Defeat to Stevenage in the FA Cup was a bitter disappointment for Aston Villa and their new coach Unai Emery, a cup specialist. But it has not shaken the view of Villa supporters that their club is on a better path now that the Spaniard is setting the course.
The tone was set with that win over Manchester United in his first game in charge. Emery had achieved in one game what Steven Gerrard had been unable to do in one year – a victory over one of the big clubs. Beating Tottenham underlined the improvement.
In that context, Stevenage was a setback, but it was also a lesson.
“Every match gives us information,” Emery tells Sky Sports. “I want to build a team and will learn by seeing how they respond. We learn from winning matches and we will learn from losing matches. But it is hard to enjoy it when you lose. The next day. The day after…”
If Villa fans have been stewing over that shock defeat to League Two opposition, they can at least be certain that their manager has been ruminating on the result for rather longer.
He admits that life for him right now takes him from the training ground to the hotel and to the stadium. He is here to work. But it has always been that way with Emery.
“He is obsessed with football,” said Joaquin, his player at Valencia. “It is practically an illness.” At Villarreal, Arnaut Danjuma described him as “crazy” about the game. There was a little more deference from midfielder Etienne Capoue. “He is a football encyclopaedia.”
Putting these quotes to Emery in a reception room at the club’s Bodymoor Heath training ground, there is no pride there – just a look that is somewhere between guilty and embarrassed. Is he more obsessed than other coaches? “Maybe,” he acknowledges.
But there follows a defense of his condition.
“Whatever profession you are in, and mine is football, you have to love it. Occupying my days at the training ground or at home, watching our matches, watching the opposition’s matches, I love it. And you get better results when your job is your passion.
“I like to go to dinner and speak about other things. But the focus is on football even with family and friends. This is a very good job. We are privileged people. But if I want to keep my job at a high level then my only choice is to put football at the center of my life.”
Echoing the view of Dani Parejo, who worked with him at Valencia and then many years later with Villarreal, Emery believes he is a better coach now. “After I left Valencia, I won the Europa League four times. That is a lot of experience. A lot of competitive moments.”
Unai Emery’s career
2004-2006: Lorca Deportiva
2012: Spartak Moscow
2016-2018: Paris Saint-Germain
2022-: Aston Villa
And yet, not all of them have been so positive. He volunteers the example of his most infamous defeat of him. In 2017, Barcelona scored three late goals to beat his Paris-Saint-Germain 6-1 in the Champions League and overturn a four-goal deficit from the first leg.
“Even that experience helped me to improve. I am more mature in different ways to better understand the players, to better remain keep calm. I want to be better today than yesterday and better tomorrow than today. That is my target every day.”
But is he better than when he was last in English football? His 18 months with Arsenal have since been styled as a failure but nuance is a rare commodity in football. His team went 22 games unbeaten. They were third in April. Played in a European final in May.
The final was lost and Arsenal finished fifth. He was gone by November, his time at the club defined by juvenile criticism of his language skills. He would later say that he felt alone and unprotected as a result of a lack of support among the hierarchy.
At Villa, Emery believes that support is there.
“You need good people around you as a professional and a person. It is very important. I try to have people around me with the best knowledge who help me to be better at my job. I think I have the best coaches around me now that I have ever had.”
Other aspects remain the same.
Video analysis has been Emery’s calling card as a coach since the days when he was winning promotion to La Liga with Almeria. He prides himself on his teams being better prepared. “Emery put on so many videos that I ran out of popcorn,” said Joaquin, famously.
It is claimed that former Valencia full-back Miguel once fell asleep during one of these sessions. They remain lengthy, Ollie Watkins has already confirmed. Ezri Konsa just smiles when asked about the meetings. But this is a team that needed more information.
There is a feeling that Villa players became accustomed to being told what they should do without being told how to do it. No more. Tyrone Mings speaks of the attention to detail. The supporters see it with the coach’s manic positional gestures on the touchline.
“Analysis is very important to me,” Emery explains.
“I spend a lot of time analyzing the videos by myself alone. Then, I can reduce the time with the players. But even for them, I think it is important that we are together for an hour, an hour and a half, speaking about the matches and speaking to them individually.
“We do it to reduce the amount of work they need to do on the pitch with their team-mates. We look at the specifics of their individual positions so that every player knows their tasks within the team. With the help of the coaches, I think this is the way.”
He knows football well enough to know that when his teams win it is because of his extraordinary attention to detail and when his teams lose it it is because the analysis sessions were too long and too boring. He also knows that he must stay true to his ideas about him.
“This has been my methodology in different countries with different teams and different players. I have to use this methodology. This is my work. It is the reason why I am here. With every player, we use it, they accept it and they make progress because of it.
“These details are very important. Just one detail can change the result. There are lots of them in 90 minutes and the more you can control the better because the opponent is working on those details too. That is football. It is big business and very competitive.
“It is you or them.”
At Villa, he has already got the better than Erik ten Hag, Roberto De Zerbi and Antonio Conte. Indeed, Villa’s only Premier League defeat so far under Emery came in an entertaining game against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool that looked as if it could go either way.
The team looks better organised, tactically improved. Against Tottenham, they controlled the game without the ball. Spurs had almost 60 per cent of the possession but managed little over 30 per cent of the shots and scored neither of the game’s two goals.
The question now is whether Emery can turn Villa into a team that can dominate games with the ball too. He it is telling that the last two games-against Stevenage and Wolves-are the first two in which Villa have had more possession. They haven’t won either.
“Defensively, the team has responded well. They are so committed when we have to defend deeper and they are also pressing very well. But it is more complicated to raise the level with the ball and you have to impose your own idea when you are at home.
“We need the confidence to do that better and each match is a challenge. Maybe we can win by doing that better. Maybe we can win by being defensively organized and by taking advantage of the transitions too, of course. But I want to improve with the ball.”
The hope is that his first signing can help with that. Alex Moreno from Real Betis is ostensibly a left-back but in Emery’s 4-2-2-2 system, the responsibility is with the full-backs to provide the width and make Villa more expansive. That is Moreno’s strength of him.
“He is very offensive,” says Emery.
“We have two players in Philippe Coutinho and Emi Buendia who are wingers but they are not wingers who play on the outside. They play inside, they play narrow, almost as a No 10. I want to have Alex Moreno in the attacking third playing wide almost as a winger.
“Of course, we can do the same with Lucas Digne because he has the ability to do this work, but his profile is more as a left-winger who plays combinations. Alex Moreno adds a different profile. He is faster in the final third The idea is to have more possibilities.
“Because Tottenham are not Wolves, Wolves are not Stevenage, and Stevenage are not Leeds. They demand different tactical responses in possession and out of possession. Maybe they play deeper or higher, maybe their wingers play inside or outside. It all depends.
“But you need different ways to win.”
He is right, of course. And yet, in another sense, for all the subtle tactical adjustments, for all the talk of improvement and evolution, Emery has only one way of winning. It is a way defined by detail. The way of a man, after all these years, still obsessed with his craft.