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Unai Emery and Aston Villa: Inside a stunning transformation

In the refurbished gym at Aston Villa’s training ground, players are regularly put through their paces, spend time building up their strength and flexibility and develop the team bond that is such a key part of their incredible current form.

Another regular sight in the gym has been head coach Unai Emery putting in the miles on the treadmill. But unlike most people, who listen to music or a podcast while working out, the man behind one of the biggest turnarounds in recent Premier League history uses the time to watch recordings of their upcoming opponents’ games.

He’s looking for patterns, for holes, for weaknesses for Villa to exploit.

Emery then relays his findings and key messages to the players in lengthy video analysis sessions, which have been known to run up to an hour and fifteen minutes. 

John McGinn celebrates his winner against Arsenal (Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Focusing on and improving the small details has been the underlying theme of the 13 months since Emery’s appointment, with Villa now a club transformed. Beating champions Manchester City and their title rivals Arsenal back-to-back in the space of four days this week is a period that rubber-stamps their progress.

This is how Villa turned their form and fortunes around, including how:

  • Emery warned players to never make the same mistakes after previous Arsenal defeat
  • He compiled a dossier on each player before joining, calling on his backroom staff to put together clips
  • Players noted a transformation between training under previous boss Steven Gerrard and Emery
  • The squad were pushed through pain barriers in pre-season
  • A ‘best-in-class’ mentality has emerged throughout the club
  • Co-owner Nassef Sawiris was recently pitchside and clapped every player off the pitch
  • Emery takes training ground staff out for meals
  • Villa’s overall infrastructure has been improved.

Seconds away from becoming the only manager in Villa’s 149-year history to win 15 successive home league games, Emery raised both hands in the air and outwards, cranking the crowd’s volume even higher.

It was apt that Villa crossed into unprecedented territory against Arsenal. Ten months ago, the Gunners were the previous Premier League visitors to leave the stadium with three points.

Since then, West Midlands walls have been fortified. The successive 1-0 victories inside four days over the sides to finish first (City) and second (Arsenal) in the 2022-23 Premier League and are likely to contest the title again this season — described as “the most difficult week” by Emery — were taxing, but ultimately ended in glory.

Fortress Villa Park has proven the symbol of the club’s remarkable resurgence, establishing them as one of the Premier League’s best and most effectively-run football clubs.

The improvement from the final days of predecessor Gerrard — where only goal difference kept them out of the top flight’s relegation places — is as drastic as it is exceptional, with Villa now firmly in the hunt for a Champions League spot next season and perhaps even more, with Pep Guardiola endorsing their title credentials only last week.

Emery regarded February’s 4-2 home defeat against Arsenal as a turning point. Irrespective of what he said publicly, that showdown with his old club was one he was desperate to win. So he was consequently infuriated with his side’s manner of collapse after the scores were level until the final minutes. Post-match and across several meetings, he told his players, in no uncertain terms, that such errors could not be repeated.

Emery remarked that they had kicked the ball long on too many occasions, with his defensive players continuing to clear to safety, as opposed to retaining possession and stamping their authority on the game. He preached that seizing control would lead to the concession of fewer goals. Even after the wins against City and Arsenal this week, Emery recalled that painful loss to the latter, unprompted, in his press conferences.

Emery coaches from the touchline (Eddie Keogh/Getty Images)

“The players are more united with each other, this is their primary strength,” says one source close to the dressing room who, like others in this piece, spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect relationships.

That match almost 10 months ago was the last time Villa lost at home, and marked the start of a shift in mentality. Their performance against City on Wednesday was one for the ages and underlined just how far many of those same players who faced Arsenal in February have come in terms of composure, organisation and general quality.

Final preparations for City’s visit had been different to the usual routines.

Emery wanted his players to train on the morning of the game, keen to drill extra detail. The session he conducted was low-intensity, chiefly working on various patterns of play and team shape, ensuring the starting XI knew how to exploit the areas Emery’s analysis had told him City were vulnerable in.

A fluid, spinning midfield four overloaded City in central areas and provided additional passing lanes when playing out from the back. This proved essential in victory and highlighted the forensic lengths Emery and his coaching staff go to. 

Before his official switch from La Liga side Villarreal late last October, Emery compiled detailed dossiers of each player from his home in Spain. He called on the backroom staff who would be joining him in England to put together footage of previous games and clips of individual players. He swiftly recognised the blindspots in the team he was inheriting from Gerrard, with defence a particular issue — Tyrone Mings, Ezri Konsa, Matty Cash and Lucas Digne were all concerns, due to the number of goals the team were conceding.

Elsewhere, Emery knew his methodology would enable specific plans for his attackers, but felt more firepower was needed. Contrary to reports regarding Moussa Diaby being his top target, Athletic Bilbao winger Nico Williams was the player Emery initially wanted.

“With Gerrard, training was just training,” says a source close to a Villa player. “But Emery is so detailed, as he was at Arsenal. He coached them (the players) and continues to coach them in every facet of football every single day, and regularly reinforces good habits on the training ground — until the point where it starts working on the pitch. The players then believe in his methods and start doing exactly what he’s asking them to do every game — confidence and belief then kick in — and this is the result.”

This included the development of first-choice centre-backs Mings and Konsa. Emery wanted both to become better on the ball and protect their zones defensively. Through detailed coaching in what Emery expected from the pair in their parts of the pitch, greater clarity and confidence have been provided.

Players noted an immediate contrast in training between Gerrard and Emery, with the content of sessions transformed overnight. It tied in with the notion that there was a completely different level of leadership between the two coaches — Emery knew exactly what he wanted, while Gerrard, in comparison, was seen to be looking for a “moment of magic” from an individual player.

Gerrard sat, a broken man, alongside assistant Gary McAllister towards the end of a 3-0 defeat away to Fulham in October last year, with neither man, realising they had reached the end at Villa, offering little direction to the players. The lack of communication became so bad that striker Ollie Watkins — usually a reserved, quiet character — took it upon himself to organise a huddle on the Craven Cottage pitch in a bid to restore some semblance of order.

By contrast, Emery is a constant presence up on the touchline, instructing his team through every passage of play. Figures close to Villa say it is a small window into his all-consuming personality, where those in his inner circle describe him as “obsessive” in wanting to extract each possible marginal gain.

In his early days at Villa, Emery would work on at Bodymoor Heath, Villa’s training ground, until as late as 10pm. His close friend, and now the club’s director of football, Damian Vidagany accompanied him and joked how their nocturnal habits would drive security staff, desperately hoping for sleep, to despair. While those hours have now slightly reduced (Emery tends to work 7am-7pm these days, but is prone to staying later to study for the next game) his intensity has not.

Emery’s exhaustive methods meant getting results quickly was important in terms of getting senior players onside. Players subsequently saw purpose in his prolonged preparations and have continued to adhere to his plans. “He’s naturally confident but he loves Emery,” said a source close to one key player. “The coach always asks him never to be afraid to play.”

The first pre-season under Emery this summer was energy-sapping. Lots of travel (including a three-game U.S. tour) with lots of warm-up matches afforded little opportunity for downtime and pushed players, in terms of physical exertion, far more than they experienced in their one pre-season under Gerrard. There were aches and pains before the final friendly away to another of Emery’s former Spanish clubs Valencia but, among players and staff, there remained total buy-in.

Pushing through physical barriers was illustrated once more in Emery opting to go with an unchanged side on Saturday, less than 72 hours after the final whistle against City. “I was thinking about changing the starting XI,” he said, “but yesterday every player said they were perfect to play.”

Emery wanted to build a best-in-class mentality throughout the club. Senior figures involved in non-related footballing matters at Villa say other aspects are having to play catch-up in matching the progress shown under Emery’s leadership. This was also reflected in Villa’s recruitment, where Emery and Vidagany made concerted efforts not to be content with signing “second-rate” players for the sake of it.

In January, Emery’s first window with the club, Villa wanted to give him the freedom to recruit and sanctioned the Spaniard’s priority target — experienced Real Betis full-back Alex Moreno. With Emery having no prior knowledge of Jhon Duran and despite Villa being far down the line towards his signing from MLS side Chicago Fire — a deal pushed by their then sporting director Johan Lange — the transfer was only finalised once he’d watched footage of the teenage forward and agreed there was potential that could be refined under his coaching.

Emery’s sacking from Arsenal in November 2019 hurt him deeply, given it was a development he did not see coming. He felt blindsided by the collapse of faith in his project after only 18 months.

Therefore, in his second crack at the Premier League, Emery intended to build a structure around him that was robust enough to withstand dips in form and, more significantly, to forge the club he joined in his image. Both he and Vidagany share the viewpoint that a settled environment is more important than having money to spend.

Co-owners Sawiris and Wes Edens were enthused by Project Emery and wanted to deliver a supportive network. And having watched him guide Villa from the relegation candidates he inherited to Europa Conference League qualifiers in less than a full season, they gave Emery greater autonomy in bringing aboard more Spanish-speaking staff, including president of football operations Monchi.

On Saturday, Emery thanked Edens and Sawiris for their contributions to Villa’s historic run of home form.

The new coach’s influence became increasingly tangible in recruitment and contracts, where he pushed a new deal for Mings, having been won over by the England international after his early reservations. It was around this time that chief executive Christian Purslow, who helped build the bulk of this talented squad, became sidelined and he left the club in the summer, after turning down the option to stay in a reduced role.

Similarly, Lange moved away from the day-to-day running of the club to assist the owners in their plans to build a multi-club stable before leaving Villa to join fellow Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur in October. Although he helped to develop Villa following his appointment in the summer of 2020, current staff are so confident in Emery’s project and their standing that Lange’s exit has not been a cause for concern.

Before Emery, neither of Edens and Sawiris attended many Villa fixtures. This changed, however, because of their extremely strong affection for him and because they see a team who are winning. After a recent match, Sawiris was pitchside and clapped every player off the pitch and during the November international break, Emery, Vidagany and Monchi attended a Milwaukee Bucks game, the NBA basketball team co-owned by Edens.

In their desire to give Emery what he wants, Edens and Sawiris’ holding company, V Sports, announced a partnership with lower-league Spanish club Real Union last month. In June, Emery and his brother, Igor, acquired a controlling stake in the club from their native Basque region, who their grandfather and father both played for. Strengthening ties improves Real Union’s footballing set-up, with Villa now in a position to share ideas, including coaching and data — something that naturally appealed to Emery. 

Even though there are concerns externally as to whether Villa’s owners are giving too much power to Emery and his Spanish appointments, their unwavering view is that he will succeed and will not be leaving.

You don’t know how lucky Aston Villa are to have these owners,” said Vidagany. “Coming from a traditional club in Spain to Aston Villa, which is self-proud and has a very big history, the owners understand. This is not easy because the interest of investors sometimes is bigger than the understanding of the club.

“What we found here are owners who are committed financially and embrace Villa’s heritage. We knew from the first moment we were not going to be Manchester City or Manchester United, but we knew that if we are professional and explain the plan, the owners will be committed to the plan.”

One of the first phone calls Emery made before joining Villa was to Vidagany, who initially came with him as his personal assistant. Vidagany is tasked with handling the aspects of management away from the training pitch, connecting multiple departments at the club and ensuring alignment throughout. After the subsequent arrival of former Sevilla colleague Monchi, he and Vidagany take care of transfer negotiations and act as sounding boards for any queries.

Vidagany is a transparent and frank communicator in his dealings with players and agents, informing them via email and in meetings if they should seek another club. This summer, he told certain players they could leave provided they came to Villa with a buyer, outlining the sort of fees the club were looking for in each case.

Emery, Vidagany and Monchi have formed a ‘triangle of power’, and are charged with making the key football-related decisions. They have a close relationship, eating breakfast together and working from a shared office that is split into three rooms. The trio travel to games together on the team coach and although Emery will not make such statements publicly, there is a belief between the club’s three main decision-makers that Villa can be contenders, even if there is a disparity in resources between them and the domestic elite.

Emery has hired several Spanish-speaking staff whom he trusts implicitly, including assistant Pako Ayestaran, who had worked in the Premier League before, under Rafa Benitez at Liverpool from 2004-07 — when they won the Champions League. Ayestaran’s appointment is being regarded as one of Emery’s shrewdest decisions, with his experience adding an alternative voice to other trusted assistants.

Ayestaran (right) has had a positive influence on Emery’s side (Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images)

Another relied-upon staff member is goalkeeping coach Javi Garcia. While first-choice ’keeper Emiliano Martinez had a close relationship with the role’s previous occupant Neil Cutler, it is understood he is working with Garcia even more. Martinez invited Garcia to the recent Ballon D’or ceremony where he was named the world’s best goalkeeper. Garcia is open to using different technologies and data to vary training and achieve marginal gains in Martinez’s shot-stopping and distribution.

Emery likes to take staff who work at the Bodymoor Heath training ground out for lunch and dinner, which has helped to foster a spirit of unity at the team’s day-to-day home on the northern outskirts of Birmingham.

The support network away from the training pitch has also been crucial in the club providing a stable base for Emery.

Phil Roscoe, who leads the player care department, is well-liked among the squad and their families and is available to help at any hour. Sofia Allen, Villa’s player care officer, speaks multiple languages and has helped new signings from overseas settle in. Diego Carlos, for instance, knew little English when he joined from Sevilla under Gerrard in the 2022 pre-season. The Brazilian centre-back then sustained a significant injury (a ruptured Achilles tendon) in just his second appearance for the club in the August, while having to help his family settle after the move from Spain and find schools for his children. But Villa were on hand to help and subsequently eased the transition.

There is a sense among senior contacts that Villa, in regards to infrastructure, have seriously got their act together in the past year, coinciding with Emery’s arrival. The club now boast a refurbished, state-of-the-art training facility, have an operational inner-city academy complex — though it’s not yet open to the public — and are pressing ahead with plans to increase Villa Park’s 42,000 capacity to 50,000.

Such growth might have not been quite as swift if Villa had been unable to offer the level of stability given to Emery, with observers close to the situation pointing to the current dysfunction elsewhere in the Premier League at Chelsea and Manchester United.

The players were given two days off in the afterglow of their record 15th straight home league win.

That historic feat is another sign of new ground being broken and of the progress being made under Emery and throughout the club.

(Top photo: Getty Images)


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