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Aston Villa has emerged as a formidable force, challenging traditional 'big six' clubs alongside teams like Newcastle, Brighton, and West Ham. Their success in earning a spot in the UEFA Europa Conference League last season marked the beginning of a promising journey. Strategic board changes, including the addition of former Sevilla sporting director Monchi, played a pivotal role. Notable signings, such as Pau Torres from Villarreal and Moussa Diaby from Bayer Leverkusen, have strengthened the team, making them more stable and aggressive in possession.

While maintaining the basic 4-4-2 structure with narrow wide midfielders, Emery has added layers to his tactical approach. This analysis delves into Aston Villa's tactics both in and out of possession during the current season.

Aston Villa's build-up strategy involves utilizing players with composure on the ball, including goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez. The 4-4-2 formation with narrow wide midfielders facilitates short passes to draw opponents out, creating space for quick attacks with four forwards. The defensive midfielders often drop between opposition strikers, providing passing lanes for effective ball progression through the middle. This intelligent build-up sets the stage for creating spare players at the back, exemplified by the excellence of center-back Pau Torres.

The midfield structure adapts to a 3-2-5 during build-up, ensuring balance while changing players. This positional play maintains stable attacking patterns and emphasizes the effectiveness of a 3-2-5 shape in possession.

Final Third Attacking
In the final third, Aston Villa excels in playing through the middle, with three central attackers maintaining close proximity for quick link-up play. Watkins often plays a crucial role, either receiving split passes or dropping slightly to initiate attacks. The team's ability to exploit the middle forces opponents to close in, creating space in wider areas for crosses.

Wide players, notably Cash and Digne, prefer delivering low crosses towards the space in front of the opposition back line. This approach is complemented by the opposite inside attacker making diagonal and late runs, capitalizing on the gap between defenders and midfielders. Aston Villa's attacking patterns showcase a blend of efficiency and creativity, especially when playing from wide areas.

Emery's pressing strategy is distinctive, characterized by an extreme high back line. Against opposition goal kicks, the 4-4-2 transforms into a 4-diamond-2, effectively marking defensive midfielders and creating opportunities for turnovers. In open play, the high back line, often referred to as 'the back six,' aims to prevent opponents from playing forwards. Wide midfielders focus on cutting passing lanes, pressuring opposition fullbacks to limit their options.

Final Third Defending
Defending against crosses mirrors the pressing strategy, with the high back line being both an advantage and a vulnerability. Center-backs and defensive midfielders collaborate to control the line's height, pushing forward with side steps. However, susceptibility arises when opponents deliver crosses, as the team struggles to transition back quickly. This weakness has been exploited, and improvements in managing the back line's drop timings are crucial for defensive stability.

Aston Villa's tactical prowess under Unai Emery demonstrates a unique and effective approach, combining strategic build-up, dynamic attacking patterns, and aggressive pressing. While the high back line has yielded success, addressing vulnerabilities in defending against crosses is essential for sustained success in European competitions. Emery's ability to maximize his players' qualities positions Aston Villa as genuine contenders against the traditional 'big six' clubs.


In Football Manager I reproduced this 4-4-2 trying to emulate every single player's movement and instruction, besides I created a more defensive tactic with the two central midfielders deep (just in front of the defense) to help covering spaces left behind by the two full-backs (in this tactic, the right full-back position is made for Matty Cash, who is not an inverted full-back like Konsa, he is a wing-back on support.
To emulate this tactic in Football Manager 2024, we can start with a positive mentality because we don’t want our team to relentlessly attack, disregarding the risk of a counterattack from the opposing team.

Team instructions

In possession instructions:
  • fairly narrow attacking width: this instruction makes our team play narrow to overload the center
  • focus play through the middle: combined with the instruction above, it lets our team create overloads in the center of the pitch to lure the opponent and then exploit wide spaces once the pressing line is overcome.
  • overlap left: as Emery said once, “the left wing-back Digne moves forward while the right one does not”, this helps to create balance in our defensive line according to positional play principles
  • play out of defense: Emery wants his team to start building from the back, involving the goalkeeper and the two central defenders.
  • slightly lower tempo: to build the play patiently, without taking too many risks
  • shorter passing: with a narrow width, and focusing the play through the middle, obviously Emery wants his players to play with short passes
  • Low crosses

Emery attributes a great importance to set pieces so if you want you can add the instruction “play for set pieces” to maximize their use. I did not add this instruction to my tactic but you can choose. Sometimes during the game my assistant manager suggested I add this instruction and I did it, this led my team to score quite often from set pieces.

In transition instructions:

  • Counter-press: when Aston Villa loses the ball, Emery wants his players to press very high and intensively to win the ball back and to launch fast counter-attacks. Pressing high and defending high is better than having a strong defensive line waiting in the back
  • Counter: once won the ball back, launch counterattacks from very high position this makes it easier to create chances
  • Take short kicks: goalkeeper passes the ball to the center backs, thus just needs short passes
  • Distribute to center backs: this helps building the play from the back

Non in possession instructions:

  • High Press
  • Higher defensive line
  • Much more often pressing: to press very intensively
  • Prevent short gk distribution: this is very helpful against teams who build from the back, Emery exploited Manchester City and Brighton exactly in that point
  • Step up more: use off-side trap
  • Trap outside

Player roles and instructions

Dibu Martinez: sweeper-keeper in support: no instructions
Konsa: inverted full- back in defense: as Emery said, the right full-back does not move forward and support the attack, while the left one does. Konsa will help to create a defensive balance sitting narrower to create a back three in defense with the other two center backs when the team is in possession.
Diego Carlos: central defender-defend: take fewer risks.
Diego Carlos is the more defensive one between the two central defenders, he drops down, covers spaces left behind by his teammates. But if you want to have a more attacking mentality you can let him play as a Ball playing defender in defend like the left center back Pau Torres.
Pau Torres: ball-playing defender in defend: mark tighter, dribble more. This allows Pau Torres to carry the ball forward, in the game he often carries the ball forward to the opponent’s half, helping to build the play and also creating dangerous situations for the opponent’s defense.
Digne: wing-back in support: cross more often, stay wider, cross aim far post. Digne is an offensive wing-back who often moves forward and hits crosses into the opponent’s box aiming to the far post, when he does so, the left winger (Zaniolo or Mc Ginn) must sit narrower to leave space for Digne.
Bailey: inverted winger (in the second tactic the more defensive one, I tested him as a wide playmaker, for this role, the “sit narrower” instruction is preset. This role is slightly more defensive than an inverted winger, so it suits a more defensive tactic): mark tighter, cross aim far post, cross more often, sit narrower, roam from position.
In Emery’s Aston Villa, wingers become interiors, overloading the central areas, and defensively, they try to restrict opponents and force high-risk passes, applying also man-to-man pressing. Usually the right winger presses the opponent’s left full-back and follows him, this is why I chose the mark tighter instruction. The same goes for the opposite winger who marks and presses the opponent’s right full-back.
Douglas Luiz (or Tielemans): deep-lying playmaker in support: mark tighter.
The core of Aston Villa building the play, his passes are always very good and he helps a lot in defense too.
Kamara: box to box midfielder-support: get further forward, move into channels, mark tighter.
Kamara is the typical box to box midfielder who helps in defense but also moves forward to create chances to score and overloading spaces.
Zaniolo (Mc Ginn): inverted wringer-support: sit narrower, hold position, mark tighter.
The “hold position” instruction can be useful if you want the left winger to cover spaces left by the left wing-back when he moves forward. I added it in the video and in this description just to explain this point, but in the tactic file you will not find it.
Mc Ginn can play both as winger and as central midfielder, during my season managing Aston Villa I tested him more as right winger but sometimes I let him play also as a box to box midfielder. He is definitely a great player, very important for the Scotland national team too.
Watkins: pressing forward- attack: roam from position, shoot more often.
I asked him to roam from position because in Emery’s Villa, strikers operate from wide positions too, so you can see Watkins staying wider while the two wingers play in the central area.
Diaby: advanced forward-attack: no instructions.

This is all for this tactic, I finished 4th in the English Premier League, scoring 88 goals, the best attack in this season, and won the UEFA Conference League and the English FA Cup.




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