Soccer

Unai Emery keen to keep things balanced at upwardly mobile Aston Villa

Aston Villa manager Unai Emery on the touchline during the Premier League match at Villa Park, Birmingham. Picture date: Wednesday December 6, 2023.
Aston Villa manager Unai Emery on the touchline during the Premier League match at Villa Park, Birmingham. Picture date: Wednesday December 6, 2023. Aston Villa manager Unai Emery on the touchline during the Premier League match at Villa Park, Birmingham. Picture date: Wednesday December 6, 2023.

Unai Emery was trying to keep a lid on the excitement levels after his Aston Villa side outclassed stuttering Manchester City in Wednesday’s 1-0 win to move above the defending champions and into third place.

Leon Bailey’s deflected strike in the 74th minute was enough to seal a 14th straight home win for Villa and add to the growing sense of belief that something special is brewing in the west Midlands.

Pep Guardiola declared that Emery’s side should “definitely” be considered among the title contenders after watching his depleted side struggle to contain a Villa team who had 22 shots at goal to City’s two.

But Emery played down any title talk and insisted there is still much work to do in developing his side, who face leaders Arsenal at home on Saturday.

“We created lots of chances and we controlled the attack in the high press,” Emery said. “We were believing. In my career, hopefully more in the next weeks, months and years I can continue improving as a coach and with the team I am trying to build.

“(The performance) was fantastic but we must keep a balance. The dressing room is happy, but the next challenge is on Saturday. (On Thursday) we are focusing again on Saturday.”

Wednesday night was Emery’s 50th game in charge. When the Spaniard arrived a little more than a year ago, Villa were near the foot of the table and fearing a relegation battle but he took them into the Europa Conference League and now the Champions League looks a genuine possibility.

Asked to reflect on his first 50 games, Emery pointed to last February, when back-to-back 4-2 home defeats at the hands of Leicester and Arsenal offered a learning moment.

“I can come back in my mind and think how we were when we started this process,” he said. “We lost against Leicester and Arsenal at home, 4-2. We couldn’t concede eight goals in two matches at home like we did.

“It was a key moment when we reacted in a meeting with the players, focusing more our idea and our style, building and being very demanding in it. I think the players, they reacted very well and the way we did, we started doing in that moment, I think we are still being very demanding and keeping it.”

City boss Pep Guardiola was full of praise for Villa’s performance but admitted he needed to change the dynamic of his own side, now winless in four league outings as they lose ground in their title defence.

Aston Villa v Manchester City – Premier League – Villa Park
Aston Villa v Manchester City – Premier League – Villa Park Pep Guardiola was impressed by Unai Emery’s team (Nick Potts/PA)

The absence of Rodri and Jack Grealish through suspension, plus the loss of Jeremy Doku to injury, limited Guardiola’s options and they lost the midfield battle.

“In the first half, we struggled to follow what we spoke (about),” Guardiola said. “We adjusted something at half-time and it was much better and the team had a better dynamic but we didn’t find the players to make the assist or cross or pass.”

“We didn’t have the feeling that we are going to do something and we missed it…We have to accept it when a team is better and recognise it.

“We have to change the dynamic on Sunday at Luton.”