Why Unai Emery's workaholic personality can haul Villa up the table

TOM COLLOMOSSE: Unai Emery’s workaholic personality and fierce demands can catapult Aston Villa up the table… the former Arsenal boss helps struggling teams get into Europe and Villa must buy into his ideas

  • Aston Villa will be a walk in the park for Unai Emery compared to past jobs  
  • The Spaniard regularly helps teams of similar stature succeed in Europe 
  • Players should prepare for lengthy and tough training at Bodymoor Heath
  • His work ethic can help haul Aston Villa up the table after a turbulent season 

Anyone worried about whether Unai Emery can revive Aston Villa should understand it will be relatively simple compared with what he faced as a young manager at Valencia.

The Spaniard, who turned 51 on Thursday, arrives at Villa Park with the team above the relegation zone by a single point. They have won only three times this season and have significant flaws at both ends of the pitch. ‘Big challenge ahead,’ read the tweet from Emery’s official account on Wednesday morning.

Yet given what Emery experienced 14 years ago, Villa should be a walk in the park. During the 2008-09 season, his first at the club, it emerged Valencia were about £500million in debt and players had been unpaid for weeks.

Unai Emery’s job at Aston Villa will be a walk in the park compared to his previous challenges

He took a cash-strapped Valencia from relegation battlers to the Champions League 

Midway through the previous campaign, former boss Ronald Koeman had cast three club heroes – David Albelda, Santiago Canizares and Miguel Angel Angulo – out of the squad and the team had battled relegation. In his first role at a major club, Emery took all this in his stride and came within a whisker of qualifying for the Champions League. The following season, Valencia finished third and returned to Europe’s top table.

Emery’s quality as a coach is beyond doubt, as his 11 trophies – including four Europa League titles – attest. Though his first task is to pull Villa clear of the drop zone, billionaire owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens have hired Emery because he took Valencia and Sevilla, clubs of comparable size, into European competition and did well there.

It will be fascinating to see how Emery’s workaholic personality and fierce demands will be received by the Villa squad, and whether he has learned lessons from his 18 months at Arsenal, which ended with the sack in November 2019.

Aston Villa are enduring a turbulent season and need discipline from new coach Emery 

The Spaniard will bring a high work ethic and big demands from his players at Villa Park 

Under Steven Gerrard, training was intense but relatively short, with players able to return to their families once their work was done.

The squad had better get used to longer hours under Emery. Whereas Gerrard left much of the training-ground duties to his coaches, Emery patrols the pitches, clipboard in hand, at the heart of everything.

The number of days off players are granted is likely to be reduced drastically and there is expected to be huge emphasis on video analysis, with these sessions lasting up to two hours. While many coaches favour short, sharp messages to players, Emery believes in supplying them with as much information as possible.

Training can be monotonous, with Emery settling on a plan for a specific opponent and then drilling his players until they have perfected it. Before his Villarreal side faced Chelsea in the UEFA Super Cup in 2021, Emery fined-tuned their defensive shape by asking players to link arms and move together at his coaches’ direction.

He was hired because of his ability to take clubs of Villa’s stature into Europe and win trophies

All the indications are that Emery will prefer a basic 4-2-3-1 shape, with the emphasis on defensive organisation and rapid counter-attacks. Nothing is off the cuff and there is little room for levity in training, either: Emery is extremely serious about football and he expects similar dedication from those he leads. During games he is always on the move, directing every pass from the technical area and forever pondering changes – a tactical tweak here, a substitution there.

‘You have to have huge respect for the way he can set up a team,’ says Terry Gibson, the former Tottenham and Manchester United forward who is a regular pundit on La Liga TV’s Spanish football coverage. ‘But I don’t anticipate free-flowing football at the start.

‘He works the team and the individual players hard and if they buy into it, they may well have some success along the way.’

Will Emery adopt a different approach now he is back in the Premier League? Though English football has changed greatly in the last two decades, the culture is still different in La Liga, where players are comfortable with repetitive, technical coaching, and a strong tactical flavour.

Emery is serious about football and expects the same levels of dedication from all his players

At Arsenal, Emery was regarded as a brilliant coach who sometimes struggled to communicate his ideas. Whereas he knew the name of every player from the first team to the Under-16s, Emery did not have the same relationship with long-serving staff in other areas of the club.

Though players who know Emery have enormous respect for his coaching, most know little of the man beyond his total obsession with football. During his time in north London, Emery maintained a laser focus on results that left little time for anything else. When he left, both he and the club had regrets.

Yet Emery and Villa could be the perfect fit if each is prepared to make allowances for the other. Transfer policy should be smoother than under Gerrard, whose preference for tried-and-tested players contrasted with sporting director Johan Lange’s mission to find young talent and undervalued gems. Emery knows Villarreal to be willing sellers and it would be no surprise should Villa target their players, such as Arnaut Danjuma or Nicolas Jackson, in January.

Emery and Villa could be a perfect fit – if each is prepared to make allowances for the other

While this squad has talent, it lacks the structure and discipline that an experienced coach can bring. The Villa players who wondered why Gerrard did not lead training more often will soon be seeing more of Emery than they do their immediate families.

It might not be fun every day, but if Villa follow Emery’s methods they will surely move up the table, and perhaps win a domestic cup. Emery watched his first opponents Manchester United 17 times before beating them in the 2021 Europa League Final and he will be ready for them again, both on Sunday and in the Carabao Cup at Old Trafford four days later.

Similarly, Emery may need to adapt a little more to the culture of British football, where the manager – whether they like it or not – sets the tone for an entire club, not just the first-team squad. Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel, as well as Wenger and Jose Mourinho, embraced this role and Emery would be well advised to do the same.

The bottom line, though, is that Villa have hired a serial winner, with an appetite for a challenge. Just ask Valencia.

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