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Unai Emery exclusive interview: Five factors in Aston Villa's success from the offside trap to Ollie Watkins up front

In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, Aston Villa boss Unai Emery discusses five of the reasons why his team can go top of the table on Friday; Watch Aston Villa vs Sheffield United live on Sky Sports Premier League this Friday from 7pm; kick-off 8pm

Aston Villa's Unai Emery
Image: Unai Emery has Aston Villa flying high at the top end of the Premier League table but how has he done it?

With Aston Villa in fantastic form and knowing that victory on Friday will take them to the top of the Premier League, Unai Emery still finds time to talk tactics. In the players' lounge at the club's training ground, he is talking Sky Sports through some of the graphics that highlight Villa's success. As ever, it is an education...

That high defensive line

One of the biggest differences between Aston Villa and every other team in the Premier League this season is the number of times that they have caught the opposition offside. It is 82 occasions now, 26 more than Tottenham, and double that of almost everyone else.

It is an illustration not just that Villa are playing with a high defensive line but that the trap is succeeding in catching the opponent out on a regular basis. It has long been a principle of Emery's play. But, he admits, it was never quite like this before coming to Villa…

Emery says: "I have always worked with the back four trying to hold the line. Sometimes higher, sometimes lower. For example, when I started as a coach 20 years ago, I started off so high at the beginning. Sometimes we were struggling and I changed it a bit.

"But always I was managing higher rather than lower. We were doing it at Villarreal too but not like here, where we are so high. When I arrived here and started working with the players, they were progressively getting more comfortable being high.

"Sometimes they were deciding to hold high even when the opponent could do one pass and be in behind. That was the consequence at the beginning. Of course, it is my decision. But the players were feeling good and taking the decision themselves.

"They feel better when we are high. Sometimes we analyse it and think it is a big risk. But my coaches tell me, 'How can I tell the player to change it when they are feeling good? I cannot.' But every week we analyse it. I show them how we are doing with the line.

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"Today, we had a meeting analysing the last match that we played at home. I put in there eight to 10 movie clips showing them the line, talking to them about holding that line, either with four or five, and the importance of everyone staying focused."

The world's best goalkeeper

Aston Villa's Emiliano Martinez has swept up behind his defence more than any other Premier League goalkeeper this season
Image: Emiliano Martinez has swept up behind his defence more than any other goalkeeper

It is not just the defenders who must focus but the man behind them. Emiliano Martinez is Aston Villa's shot stopper but also their sweeper keeper. "The goalkeeper is making that commitment to protect and to cover the back four when there is a long ball."

The statistics show that Martinez, winner of the Yashin Award as the best goalkeeper in the world following his World Cup success with Argentina, has successfully swept up behind his defence more times than any other goalkeeper in the Premier League this season.

Another metric that has him leading the way among his peers is the length of time that Martinez spends in possession of the ball with each touch. He averages over four seconds on the ball per touch. It is normal to see him stand motionless, inviting players to press.

Emery says: "The idea is to control the game with our positioning. If they are not pressing the goalkeeper then he can drive but we are not in a hurry to pass. Maybe we can fix one opposition player if they are coming towards him to press him. It is for this reason.

"Of course, if we are winning and the opposition are not coming to press, fine. A lot of teams decide not to press the goalkeeper. If you are playing against Alisson, David Raya or Ederson, you are taking a risk going to press him because they can build up very well.

"But when they are winning and you are not pressing them, you have to go, otherwise they will just keep the ball. We were playing Zrinjski last week and we were drawing and in the last few minutes they accepted the draw. We were first in the group with a draw.

"Our goalkeeper had the personality to keep the ball himself and not progress. The crowd and some players were saying, 'Come and play.' No! Come to me. I am here. We are drawing away from home and first in the group. This as well is our idea."

Playing out from the back

Once Martinez has picked out a pass, Villa need to progress the ball up the pitch and there is no defender in the Premier League who is doing that better than Pau Torres this season. The summer signing from Villarreal has carried the ball over 3km in total.

Only Manchester City's Ruben Dias comes close to registering those numbers as a defender. It reflects how comfortable the Villa man is on the ball - but also reflects how football is changing and the responsibility of those players at the back has shifted.

Aston Villa's Pau Torres has carried the ball further than any other Premier League defender this season
Image: Pau Torres has carried the ball further than any other Premier League defender

Emery says: "As a coach, I am learning as well and football is changing. Twenty years ago, it was completely different. But this competition now compared to even five years ago? There was a time when goalkeepers did not have the skill to play in the build-up.

"Now, some of the goalkeepers are better with their feet than the other players. With centre-backs, it is similar. For example, when I was at Arsenal, we played against Brighton with Lewis Dunk. He never played. They were playing long balls. He never built up.

"But he adapted. Now, he is completely different, playing in the build-up, confident with the ball." With Clement Lenglet set to replace the injured Pau against Sheffield United, could it be an issue? "Clement is working on the same ideas as Pau Torres."

Super John McGinn in midfield

John McGinn's changing heatmaps at Aston Villa
Image: John McGinn's changing heatmaps at Aston Villa reveal his new role this season

Douglas Luiz and Boubacar Kamara have been the bedrock of Villa's midfield this season but John McGinn has been a revelation in a more advanced role. Two seasons ago, he was involved in his own half as much as the opposition's but that has changed now.

He shifted to the left half-space this season after an injury to Jacob Ramsey and is enjoying himself. Emery is delighted to discover that McGinn ranks third in the Premier League for dribbles this season but is also towards the top for ground duels.

Capable of cutting through teams with an ambitious pass or scoring himself, the combination of qualities that McGinn has brought to Villa's play in the final third of the pitch is unusual. Of course, there is a manager at the club who still wants more.

John McGinn's stats for Aston Villa
Image: John McGinn's stats for Aston Villa highlight his all-round contribution

Emery says: "I push him to get into the box more to score goals. I cannot only give the responsibility to our strikers. I want to have goals from wingers, from midfield. Even centre-backs. I am always pushing Ezri Konsa. I say to him, 'Konsa, I need one goal from you!'

"I know John McGinn can do it. He can run. He can get into the box. But not just get into the box, get into the box to score goals. If you are going into the box then go into the box to score. Be that demanding of yourself. He is doing that now.

"Of course, I demand of him to do more. I demand more passes because sometimes he wants to do things quickly in the final third. I say, 'John, if you can do a good pass then go long. If not, then go short, take your time to progress in the attacking third.'

"Against Manchester City, he protected the ball very good. He can play higher or lower, it depends. Wide, narrow. He can play there because he has the mentality to do it. He has the skill, a good pass, good drive, he has power in his legs, but it is his mentality."

Watkins becoming a top-class striker

Ollie Watkins' changing heatmaps at Aston Villa
Image: Ollie Watkins' changing heatmaps at Aston Villa show that he is now in the box more

At the top end of the pitch, Ollie Watkins has been the man scoring most of the goals. Indeed, only Erling Haaland has scored more Premier League goals than the forward in 2023 if penalties, now taken by Douglas Luiz for Aston Villa, are excluded from the totals.

It shows how Watkins' game has transformed. Under Dean Smith and Steven Gerrard, much of his work was done outside of the penalty box. He still performs that function in this Villa team but has added more goals to his game. He is in the form of his career.

Aston Villa's Ollie Watkins ranks second only to Erling Haaland for non-penalty goals in the Premier League in 2023
Image: Ollie Watkins ranks second for non-penalty goals in the Premier League in 2023

Emery says: "We tried to set him as a striker who we could thread balls in behind to and who could score goals with his head. We are working collectively and individually with him. I have an assistant doing that individual work, analysing what we want from him.

"We give him a good structure so that he is comfortable but I have worked with a lot of strikers and they always score goals. I had Edinson Cavani. I had Alvaro Negredo. I had David Villa. I had Carlos Bacca. I had Gerard Moreno. I had Roberto Soldado.

"With Ollie, we need him to run in behind, hold up the ball, and then get into the box and score goals. But even when Ollie is not scoring goals, he is always committed to doing every task, always doing his work. Then, his responsibility is to score goals if he can.

"With the penalties, I decided to go with Douglas Luiz. Not because Ollie was not scoring but I used the data to choose the most efficient, clinical taker. Ollie did not complain. He accepted. Hopefully, we can play in a cup final and he can score in the shootout."

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What next for Emery's Aston Villa?

That cup final could come domestically or in Europe before the season is through but it is the Premier League that is the focus right now. Aston Villa can go top of the Premier League with victory over bottom club Sheffield United at Villa Park on Friday evening.

But their run in the Europa Conference League offers a reason to believe that Villa can sustain their Premier League success throughout the campaign. There is depth in this Villa squad, necessitated by those European fixtures and strengthened by them.

Lenglet is expected to come in for his first Premier League start of the season but he has already made six starts in Europe. It has helped others slot seamlessly into the team too. "It has been very important for Lenglet and for Youri Tielemans as well," says Emery.

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"Of course, it is more matches, more difficult. Sometimes we arrive after long travel and we are trying to rest after playing on Thursday. But it is an opportunity to practise with players in Europe and then to use them in the Premier League." It has worked. Villa have won all four Premier League games after playing away in Europe this season.

"Europe definitely helps for different reasons too. It is a way of winning a trophy. It is way of winning prestige. Europe, for me, has always been very important. It gave me a lot in the past in the Europa League and Champions League, for 19 years in a row."

He pauses and laughs. "Of course, it is more work for me."

But Unai Emery has never minded that.

It is just another reason for Aston Villa to believe.

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