Unai Emery is all about planning – there was a point to Villa’s ‘practice’ and chaos

“The best quality we have is being disciplined and being safe in every match,” said Unai Emery, the day before Aston Villa’s trip to Manchester City. “Our structure is kept strong, usually.”

That last word, “usually” proved to be a loaded one.

When the teamsheets were dished out it took one quick glance at Villa’s starting lineup to realise that Emery was not “being disciplined” nor safe.

Rather, the sense that Villa were applying their own form of ‘Chaos Theory’ took hold. The philosophical book, ‘International Encyclopedia of Human Geography’, states that ‘Chaos Theory’ is “when the point of stability moves to instability and/or order moves to disorder.” Emery, in making five changes from the 2-0 victory against Wolverhampton Wanderers and deviating from his desire for control to create something more chaotic, had achieved the footballing equivalent.

Five changes soon became six after Emiliano Martinez withdrew due to illness 45 minutes before kick-off. Emery had to mask injury and unavailability deficiencies and the best way, he surmised, was to be unpredictable. A lineup which consisted of chaos twins, Nicolo Zaniolo and Jhon Duran, no Ollie Watkins, John McGinn and Boubacar Kamara was exacerbated by the few other key starters, such as Pau Torres, Youri Tielemans and Leon Bailey, dropping to the bench.


Emery, left, tried something different against Pep Guardiola’s side (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Those outside of Villa’s press pack rushed to find out how to pronounce 20-year-old midfielder Tim Iroegbunam’s surname. Martinez was busy throwing up with a stomach issue and realisation swept in that Villa would have to replace their two irreplaceable players, he and Watkins, away at The Etihad.

Martinez’s impromptu absence was symbolic of the ad-hoc approach, not in keeping with Emery’s cerebral, systematic modus operandi. It was only on Tuesday at his press conference that he explained why “staying consistent” in his principles was why Villa, despite their injuries and suspensions, continued grinding results out.

In truth, Villa’s first half performance evidenced Emery’s belief. Even when Rodri scored in the opening quarter of an hour, Villa did not allow the sense of chaos to consume them. Instead, players followed the mentality Emery is often at pains to install; no excuses, head down and stick to the plan. Duran became the youngest visiting player to score at the Etihad (20 years, 112 days) since Marcus Rashford in 2016 (18y 141d) and Emery appeared to have devised a strategy that rewired his front four and preyed on City’s susceptibilities on transition.

The attacking quartet could essentially be separated into two factions — Zaniolo and Morgan Rogers the ball-carriers and Duran and Moussa Diaby the runners. Diaby played from the right but edging forward when Villa were sat in their compact 4-4-2 block, ready to break upon turnover. 

The risk, as it turned out, was that Jack Grealish would become City’s out-ball and immediately be one-on-one against full-back, Ezri Konsa. Grealish had the most touches of any attacking player on the pitch in the first half, receiving high and wide on the left and near Villa’s travelling support, who still, audibly, refused to let bygones be bygones.

Villa were set-up to transition quickly, doing away with any semblance of control or by imposing themselves through possession, as they did in the reverse fixture when they swept to victory.


Duran led the line in the absence of Watkins (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

As it turned out, Emery screamed at the closest players nearby so they could pass on the message to stand-in goalkeeper Robin Olsen to kick long into Duran. Villa’s defensive crouch would spring out to counter, with players in positions to break; in some ways, the opposite form of rest defence. This was illustrated by Duran’s equaliser and as Guardiola put it succinctly after: “They had a lot of players on transition.”

“We will play a lot of matches in the next weeks,” said Emery. “Starting on Saturday against Brentford and then in the Conference League with Lille. It was important to be intelligent against Man City. We prepared the match trying to win, but thinking after some players got injured.”

Villa were intelligent. Iroegubunam was combative with Emery stomping his feet three times and waving his arms in a circular motion after the midfielder dispossessed Phil Foden to initiate a fast break, Olsen made key stops and Zaniolo, until he decided to twist and make himself smaller in the free-kick wall, was an adept, if somewhat pantomime-like, water-carrier.

But his crucial error to turn his body and allow Foden a crevice to shoot through before half-time was definitive. It put City ahead again and pivoted Emery’s mind towards the visit of Brentford. Calum Chambers, frozen out of Villa’s European squad because Emery, in short, does not want him, was told to warm up. Substitutions became game-protectors rather than game-changers.

Villa wilted and aimed to preserve, but ended up being left cut through and exploited by Foden’s brilliance. Emery admitted after that his thinking increasingly centred on “practising” with peripheral figures, knowing that this stage of the season, when injuries and fatigue influence every decision, is when the notion of football being a “squad game” rings true. Particularly in a team that is still bustling in Europe.

“We will need them,” said Emery of his fringe players. “We need to give them chances to play. They need confidence and practice.”

Left-back Alex Moreno replaced Duran as Villa saved themselves for another day. By this point, Konsa, Villa’s fifth-choice captain, was donning the armband and among only four players left out on the pitch that realistically made up Emery’s ideal XI.

The eventual 4-1 scoreline did not highlight Villa’s valiant display or intentions to create initial chaos in Manchester. The majority of away supporters stayed until the end and in acknowledgement that Villa’s first away defeat of 2024 was loaded with mitigation. Crucially, it also offered a perspective as to the future tasks at hand.

“Today, Manchester City showed their power,” said Emery. “We have to try and get our space in the table. We are fourth, even after this loss.”  

(PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

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