Just over a month ago, things looked bleak for Aston Villa, particularly in the midfield department. Douglas Luiz was linked with a move to a host of top clubs around Europe and extensively chased by Arsenal on deadline day. Most expected the Brazilian would leave this season as the expiration of his previous deal loomed large.
Meanwhile, Boubacar Kamara suffered a major setback in the first-half of The Villans’ 1-0 victory over Southampton last month after damaging ligaments in his knee and was set to miss the next few months worth of action; crucially keeping him out of this year’s World Cup in Qatar.
Results were not going the way of the claret and blue side either and Steven Gerrard’s job was under serious scrutiny with his team vastly under performing in the league.
Fast forward four weeks and the situation appears significantly better. The news of Luiz’s contract extension was rapturously welcomed by the Aston Villa faithful and the premature return of Kamara, pictured here in first-team training this week, has reformed the morale around the club.
This is supported by Monday night’s appointment of former Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain manager Unai Emery who arrives from Spanish side Villarreal after Aston Villa activated the €6 million release clause in his contract.
Villa owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens began their search for an elite manager that could lead the talented squad further up the league after relieving Steven Gerrard of his duties on the night of the 3-0 defeat to Marco Silva’s Fulham.
Stand-in head coach Aaron Danks led the disgruntled Villa side into battle last Sunday and superbly executed a 4-0 win over Brentford. The former RSC Anderlecht assistant will be in charge this weekend against Newcastle United too, before Emery takes over from November 1st.
Emery has favoured either a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 formation during his time in management. The Spaniard’s playing style emphasizes the importance of a double-pivot in midfield as this pairing is asked to orchestrate play and lead the team in attack and also play crucial role defensively and out of possession. Here, Luiz and Kamara can thrive and be effective.
The reputable head coach’s use of a double-pivot has played a key role in his success as a manager. It consists of a play-maker type (Douglas Luiz); a player who possesses a fine passing range and can pick out the creative talents further forward, and a destroyer type (Boubacar Kamara) who can break up play and be that physical presence ahead of the defence.
The 50 year-old won three consecutive UEFA Europa League titles with former club Sevilla between 2013 and 2016. Whilst there differing personnel played all of the finals, two things remained consistent: the system (4-2-3-1) and the use of a double-pivot midfield.
Emery’s Sevilla side were notoriously well-drilled and capable of adapting to different roles and acting upon new instructions during a match. This helped them on their way to victory against Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool in 2016’s final in Basel.
This fixture was a fine example of just how dynamic and expandable an Emery-led side can be. In this scenario, Sevilla fought back from a goal down to defeat The Reds after tactical tweaks gave the Spanish side the advantage in the second-half.
Steven Nzonzi and Grzegorz Kyrchowiak made up the double-pivot in this game and alongside the energetic Éver Banega, the midfield’s role was to control the ball and utilize the side’s technical abilities to find a way past the difficult Merseyside opposition.
In the first half, Liverpool forwards Daniel Sturridge and Roberto Firmino found success in between the defensive and midfield lines; an issue that allowed Klopp’s side to create the better of the chances and score the game’s opening goal.
Emery’s alteration at half-time saw the double-pivot’s priority switch to focusing more on the defensive side of the game and denying Firmino/Sturridge time and space, rather than generating play and being the primary origin of the team’s attacks.
From here, Sevilla found offensive success down the wings and were able to score three goals that subsequently won them the tie. Emery’s choice to switch into a 4-2-2 late on in the game after Jürgen Klopp threw on a host of attacking options from the bench benefited his side as well.
Numerically, Sevilla had the advantage as centre-backs Daniel Carriço and Adil Rami plus the double-pivot midfield were able to snuff out any of the danger caused by substitutes Divock Origi and Christian Benteke who occupied central positions in and around the box.
The versatility of the double-pivot here, accompanied with the tactical awareness and intellect of the experienced head coach, helped the Andalusia-based side to their third straight Europa League title, despite being distinct underdogs in the build-up to the game.
Douglas Luiz and Boubacar Kamara are perfect fits for these central roles as they each share innate abilities to defend and are both technically capable of instigating attacking sequences with their excellent passing range—ideal for an Emery set-up.
After difficult but far from unsuccessful spells with PSG and Arsenal, the Basque coach found himself in Eastern Spain at Villarreal CF, joining the La Liga side in the summer of 2020.
The former CD Toledo and Racing Ferrol midfielder found great success here too and led The Yellow Submarine to their first European trophy in their history after defeating Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s Manchester United in the 2021 Europa League final.
Emery opted for a 4-2-2 formation in this fixture and enjoyed early success from the dynamism and expansiveness of the double-pivot both in and out of possession.
Étienne Capoue and Dani Parejo were the two deployed for this fixture and their roles were crucial in silencing play-maker Bruno Fernandes, as well as closing down and keeping United’s holding midfielders Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay busy and occupied.
These central two played a big part offensively too and it was Dani Parejo’s superb ball into the box that put the yellows ahead as striker Gerard Moreno stroked it home for 1-0.
Manchester United went on to dominate play and eventually equalise. This prompted Unai Emery to tweak things in the midfield. The introduction of former Arsenal midfielder Francis Coquelin shifted Villarreal into a 4-2-3-1 shape, helping to solidify certain areas of the pitch.
Villarreal were able to see the game through to extra-time and eventually penalties, where they would triumph as 11-10 shootout winners. Emery impressed once again against English opposition and was particularly hailed for his superb tactical work that ultimately won his side the game.
The season after, Villarreal enjoyed a successful run in the UEFA Champions League and got as far as the semifinals before Klopp took revenge and knocked them out over two legs.
This fantastic run saw the Spanish side defeat Juventus and Bayern Munich along the way, demonstrating how capable and tactically competent Unai Emery is of finding victory, even when in charge of a seemingly weaker team.
The head coach will look to build upon all of the success achieved in Spain as he embarks on a new opportunity and a second attempt at a career in England. The Aston Villa squad contains an abundance of talent and has significant potential awaiting to be unlocked.
Can Unai Emery, with Douglas Luiz and Boubacar Kamara in the middle, do what Steven Gerrard couldn’t and steer Aston Villa into the top half of the Premier League and closer towards their goal of European football?