In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, Unai Emery talks tactics and psychology after the injuries to Emiliano Buendia and Tyrone Mings – and why Villa are still aiming high; watch Aston Villa vs Everton live on Sky Sports this Sunday from 1pm; kick-off 2pm
The season had been keenly anticipated at Aston Villa, a series of exciting signings helping to build the best squad that younger supporters can remember. That optimism has been shaken by one thumping defeat at Newcastle and two serious injuries.
Losing 5-1 would have been chastening regardless but it came against the backdrop of Emiliano Buendia’s cruciate ligament injury and included talisman Tyrone Mings suffering the same fate during the game. It was a sombre journey back from St James’ Park.
Speaking to Unai Emery in a breakout room after his press conference on Friday, the conversation begins by asking if he has ever known a team suffer such misfortunate. Typically, he offers the factual response rather than surrender to hyperbole.
“Real Madrid,” Emery tells Sky Sports. “Thibaut Courtois and Eder Militao.” Still, he acknowledges that the situation is “strange, unusual” and he cannot ignore the human impact of such injuries on his entire squad. “Emotionally, it is always hard,” he adds.
“It is the worst news. Firstly, for the players. Secondly, for the team because they are important players who are not going to be playing for a long time. The players are in contact every day, they are friends, they are team-mates. It needs time to recover the stability.”
In the aftermath, players, staff and supporters look to one person for leadership. At Villa, that person is Emery. “As a coach, you have to try to show calm.” He took time to process it, however. “I needed Sunday and Monday to react.” And then, he formulated his response. “By being demanding,” he says. No excuses. That is the mantra.
“If we are only making excuses in bad circumstances I think the reaction would possibly be worse,” he explains. “We always have to be in control of ourselves and accept it. When news comes we find solutions quickly. The opportunities are there for other players.”
Emery may be reluctant to use the mitigating circumstances as an excuse but they are plain for all to see. It is not only Mings and Buendia who are now missing through injury but Alex Moreno and Jacob Ramsey, four of his likely starting line-up. “This is the reality.”
The discussion turns to the squad depth in pre-season, even how the absences of Jhon Duran and Leander Dendoncker robbed Villa of competition for places. After a pause, Emery shuts it down himself. “These are excuses. We did not lose because of it.”
Why did they lose?
“Newcastle showed us they are better than us,” he says.
“They were faster, stronger in the duels, more aggressive in attack and they won because they were better. We were less in the duels, less in the runs, less aggressive than them. This is the reason. Tactically, as well, we took some wrong decisions.”
Villa’s high defensive line has come under scrutiny, although it was the lack of pressure on the ball higher up the pitch that contributed to their problems at Newcastle – albeit against one of the more physically intense opponents in European football right now.
The injury to Mings would also seem to put an end to the tentative plans that had been floated to use new signing Pau Torres as a de facto left-back in the build-up phase. Tactical flexibility has long been a priority for Emery, but does this now limit his options?
He does not anticipate it altering his approach too much. “We are trying to play with our shape, building with two or a third centre-back playing low as a right full-back. We will not change a lot, we will react by trying to be stronger with the same structure.”
He talks of the need to “improve the players” through his incessant work on the training ground. The signing of Nicolo Zaniolo shows Villa are prepared to turn to the transfer market to rebalance the squad. More incomings are possible by the end of the month.
“Without Tyrone and Emiliano the squad is weaker,” he says. “We want to finish the transfer window with a strong structure in our squad because we want to be competitive in all competitions. We have to be aware and ready if something could improve our squad.”
Before that, there is the visit of Everton. It will be a different challenge, tactically and psychologically, to the one Villa faced at Newcastle. “Firstly, it is different because it is at home.” But he is not underestimating Everton. “They deserved to beat Fulham.”
When did he watch it? “Monday,” he replies. With others still ruminating on defeat, his own process had begun. “Now I am going through it again with the club analysts, looking at their structure. I will go through the final details with the players on Sunday morning.”
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He is, he points out, just a man “trying to build a team” but that work has captured the imagination, with European football returning to Villa Park and talk of a first trophy since 1996. The message from Emery is that he wants everyone at Villa to keep believing.
“When I am sending some messages, it is because we have to put our level high,” he explains. “We have to try to put it high. As. High. As. Possible. And then try to get it. That is the only message that I have for myself, for my players and for the supporters.
And if they do not reach it? “The supporters have to control their frustration too. Because we are going to be very demanding. But the frustration is not the same if you aim high. And, if we are not getting there as soon as possible, we will get there in the long term.”
Watch Aston Villa vs Everton live on Sky Sports Premier League this Sunday from 1pm; kick-off 2pm