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Premier League return | Unai Emery faces key decisions in Aston Villa managerial debut against Manchester United

The former Arsenal manager is set to face Erik ten Hag’s recovering Manchester United and will want to instill his tactical directives as soon as possible at struggling Aston Villa

Aston Villa’s claret and blue army have a new general after Spanish headmaster Unai Emery has been called into action to take up his new posting on the Villa Park touchline after the second city outfit prized the Basque manager from Andalusian side Villarreal.

The club recently parted ways with Steven Gerrard after the Liverpool legend and former Glasgow Rangers standout manager was relieved of command after a frustrating start to the campaign has seen Villa sit tied for fifteenth in the Premier League table and starved for any semblance of consistent attacking output.

Former caretaker boss Aaron Danks spoke highly of Emery and feels that club supporters should be excited about his arrival in Birmingham, stating “The fans should be excited about it. You just have to look at his pedigree and see what he’s won to know he’s a top coach. We’re really excited to welcome him to the club.”

Emery, who previously spent one-and-a-half seasons at English giants Arsenal, has been viewed with mixed emotions in north London after his initial success at the Emirates Stadium turned sour, ultimately ending in him being sacked and eventually replaced by current boss Mikel Arteta after former Gunners winger Freddie Ljungberg initially replaced him on an interim basis.

With Villa possessing a squad with a fair degree of talent overall, particularly in the forward line, how Emery intends to instill his ideas on the pitch will immediately be tested against a recovering Manchester United under Erik ten Hag who sit sixth in the Premier League at the time of writing.

What can Villa fans expect from the 50-year-old Hondarribia native? Let’s take a look at some key tactical decisions that Emery could make tomorrow as well as for the, if you’re a Villa supporter, the remainder of the 2022-23 Premier League season.

To CAM, or not to CAM, that is the question

For the entirety of the 2022-23 Premier League season to date, Villa has utilized a variation of a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 tactical schematic that, on paper, has not borne fruit in a manner commensurate with some of the attacking talents the club can call upon.

At current, Villa has scored just eleven goals through twelve league fixtures, and as it stands, its sub-standard attacking output is hands down the biggest problem area that Emery will need to address rapidly if the club is to come online and find a run of results.

What is encouraging nonetheless is the fact that their last result, the only one under Danks, was a 4-0 thrashing of Brentford at Villa Park last weekend that prominently featured attacking contributions from Danny Ings, Ollie Watkins, and Leon Bailey, all of whom found the back of the net with Ings bagging a brace in the process.

Former Norwich City standout Emi Buendía was deployed in the aforementioned central attacking midfield role as Danks opted to keep tactical continuity during his transition tenure on the touchline and many may expect much of the same tomorrow. After all, why change a formula that showed so much promise?

Though there is wisdom in avoiding massive upheaval, there may be a different approach undertaken by Emery against the Red Devils.

At Villarreal this season, as well as during the vast majority of his two full campaigns at the head of El Submarino Amarillo, Emery customarily put faith in a 4-4-2 schematic that often featured a double six midfield duo that gave his side much protection at the back. Faith in this avenue saw Emery claim his fourth Europa League win in 2020-21 against Manchester United in the final while also enjoying a run to the semi-finals of the Champions League last season only to lose to Liverpool in the end.

Certainly, one could argue that Emery’s preferred methods utilized elsewhere would suit Villa given the current squad he has at his disposal.

A striker tandem featuring both Ings and Watkins not only taps into both players’ goalscoring instincts in their preferred roles, but the notion that the pair of forwards are adept at dropping deeper to link the midfield strips the need for a central attacking outlet.

More to the point, the utilization of Baily and Buendía on the flanks, particularly Buendía in this case who shone in that role for Norwich given his propensity to tuck centrally and combine with the centre forward while opening the right channel for an attacking overlap – in this case through the capable Matty Cash – would offer a myriad of questions for Newcastle to negotiate.

In the wide pairing, both are very capable of getting forward and providing service to two players in Ings and Bailey that are lethal closer to goal, especially in the air, and that pays homage to many of the goals that Villarreal scored under Emery’s reign.

The midfield conundrum

Though often criticized for his preference at Villarreal to tap into veteran talent in all areas of the pitch, many forget that Emery has put faith in youth often in his career, with the most recent bright young talent to progress under his leadership being Spanish starlet Yéremy Pino.

But at Arsenal, Emery saw the potential and immediate impact that three young players were able to bring to the table; and have gone on to do just that.

During his spell in north London, Arsenal starlets Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli, and Emile Smith Rowe were all given their full debuts for the Gunners, so it is likely that the Basque hero may do similar from his perch at Bodymoor Heath, with one player, Jacob Ramsey, particularly coming to mind.

Ramsey has already made his debut for his boyhood club and so much more when, after registering over 800-minutes in 22 Premier League appearances in 2020-21, the England youth international rose to prominence last season under Gerrard to the tune of 34 appearances (~2500-minutes of action) and chipping in with 6 goals along the way.

Much of the same can be said of Ramsey this season regarding the faith that remained emanating from Gerrard, but his goal contributions have taken a dive with just one goal in twelve appearances thus far.

A more forward-thinking midfielder who exhibits a measure of technical craft and goalscoring instincts in the final third, Ramsey may not be able to contribute in the same vein as he did last season under Emery, who typically prefers two deep-sitting central midfielders to shield the back four while creating from deep rather than bombing forward with great regularity.

Though Francis Coquelin had a resurgent period under Emery at Villarreal, the former Arsenal midfielder is at heart a ball-winner first, and in that vein, other central options could be preferred if Emery sticks to his recent traditions across the last few seasons, with David Luiz likely to remain a key figure in the XI which will leave summer signings Leander Dendoncker and highly-touted French international Boubacar Kamara (when back fit) to fight for the other central birth.

That will leave additional questions surrounding club captains John McGinn and Morgan Sanson, particularly McGinn who was once the very lifeblood of the club’s efforts on the pitch, but even he has struggled to be as influential this season.

Truthfully, there is no telling what Emery will opt for in the opening weeks for his new employer, but if recent history is to be believed, there could well be a prominent name in the Villa senior setup that will not stand to gain from his appointment.


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Andrew Thompson

US-based Football writer. German football guru with a wealth of experience in youth development and analysis. Data aficionado. Happily championing the notion that Americans have a knowledgeable voice in the beautiful game.

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