of England’s great clubs: can a manager ideologically evolve halfway through his career? Are we also going through a more general evolution in football tactics?
One of the reasons that Emery’s high line has been so eyebrow-raising for other coaches and analytical staff is that it’s extremely rare to see such a change to something so tangible in someone’s tactics when they're well over a decade into their career. This is all the more pronounced in an era that is so conditioned by tactical ideology. The general trend of careers has been burgeoning managers come to develop their approach in the first few years, hit a peak as they fully command their methods, and then decline as new evolutions in the game pass them by.
Emery has already defied this in one way. It does also come amid potential developments in the game that may serve him. There are at least indications that coaches are beginning to find more solutions for that classically Dutch-Spanish possession-pressing. Roberto De Zerbi’s bait of the press is potentially part of a wider movement.
“There is another angle to counter positional play,” Damien Comolli, Toulouse’s director of football, formerly of Liverpool and Tottenham, tells The Independent. “It’s what’s coming out of Italy, man-to-man marking is back. Igor Tudor in Marseille, all the ‘sons’ of Gian Piero Gasperini. Their approach is to say ‘OK, you are creating dynamic spaces, I’m going to shut down those spaces with man-to-man’. If four or five big-time managers design strategies to counter this, football can change.”
There are some hybrid elements of all this in Emery’s approach, especially with the way his Villa cut through the gaps through Diaby, John McGinn and Leon Bailey. They are lightning in transition, with Ollie Watkins often finishing moves in a manner that shows the benefit of Emery’s insightful individual coaching. Every player has internalised instructions that amplify their game.
There is then the way they construct their collective play. A further irony, if also a sign of evolution, is how there is considerable crossover with Arsenal here.
Both Arteta and Emery have enjoyed huge success with a 4-4-2 out of possession this season. They have specifically capitalised on how virtually everyone seeks to play possession football but many centre-backs and midfield sixes can’t pass the ball out from the back to the required level. This has created errors to capitalise on, an exploitation of that space. Both Arsenal and Villa have meanwhile sought to capitalise on this by playing what is termed as “quasi out the back”. That is rapid low passes from kick-off straight to full-backs or cute chipped balls to higher-positioned wide players. It was one of the main reasons David Raya was signed.
World Cup-winning goalkeeper Emi Martinez is still adapting, but he brings so many other qualities.
Emery is showing new qualities. It is close to what Arsenal would have wanted five years ago, after Wenger.
It has now set up an unexpectedly significant Premier League match. Arsenal’s title challenge comes across Villa’s Champions League chase, with Emery seeking to best his impressive successor.
There are a lot of narratives here, especially as Villa seek to follow that win over the champions with one over the main contenders. That would really elevate what might be the most compelling story in all this, which is Emery’s Premier League redemption.