Unai Emery interview: Aston Villa head coach on ‘key moment’ in season as he reveals the secrets of his longevity | Football News

Aston Villa’s long season has been hugely impressive. They are fourth in the Premier League and into a European quarter-final. But coach Unai Emery knows that the decisive matches are ahead of them. “Now, we are in the key moment,” he tells Sky Sports.

It helps that he has been here before even if few of his players can say the same. He talks of “protecting the players” in a period that will bring seven games in 19 days, the first of them against Wolves at Villa Park, live on Sky Sports this Saturday evening.

But for the most part the mantra remains the same. “We have to be ready to play. The objective is to be 100 per cent focused.” Never a problem for Emery. He has spent the international break plotting a path through this busy schedule. It is a challenge.

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FREE TO WATCH: Aston Villa’s dramatic win over spirited Luton Town

He knows all about Lille, their quarter-final opponents in the Europa Conference League, but that feels an age away. “We have Manchester City first,” he says, smiling. It is impossible to make selection plans anyway. “We came back and Matty Cash is injured.”

Instead, he has thrown himself into the details, as ever, analysing the goals that have been conceded – too many of them of late, although allowing both Nottingham Forest and Luton to score twice did not prevent Villa from winning. Other incidents gnaw away.

“At West Ham, it was [Vladimir] Coufal. The cross was perfect. We made a small mistake and one second later it was a goal. Against Manchester United, a small mistake – a small mistake – and the cross from [Diogo] Dalot to [Scott] McTominay was perfect. Boom. Goal.”

Unpreventable, then? Not exactly. “I tell the players that if we make a small mistake, the opponent will use it because the quality of the opponent is amazing. [Stopping that] is the next step. It is the most difficult challenge I have but I am still always working for it.”

At the other end, Villa’s set-pieces remain a weapon. “Very important.” In the 4-0 home win over Ajax earlier this month, the opener by Ollie Watkins came after set-piece coach Austin MacPhee had been frantically urging Leon Bailey to vacate the space.

“Austin is trying to be very creative. I am very demanding with him and, of course, I am taking decisions as well. I share my experiences with his experiences. We are trying to surprise the opponent, use small details to take advantage of every action.”

Emery’s obsession with these details is well documented now. What he does not always have the opportunity to reveal in post-matches interviews and press conferences is the breadth of his passion for the game – and, in particular, for the coaching landscape.

That comes out as he takes Sky Sports on a whistle-stop tour of Europe, discussing his current favourites, all volunteered by him. His former clubs are on his radar. “At Villarreal, Marcelino is very disciplined. Ruben Baraja is improving a lot at Valencia.”

Mikel Arteta? “He understands everything tactically.” There is praise for Roberto De Zerbi and Gary O’Neil, for Garcia Pimienta at Las Palmas and Thiago Motta at Bologna. “I coached him at PSG. He is doing very well. I watch his team to understand why.”

The standout? “The best example is Xabi Alonso. He worked in the academy at Real Madrid, with the second team of Real Sociedad, doing it progressively. Now he has experienced different cultures, speaks different languages. He is a very good example for coaches.”

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Xabi Alonso explains his decision to commit his future to Bayer Leverkusen

Emery has been in management for 20 years now, his win percentage not having dipped below 46 per cent in any of his nine jobs so far. That longevity has not been achieved by standing still. Tracking the changes in the game and adapting has been key.

Twenty years ago, it was Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benitez on top. “Still very good coaches.” But the game evolves. Zonal marking was once de rigueur. “With Arrigo Sacchi and with Benitez in Spain.” That is changing. “Now, some teams are returning to man to man.”

Emery adds: “We are facing some very aggressive teams now who are playing man to man. Brighton can play it very aggressively. We were successful against them. But then we played Newcastle and they were very aggressive man to man and we lost.”

His work goes on. “Trying to find the best tactical response,” he explains. “I am always trying to get better, analysing other coaches and other teams, trying to understand how I can be better tomorrow. This is my process since I started coaching 28 years ago.

“Each coach, has different ways to win a match or create an idea. The most important thing is to play how you feel it. It is very difficult to play in any way if you do not feel it. I like to have the ball. If I could, I would get the ball and then keep it and not let it go.”

The dedication to possession is perhaps the biggest stylistic change in the game during his years in management. “20 years ago, the goalkeeper did not touch the ball. Now, sometimes, the goalkeeper is the player who touches it more than anyone,” says Emery.

“It is the same with the central defender. Before, it was the midfielder. They would just play the ball to the midfielder and then let them decide whether to pass short or long. Now, the coaches have progressed. Pep Guardiola is the best example of that.”

Saturday 30th March 5:00pm

Kick off 5:30pm

One statistic highlights this evolution. 12 years ago, Emery’s Valencia were among the strongest in Europe, finishing third in LaLiga. But their centre-backs did not complete anywhere near as many passes as Pau Torres and Ezri Konsa are now doing at Villa.

Pau has undoubtedly helped. “One of his best qualities is building up.” But Emery is just as impressed at how others have taken on his ideas. “With Diego Carlos, I am trying to get this off him as well, this idea of the centre-backs dominating the match,” he explains.

“Last year, Tyrone Mings and Ezri Konsa were sometimes passing but not feeling comfortable driving with the ball, switching right and left with the ball, repeating passes, because sometimes there is nothing wrong with stopping the pass, going back and trying again.”

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Aston Villa boss Unai Emery discusses Ezri Konsa’s England experience

Konsa’s progression has been one of the individual triumphs of Emery’s time at Villa. “He has improved a lot.” And then, the caveat. “He can do more. Sometimes I think that he is not as ambitious as I am with him. I believe in him more than he believes in himself.”

It is this attitude of self-improvement that is driving Villa on. The schedule is tough, the opposition tougher. But there will be no excuses. Bring it on, says Unai Emery. “I am excited. Motivated. We have to use all of our power, all of our energy now.”

Aston Villa vs Wolves is live on Sky Sports Premier League from 5pm on Saturday; kick-off 5.30pm

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