“He is crazy about football, and that is a good thing. Every game, he comes up with a different plan — the best strategy, the best way he thinks we can beat the opponent. The bigger the games, the more details he gives us.”
Those were the words of Villarreal winger Arnaut Danjuma in an interview with The Athletic last season. The person he was talking about was the Spanish club’s head coach at the time, and now Aston Villa’s new head coach, Unai Emery.
Emery, a meticulous planner, has already shown in just a few days at Villa how attention to detail gains marginal advantages, ending their 23-game league winless streak at home to Manchester United on Sunday in his first match in charge.
From the beginning yesterday, Villa’s shape in possession was interesting — a 4-2-2-2 with Jacob Ramsey and Emiliano Buendia behind Ollie Watkins and Leon Bailey, reminiscent of how Emery’s Villarreal would set up.
The visitors’ Christian Eriksen and Donny van de Beek aggressively pressed Leander Dendoncker and Douglas Luiz, which left Casemiro alone behind his two midfield colleagues…
… and because of the positioning of Buendia and Ramsey, United were outnumbered four to three in the middle of the pitch.
Here, Casemiro is dragged towards the center circle due to the positioning of Buendia behind him, and with Eriksen and Van de Beek on pressing duties, Ezri Konsa can find Ramsey with a penetrative pass.
This was a common theme throughout the first 30 minutes — United’s players getting dragged towards three of Villa’s midfield box, with the remaining player of the hosts’ quartet acting as a free progressive option.
To prevent this overload, the United full-backs tried moving inside to mark Buendia or Ramsey. However, Villa had solutions for this.
One was to find the free full-back, because Alejandro Garnacho and Marcus Rashford were pressing in narrow areas, positioning themselves between Villa’s full-backs and center-backs.
Here, Diogo Dalot moves inside to mark Buendia, with United’s midfield occupying the rest of Villa’s three players.
Since Rashford is also pressing narrow…
… left-back Lucas Digne is completely open and has the wing to himself.
Helping this is Watkins occupying Victor Lindelof, which means the centre-back can’t move up towards Buendia or out to the wide area to cover for Dalot’s movement infield.
As Dalot is moving back to defend his position, Digne finds the now-free Buendia in the left half-space.
You can see how far away from the action Casemiro is, marking Ramsey on the other side of the pitch.
The second solution is to use Bailey and Watkins to pin the United full-backs, preventing them from moving up to mark Villa’s fourth player.
Here, Bailey moves out wide onto Luke Shaw, which prevents the England defender from marking the advancing Ramsey, who is free.
United’s midfield three all have their eyes on Buendia, Luiz and Dendoncker. So when Buendia plays the ball back to Luiz…
… the Brazilian can easily find Ramsey, who has found space in between United’s midfield and defence.
In this example, Shaw pushes up to mark Ramsey but behind him, Bailey is moving wide to attack the area the United left-back has created.
Emiliano Martinez spots the Jamaican forward and plays the ball directly into him.
Shaw is already up the pitch marking Ramsey, so is unable to defend Bailey, who stays wide so Lisandro Martinez doesn’t go with him.
As the ball is reaching Bailey, Shaw tries to react, but his doing so leaves Ramsey free to make a forward run…
… which Bailey finds…
… before the two combine again to penetrate United’s left side.
The move ends with a Ramsey cross intended for Watkins being cut out by Lindelof.
In another example, the midfield marking by United is obvious, which leaves them open when Buendia makes an inside run from the left side.
First, Konsa plays a pass in to Luiz.
Because of Garnacho’s pressing role, the Villa player can find a free Matty Cash on the wing with a lofted pass over three United players.
The Villa right-back then plays a ball behind the defense for Bailey to collect.
Because Villa are building an attack down their own right flank, United’s midfield three shift across to mark this side of their claret and blue counterparts…
… which leaves acres of space centrally for Buendia to exploit. Dalot can’t completely track the Argentinian’s movement while trying to drop back and defend the back post as well.
Buendia signals for Bailey to play a ball into the free central space between the penalty spot and the edge of the 18-yard box…
… but the eventual pass is behind him, not into his path…
… which delays the move and forces Buendia to try a shot from a worse-than-ideal position.
All of this can be seen in the build-up to Villa’s opening goal, after only six minutes into the game.
As Watkins receives the ball out wide, Emery’s midfield box is in position, with Bailey occupying Shaw. Casemiro and Van de Beek are closely marking Buendia and Luiz, while Eriksen’s body shape indicates that he can press Dendoncker when needed.
This results in Ramsey being left free.
As Eriksen gets closer to Dendoncker in the center circle, Ramsey moves into the space behind the advancing Dane. Watkins then finds him between the lines…
… and he puts Bailey through on goal…
… to give Villa an early lead.
In the first half-hour of this game, Villa’s 4-2-2-2 got the better of United’s midfield. Inside runs from Buendia and Ramsey were constantly found, and these contributed to what proved the clinching third goal early in the second half, albeit on the counter.
“I like to work hard on the details,” Emery once said.
The details could be seen in his first win as Villa coach.