MARTIN KEOWN: How clever Unai Emery has transformed Aston Villa into potential title contenders – even the best seem baffled by his shape-shifting Villans… and leaders Arsenal are up next


If Unai Emery’s Aston Villa can win their 15th consecutive Premier League home game against leaders Arsenal this evening, that will be conclusive proof they are very much in this year’s title race.

Villa Park is the toughest place to play right now, as Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City discovered in becoming its 14th vanquished visitors on the trot on Wednesday. It is no secret that City and Arsenal deploy similar styles, and Mikel Arteta’s analysts will have been studying that game in great detail in a bid to avoid making the same mistakes Guardiola’s side did.

Villa are a fluid team, forever shifting their shape depending on whether they are in or out of possession.

This has been one of the secrets of Emery’s success, because it appears teams are being overwhelmed by all of their moving parts. Out of possession, Villa constructed a supremely organised, defensively compact 4-4-2 which frustrated City.

The defence and midfield lines stayed close together to condense the space but did not sit too deep, instead making sure they were alert to any balls that might be played in behind for Erling Haaland to chase.

Unai Emery coach Aston Villa

Goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez positioned himself high to sweep up any balls that were overhit. Youri Tielemans joined Ollie Watkins as the second striker and Villa were relentless in their high press. They won back possession 13 times in the final third — the most any team have managed against Guardiola’s City in the league.

In possession, Villa changed the picture entirely, sometimes setting up in a 3-2-3-2. That involved John McGinn cleverly moving inside from the left while Tielemans dropped deep from the front to join him, forming a box of four in midfield with Boubacar Kamara and Douglas Luiz behind them.

Occasionally, left back Lucas Digne would fly forward into the space vacated by McGinn, but right back Ezri Konsa would stay at home to form a back-three alongside central defenders Diego Carlos and Pau Torres.

Leon Bailey, who looks transformed under Emery, would move from the right flank into a more central position — as he did for his winning goal.

Aston Villa
Villa have been dominating the midfield battle in games thanks to the number of bodies they place in that central area. Arsenal will match those numbers by using one of their full backs to join Declan Rice, with Martin Odegaard and Kai Havertz positioned slightly further forward.

That will be a significant clash in the middle of the park which could decide this game, while Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli will ask plenty of questions of Villa’s back line from their high and wide positions.

The Premier League’s home and away tables have Villa and Arsenal at the top respectively. Villa have been in total control on their own turf, but Arsenal have shown great resilience on the road, and this match-up has the makings of a thriller.

City’s loss of invincibility is giving others belief that they could achieve something special this year. Villa and Arsenal are two of those clubs daring to dream and this represents a huge opportunity for both of my former teams to show their title credentials.