This Aston Villa FM23 post has been written for us by @DanielBettridge of the “Under a gaslit lamp” Villa podcast. 

A tactical analysis of Aston Villa’s 22/23 Season

How has Aston Villa lined up this season?

It’s been an odd year aboard the good ship Villa. 

The season started under the management of Steven Gerrard, a man with all of the tactical nous of a Play-Doh factory. But after realising that clicking the “pump fists” button during team talks was getting us nowhere, the club’s owners mercifully pulled the trigger, hiring a genuine top-class manager to take over the helm at Villa Park. 

In the six months or so since his appointment, Unai Emery has transformed a team that was sleepwalking towards relegation to one of the form teams in the league. In fact, at the time of writing, Villa is one of the league’s most in-from outfit – with only the likes of City, Arsenal and Liverpool above them since the Spaniard took charge. 

So how has he done it? 


The key behind Villa’s revival has been a shift to a 442 (that shifts into a 4222 in attack) and a change of style towards a more progressive, possession-orientated outfit. Anyone familiar with Emery’s work at Villareal will see some familiarity here. But whether it’s driven by the personnel available to him, or a change in tactical direction – there are some unique wrinkles to how Villa play. 

Key principles

One of the biggest things that Emery has implemented since his arrival at B6 is to get Villa playing out from the back. Villa plays a lot of short slow passes in their own half, the goal is to encourage the opposition to press them – drawing them out of their defensive shape. Once the opposition has taken the bait Villa up the tempo and the directness of their passing, looking to take advantage of their opposition’s imbalance.

It’s a kind of manufactured counterattack, one that aims to control the game while also taking advantage of the directness offered by the likes of Watkins, Bailey, Buendia and Ramsey. Indeed, you’ll quite often see Villa driving with the ball through the centre of the pitch, with their wide players (who are often midfielders playing out of position) coming inside to form a box midfield. 

Out of possession, Villa has been equally impressive. Dropping into a 442 shape, they create a tight compact unit that presses in a midblock. 

Key to both sides of the ball is the double pivot of Boubacar Kamara and Dougie Luiz. The heartbeat of the team they are as comfortable defending as they are on the ball, it’s this duo who more often than not decide when Villa should change gears and speed up the attack – moving up the pitch and keeping pace with the attack as they go. You’ll also see them pressing high up the pitch. They are true all-around midfielders with the technical and physical attributes to cover every blade of grass. 

The shape

Though there are multiple ways to skin this particular tactical cat, bringing the fundamental principles of Emery’s Villa into FM is pretty simple. 

Shape-wise it’s all built around the double pivot, with both players on support duty to reflect how they play on the pitch. These two are key to how the whole system functions with Luiz the more progressive of the two (I’ve opted for a Roaming Playmaker, but a Segundo Volante on support would also work). But don’t overlook the impact of Kamara. As a DM on support duty, he’ll screen the defence but he’ll also pick his opportunities to push forward. In my current save, I’ve also turned him into a quasi-playmaker (training traits like dictates tempo, and switches ball to flank) to emphasise his role as a ball progressor. 

On either side of the double pivot we have two inverted wide men. In recent times Emery has played John Mcginn and Jacob Ramsey here – two players who previously played in the centre of the pitch but have flourished in these hybrid roles. Defensively we want them to slot in alongside the pivot, but in attack these two push high and central, creating something of a box midfield. You could set the formation up by starting them in these more central positions, but I’ve found it’s a lot harder to get them to defend as a flat four from these positions.  

Aston Villa FM23

Looking further forward the line is led by Ollie Watkins who is very much the focal point of the attack. You could make him a Pressing Forward (A), and his attributes certainly lend him to that role. But I find the Advanced Forward recreates the way that the team can look to hit him early in moves. 

Watkins is typically partnered by either Leon Bailey (who tends to drift wide) or Emi Buendia (who drops deep and central). One thing Emery values is adaptability – he regularly makes minor tweaks to his system to gain an advantage over the opposition – that’s something we can recreate in the game by changing roles when we change the player. When Bailey starts I have him as a Complete Forward on support with the PI to drift wide, when it’s Buendia he’s a False Nine. It’s a simple way of tweaking the tactic based on how you want it to play or who you’re playing against. 

Finally at the back things are pretty simple. The only slight variation is on the left, where Emery likes newcomer Moreno to get forward and offer overlapping width. He’s not a flying fullback, but he does get forward, often arriving late to whip in a cross. 

Aston Villa FM23

If all of that looks a little familiar it’s because it is. Emery’s Villa is a bit of a Poundland version of Wenger’s Invincibles, and I’ve leaned on Cleon’s superb replication of that for inspiration. 

The instructions 

In possession – In the game, Emery’s preferred tactical style is “Control Possession” and that’s the starting point for this replication. We have made some tweaks, however. “Work the ball into the box” has gone, we’ve also ticked “Run at defence” and “Overlap left.” We’ve done this to achieve that change of gears that Villa demonstrate as well as their directness when they reach the final third. It also enables us to create Moreno’s flying runs without sacrificing our tactical stability. 

In transition – Again just the one change here and that’s ticking “Counter”. This is arguably unnecessary. But one thing that’s noticeable about Emery’s Villa is that whilst play is now a lot more patient, Villa is still happy to attack at pace, taking advantage if Ollie Watkins’ pace and physical presence.

Out of possession – Out of possession Villa play in a compact 442. They press the opposition, but typically from a midblock with the defensive line squeezing up to condense the space between the lines. That in turn gives the pivot licence to press higher up the pitch. Although the team presses and counter presses, they are still incredibly disciplined with their shape which is why I’ve kept the pressing urgency at standard.


LB – Stay Wider, to recreate the width Moreno offers.

LW – Sit narrower, to encourage the central running. 

RW – Cut inside, dribble more, cross less often. 

CF (s) – When Bailey plays he has stay wider. There’s also an argument to give Watkins Stay wider and roam in order to recreate his average positioning – which tends to be on the left. 

Away from home

One of the biggest impacts Emery has had is on Villa’s away form. An element of our game that was woeful before the Spaniard’s arrival has now become a strength. We tend to play differently away from home. Things are a lot more cautious, with a focus on solidity rather than the spectacular. Typically I find it’s enough to switch to the counter mentality. Though for tough away games I may also give man-marking instructions to the two wide players to recreate the back 6 (yes you read that right) that Villa has displayed in visits to the likes of Spurs and City. 

The end result 

Aston Villa FM23

The system can be hugely effective on FM. I’ve won leagues and cups with this set-up, often without adding to Villa’s threadbare squad. 

In real life, Villa has been one of the form teams in the league and I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more discussion of the job Emery is doing at Villa Park. The transformation has been staggering, taking this side from a flirtation with relegation to an outside shot at European places. 

In the game, this transformation can be equally rewarding. Though it needs strengthening, Villa’s squad is full of potential, with several players capable of playing in a variety of positions. I’ve had a lot of fun moving players around and tweaking roles in order to take advantage of the opposition. 

Want more possession? Put Buendia or Coutinho up front as a False Nine. Want to go more direct, stick Bailey up there, or put him on the wing to stretch the opposition? Need to tighten things up? Dendonker can come on for Luiz as a ball-winner or another DM. 

Emery is the definitive “man with a plan,” a manager who’s obsessed with details and finding ways to get marginal advantages over the opposition. This is a simple way of recreating that on the game without having to change tactics every five minutes. And best of all, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

Tactic download LINK


  • Daniel Gear

    Dan Gear is a vibrant member of the Football Manager (FM) community, renowned for his engaging content and insightful tutorials. He illuminates complex FM concepts on "View From The Touchline" and shares engaging narratives through his unique European Journeyman save reveals. Dan's collaborative spirit shines in partnerships with fellow creators like FM Stag, unraveling new FM features. He's a co-host of the engaging "Grass N Gear" podcast, making the FM experience more enjoyable for many. With a blend of humor, expertise, and a knack for community engagement, Dan Gear's contributions significantly enrich the Football Manager community, making him a cherished figure among enthusiasts.

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