Thursday, May 23, 2024

In the refurbished gym at Aston Villa’s training ground, players are regularly put through their paces, spend time building up their strength and flexibility and develop the team bond that is such a key part of their incredible current form.

Another regular sight in the gym has been head coach Unai Emery putting in the miles on the treadmill. But unlike most people, who listen to music or a podcast while working out, the man behind one of the biggest turnarounds in recent Premier League history uses the time to watch recordings of their upcoming opponents’ games.

He’s looking for patterns, for holes, for weaknesses for Villa to exploit.

Emery then relays his findings and key messages to the players in lengthy video analysis sessions, which have been known to run up to an hour and fifteen minutes.

John McGinn celebrates his winner against Arsenal (Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)Focusing on and improving the small details has been the underlying theme of the 13 months since Emery’s appointment, with Villa now a club transformed. Beating champions Manchester City and their title rivals Arsenal back-to-back in the space of four days this week is a period that rubber-stamps their progress.

This is how Villa turned their form and fortunes around, including how:
– Emery warned players to never make the same mistakes after previous Arsenal defeat
– He compiled a dossier on each player before joining, calling on his backroom staff to put together clips
– Players noted a transformation between training under previous boss Steven Gerrard and Emery
– The squad were pushed through pain barriers in pre-season
– A ‘best-in-class’ mentality has emerged throughout the club

Co-owner Nassef Sawiris was recently pitchside and clapped every player off the pitch. Emery takes training ground staff out for meals. Villa’s overall infrastructure has been improved.

Seconds away from becoming the only manager in Villa’s 149-year history to win 15 successive home league games, Emery raised both hands in the air and outwards, cranking the crowd’s volume even higher.

It was apt that Villa crossed into unprecedented territory against Arsenal. Ten months ago, the Gunners were the previous Premier League visitors to leave the stadium with three points.

Since then, West Midlands walls have been fortified. The successive 1-0 victories inside four days over the sides to finish first (City) and second (Arsenal) in the 2022-23 Premier League and are likely to contest the title again this season — described as “the most difficult week” by Emery — were taxing, but ultimately ended in glory.

Fortress Villa Park has proven to be the symbol of the club’s remarkable resurgence, establishing them as one of the Premier League’s best and most effectively-run football clubs.

The improvement from the final days of predecessor Gerrard — where only goal difference kept them out of the top flight’s relegation places — is as drastic as it is exceptional, with Villa now firmly in the hunt for a Champions League spot next season and perhaps even more, with Pep Guardiola endorsing their title credentials only last week.

“Emery remarked that they had kicked the ball long on too many occasions, with his defensive players continuing to clear to safety, as opposed to retaining possession and stamping their authority on the game. He preached that seizing control would lead to the concession of fewer goals.”

“The players are more united with each other, this is their primary strength,” says one source close to the dressing room who, like others in this piece, spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect relationships.

Final preparations for City’s visit had been different to the usual routines. Emery wanted his players to train on the morning of the game, keen to drill extra detail. The session he conducted was low-intensity, chiefly working on various patterns of play and team shape, ensuring the starting XI knew how to exploit the areas Emery’s analysis had told him City were vulnerable in.

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