Aston Villa are punching through walls - but they have one major weakness ready to be exploited
Unai Emery’s Aston Villa are flying high - so what makes them so good, where can they still improve, and how far can they go in the Premier League?
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Another big win in the bag and now just one point off the top four – a year after they appointed Unai Emery, Aston Villa’s Premier League season is motoring along very nicely indeed and last season’s European qualification has been definitively proven to be no fluke.
Their 4-1 win over West Ham United, another team who have enjoyed plenty of forward momentum over the course of 2023, was not only richly deserved but also a performance which perfectly encapsulated everything Emery has done well since taking over from Steven Gerrard last October – and there is a lot of that. The Spaniard has transformed his team from front to back.
There are plenty of teams that are good manoeuvring their way patiently through a low block, and quite a few that are excellent at punching past the onrushing wall of a high press. Villa are one of the few teams that can do both to a high standard. Against West Ham they used the former to open the scoring against a typically deep-set David Moyes team, and then the latter to bury their opponents in the second half.
At 0-0, West Ham were tied typically fast to their goal-line when out of possession. They have the capacity to frustrate good teams, but Villa were able to pick the lock, moving the ball quickly around the edge of the area and down the flanks, finding space with smart running, and opening up good longer-range opportunities, in this case for Douglas Luiz – his first shot from the edge of the area was superbly saved by Alphonse Areola, but the second found its way inside the post.
Then, when they were ahead at 2-1 up in the second half and West Ham were forced to press their opponents further up the field in search of an equaliser, they showed off their ability to break at speed – a long ball down the channel to Ollie Watkins, who had more than enough pace to find room for a shot, a shot into the roof of the net, game as good as over.
And while that’s a perfectly valid description of quite a few Villa goals this season – usually with Watkins on the end, but sometimes with Moussa Diaby or Leon Bailey applying the finishing touches – it also undersells how good they are at exploiting space in behind. Emery has got a fast, confident front line whose movement creates huge headaches for opposing defences.
It helps that record signing Diaby is developing an excellent understanding with Watkins. Just nine games into the season, they already seem to know exactly where the other is and which way they’re moving – Diaby, in particular, is a constant source of quality service for his partner. When stood close together, they can play quick one-twos which make a mess of pressing defenders. When they give each other room, their running creates space for their team-mates. They’re becoming very hard to defend, and only Liverpool have kept a clean sheet against Villa so far this season.
Villa aren’t perfect, of course. The 5-1 defeat they suffered at St. James’ Park on the opening weekend suggested a vulnerability to quick counter-attacks and overlaps, while their 3-0 loss at Anfield showed that they can lose control of play in the middle of the park. That hasn’t always been an insurmountable issue – they ceded the bulk of possession to Brighton at Villa Park and still won 6-1 – but high-quality teams with strong attacking line-ups can clearly punish them for the mistakes that they do make. Their 13 goals conceded is higher than anyone else in the top six by a fair distance.
So is there a soft underbelly that can be attacked? The performances of Douglas Luiz suggest that there shouldn’t be too much for opposing teams to scratch at – the Brazilian has quietly been among the best central midfielders in the division over the opening months, and deserves more praise and attention than he has received. Alongside him, Boubacar Kamara has been solid enough, and while he doesn’t typically dominate opposing midfields, he’s tidy enough to avoid getting beaten up on by better players. Nevertheless, while their midfielders have been good individually, it has been possible to bypass them at get at the Villa back line with speed, and that is where the weakness seems to lie. It was one that Newcastle and Liverpool both exposed with ruthlessness.
Emery’s side, then, are certainly worthy of their place as contenders for a European spot – but perhaps the top four is a little way beyond them just yet. As sharp as they are in attack, they can be tighter in defence and smarter about handling the counter. They also lack depth in certain areas of the field, and that could easily be exposed as the physical challenge of battling in both the Europa League and Premier League takes its gradual toll.
The question, of course, is how far Emery can take this squad. They have come a remarkably long way since the turgid end of the Gerrard era, but given how much quality there is in the squad – from Diaby, Watkins and Douglas Luiz right the way back to a World Cup Golden Glove winner – there is an argument that this team can be even better and was likely underachieving before more than it is overachieving now. With some smart squad-building, you don’t have to squint too hard to see a side who can challenge for Champions League qualification – but for all that Emery has achieved, there is still a gap between Villa and the very best teams in the league. Closing that down will be the real test.