Aston Villa Season Preview 2023/24: Can Unai Emery’s side pick up where they left off in 2022/23?
Aston Villa were one of the form teams at the end of 2022/23. Unai Emery’s outfit dragged themselves up the Premier League table through a combination tactical fluidity and momentum, eventually landing a place in the Europa Conference League for 2023/24. Can they make further progress in the upcoming campaign amid an ideally packed schedule?.
Aston Villa’s 2022/23 season was a rollercoaster, one in which they began the campaign horribly under ex Liverpool and England midfielder Steven Gerrard. Gerrard’s narrow 4-3-3 system was unsuited to Villa’s squad, as a flat midfield three of John McGinn, Jacob Ramsey and Boubacar Kamara operated in a way that stifled each of their attributes.
Under Gerrard, Villa displayed few patterns of play and were far too easy to expose. At the time of his sacking in October after a 3-0 defeat at Fulham, the Villains were 14th and only three points outside the relegation zone. There was also a fractured dressing room due to key centre half Tyrone Mings being stripped of the captaincy, removed from the team and reprimanded in public by the manager.
Enter Unai Emery, the serial Europa League winning manager was installed at Villa Park and was initially tasked with removing any threat of relegation. His debut was a dream start as Manchester United were demolished 3-1, Villa’s first home league win over United in 27 years. The following week, an away triumph over Brighton and Hove Albion meant that Villa went into the World Cup break in 12th and could begin to look up the Premier League table.
The second half of the season was when Emery and his coaching staff began to truly transform Villa’s squad. A 4-2-2-2 setup in which Douglas Luiz and Boubacar Kamara acted as a double pivot enabled McGinn and Ramsey to play further forward and affect games in the final third a lot more, whilst a withdrawn right back gave the left back Alex Moreno, a January arrival from Real Betis license to bomb forward and provide another dimension to the attack.
Villa’s new found attacking potency was demonstrated by the fact that they became the first Premier League side to score in a manager’s first 20 league games.
Emery’s insistence on a high defensive line allowed teams to be caught offside frequently and also enabled the team to defend from the front, which compressed the pitch and often caused turnovers in Villa’s favour.
A 2-0 victory at Goodison Park in February began a run of 10 games unbeaten, during which they won eight consecutive encounters and surged from 12th to 7th by the time spring came around, a sequence that was crowned when Eddie Howe’s Champions League bound Newcastle United were taken apart by a 3-0 scoreline. Ollie Watkins’ form at this time typified the turnaround, as a striker who had scored two goals before Christmas became the first Villa forward to net in five consecutive games since Paul Rideout in 1985.
A draw at Anfield on the penultimate weekend meant that a Europa Conference League place was in their own hands on the final day. A 2-1 victory over Brighton & Hove Albion in front of a fervent Villa Park duly delivered a first European campaign since 2010.
In a word, buoyant. Unai Emery turned the place on its head when he arrived in November, qualifying for Europe was due reward and has left fans hungry for more in 2023/24.
Transfers they’ve made/how they’ll look tactically in 2023/24
Villa have so far made three high level additions to their squad ahead of the 2023/24 season, with Belgian midfielder Youri Tielemans arriving on a free transfer after the expiry of his contract at Leicester City, centre-back Pau Torres signing from Emery’s former club Villarreal and French forward Moussa Diaby being brought in from Bayer Leverkusen for a club-record fee of £50 million.
Pre-season would suggest that Diaby has been signed to replace Leon Bailey as the foil for Watkins up front rather than play in one of the wide positions. The strikers will be used in tandem to pull defences around, with Diaby, who often played centrally for Leverkusen looking exploit the spaces that are left via a combination of Watkins’ diagonal runs into the channels and the advanced midfielders drifting from in to out.
Adaptability and flexibility are two hallmarks of an Emery side and these are starting to be seen in his Villa team, most notably with the use of centre-backs in the full back positions and vice versa.
In Alex Moreno’s absence through injury in pre-season, an inverted back three has been used in possession with Matty Cash an auxiliary right centre-back and Torres an auxiliary left wing back. However, Emery is more likely to use specialists in these positions, Diego Carlos and Lucas Digne, respectively until Moreno returns.
Tielemans has been the standout performer in pre-season with several classy midfield displays as a deep-lying playmaker.
He’ll be pushing for a starting berth in one of the double pivot roles, although Luiz and Kamara will be difficult to dislodge.
The attacking midfield roles will be filled by captain John McGinn on the left with Emi Buendia the most likely stand-in for the injured Jacob Ramsey, although Philippe Coutinho and Jaden Philogene have also impressed in cameos and will be around the squad.
Leon Bailey, Cameron Archer and Jhon Duran will provide alternatives for the first choice strike partnership of Watkins and Diaby.
Douglas Luiz’s form towards the end of 2022/23 earned him a recall to the Brazil squad and he’ll be pivotal for Villa in the upcoming season in order to carry out Emery’s patient, press resistant style. The 25 year-old is constantly making angles to receive the ball from the centre-backs and begin attacks from deep, and as a result is heavily involved in most of Villa’s attacking moves.
A bumper new contract signed in October 2022 should ward off any potential suitors in the near future, after Arsenal saw two bids rejected for him last summer.
There is optimism, perhaps even confidence that Villa will continue to make strides under their Basque coach and his staff.
A European football-less Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and others will provide stern competition for the top-six places though and Villa will need to manage the Thursday-Sunday routine of a potentially long Europa Conference League campaign.
They aren’t in the state of flux that several of their rivals are however, so a Europa League berth is more than achievable.