Unai Emery examines severe Nicolo Zaniolo ‘problems’ amid premature Aston Villa hook

BURNLEY, ENGLAND - AUGUST 27: Nicolo Zaniolo of Aston Villa reacts during the Premier League match between Burnley FC and Aston Villa at Turf Moor on August 27, 2023 in Burnley, England. (Photo by Lewis Storey/Getty Images)

Unai Emery has explained why he substituted Nicolo Zaniolo prematurely during Aston Villa’s 2-0 defeat at Nottingham Forest. The Italy international, who was one of the most involved on the field in the first half both in good and bad ways, was taken off rather abruptly at the interval.

In-form winger Leon Bailey was the man to replace Zaniolo but even he was unable to have a positive mark on the game as Forest sat in deep. Steve Cooper’s side scored within the first dozen minutes of both halves to gain an advantage and defended brilliantly to secure all three points.

It was an unusually dire afternoon in front of goal for Villa as they spurred countless opportunities, hardly testing Forest goalkeeper Odysseas Vlachodimos on his debut. Zaniolo was one of those to miss a couple of big chances but his blunders weren’t the only reason he was hooked early.

“Yes, it was tactical,” Emery clarified post-match, easing any concerns it may have been an injury. “Zaniolo, his progression is going well. Of course, his individual circumstances [the gambling accusations] are maybe playing with him a little bit sometimes in his mind.

“But he has to try to be 100 per cent free to play well. At the moment, we are going well with him. We are using him in one position he can play but not his best position. But he’s helping us and I want to increase his level with us.

“I want to try to give him minutes to understand his teammates, to try to be feeling good playing with us and as well progressively trying to forget the problems he had before. Leon Bailey as well, he’s progressively playing well and I decided tactically this change,” Emery concluded.

An investigation into Zaniolo allegedly breaching gambling rules is still ongoing, even despite the midfielder pleading his innocence to the Italian authorities. International teammates Nicolo Fagioli and Sandro Tonali have both received long-term bans and the possibility of a similar punishment is understandably difficult for Zaniolo to deal with.

Nonetheless, Emery and the rest of the head coach’s staff are doing all they can to ensure Villa’s number 22 can focus as best as he can on the job at hand. The Villans’ next tests are both back at Villa Park as AZ Alkmaar and Fulham come to town on Thursday and Sunday respectively.