Douglas Luiz, a reported target for Arsenal and Liverpool, tells Sky Sports how Unai Emery has taken his game to new heights at Aston Villa; follow Villa vs Man City on our digital platforms on Wednesday; kick-off 8.15pm; free highlights available afterwards
Wednesday 6 December 2023 20:35, UK
Even in a season of so many personal highlights for Douglas Luiz, the free-kick delivery to set up Pau Torres' equaliser in Aston Villa's win over Tottenham stands out. "I watched the video back and even I had to applaud," he tells Sky Sports with a grin.
Luiz claps his hands together, revelling in the moment once more. But he admits it might not have happened were it not for the persistence of his manager - or, ironically, the proximity which allowed them to converse before the free-kick was taken.
"He was telling me to put it in the area and I was saying, 'But it's so far out! I'm not sure I'm going to be able to put a good ball in!'" recalls Luiz. "He just said, 'No, no! Put it in! Put it in!' So I did."
The pinpoint delivery was a game-changing moment of brilliance which typified Luiz's crucial role in Aston Villa's stunning start to the season. It was fitting, too, that Unai Emery had a direct hand in it.
The Spaniard has completely transformed Aston Villa's fortunes since his arrival at Villa Park last year. On an individual level, he has had a similarly profound impact on Luiz, helping the 25-year-old become one of the Premier League's best all-round midfielders.
Luiz's form has earned him a recall to the Brazil national team. There are also rumours of interest from Liverpool and Arsenal ahead of next month's transfer window. Luiz welcomes the recognition but there seems little danger of distraction.
"I am very happy to hear the stories but I am here at Aston Villa," he says. "My focus is totally here. I don't spend a lot of time looking at the stories. I see them, but I don't focus on that and I'm not looking at it every day. My head is here at Aston Villa."
Luiz is in his fifth season at Villa having signed from Manchester City in 2019 and his warmth for the club is obvious. "Aston Villa is a club that opened its doors to me when I came to England, so I have a lot of affection and a lot of love for it," he says.
It helps, of course, that everything is progressing so positively on the pitch. Villa have emerged as Champions League contenders this season. On Wednesday, they host Manchester City, Luiz's former club, having won 13 consecutive Premier League home games.
Aston Villa is a club that opened its doors to me, so I have a lot of affection and a lot of love for it
Luiz puts it all down to Emery.
"Unai, honestly, is an incredible manager," he says. "Since he arrived here, he has changed the history of the club. Aston Villa is a very big club in England, but things weren't going so well. Unai has changed it. Now, people respect the club and the players more."
That is certainly true of Luiz. "I believe I am in the best moment of my career," he says. "The manager demands a lot from me and I believe he has helped me a lot as well. I am happier than ever to keep working and continue evolving."
Emery's demandingness is a topic which comes up repeatedly in conversation with Luiz and the 25-year-old is clearly reaping the rewards - even if it means butting heads occasionally.
"Last week, we had an argument, but a good kind of argument, because he demands a lot from me when I'm on the pitch," says Luiz.
"Sometimes my head isn't totally right and I say something back. We end up arguing but afterwards we talk and everything is OK.
"He is a manager who is helping me a lot and who asks a lot from me. He wants me to give more assists, to score goals, to arrive well in the box and to help the team defensively as well.
"He pushes me a lot, but I like that. He is always there to talk with me. Whenever I need something, I just ask him and we talk. Then, when he needs something from me, I can also help him."
The dynamic is clearly working. Luiz was already performing at a high level when Emery arrived but he is a different proposition now, as accomplished offensively as he is defensively.
In 40 Premier League games under the 52-year-old, he has scored 10 goals and provided seven assists, giving him a higher combined total than in 114 games under Emery's predecessors.
A change of role has unleashed his potential.
"I played different positions when I arrived here compared to now," he says. "I started as a No 6. I still have the No 6 shirt, but I don't actually play as a No 6. Unai's arrival changed my way of playing a bit. That is the evolution I have had and I am very happy with it."
It has a lot to do with his central midfield partner Bouboucar Kamara. "It is two years now that I have been playing with Kamara," says Luiz. "He is an incredible player and he has given me a bit more freedom to get forward and do the things that I like."
Luiz is now seeing more of the ball than in any of his previous seasons and has also added set-pieces to his arsenal.
Four days after that stunning assist against Spurs, there was a similarly impressive dead-ball delivery to set up Alex Moreno's winner in the Europa Conference League clash against Legia Warsaw.
His emergence as one of Villa's main takers coincided with the arrival of specialist set-piece coach Austin MacPhee two years ago. There is a hint of the pair's closeness when they are seen deep in conversation together before this interview begins.
"Yes, I have worked a lot on set-pieces," says Luiz. "Austin has given me great confidence since he arrived.
"He is a guy who likes to work hard. He teaches you what you have to do in every scenario, and how every set play should go, so I go onto the pitch with my confidence very, very high, knowing I am capable of putting in a good ball in. That helps me a lot."
It helps, too, that the man overseeing it all is just as forensic in his attention to detail. "He is a manager who lives football," Luiz adds of Emery. "He studies every day and he coaches hard every day. He demands a lot and I think this has helped us."
And what of his infamous video sessions? "Oof!" Luiz puffs out his cheeks, laughing. "Those meetings can be an hour and 15 minutes long. But, in the end, everything is going well for us. The results are there, you can see that, so we can't say anything."
For Luiz, Wednesday's meeting with Manchester City is a reminder of how far he has come. He left the club having never played for them but remembers his two-year spell on loan at Girona as a positive experience, even though that brought difficulties too.
"The time I had there was very difficult, to tell the truth," he says of his time in Spain. "I had just left Brazil and in my first year at Girona, I only started three games.
"But in the end, it was good, because I learned a lot there, that life is not only about playing, and that you have to maintain your respect for your team-mates. For sure, I grew a lot there."
Unai, honestly, is an incredible manager. He demands a lot from me and I believe he has helped me a lot
The growth has continued at Aston Villa.
"I have been here for five years, so I have a big responsibility in our team now," he concludes. "I am one of our captains and that drives me a lot. I know the player I am, and I know the player I can become."
Expect many more personal highlights to come.
Follow Aston Villa vs Man City on Sky Sports' digital platforms on Wednesday; kick-off 8.15pm; free highlights available shortly afterwards