The best managers in world football are able to build systems with consistent principles and patterns of play even if they use tweaked formations and lineups that emphasise the strengths of different personnel and the weaknesses of a given opposition. 

It seems basic to say this but in the world of FM the idea of a single tactic in which all your players neatly fit is always tempting. But it goes without saying that this isn’t usually the way things work in the real world of football.

This season few seem to sum up that lesson more than Unai Emery who has been enjoying incredible success since taking over at Aston Villa. Emery has seen numerous injuries to key players and the emergence of form in sometimes unexpected places change his preferred lineup this season. Despite this his Villa side remain on course for a coveted Champions League spot next year. 

Yes, in many ways Emery’s football often ends up positionally looking like what a lot of other top managers have made the current footballing fashion. It’s sort of a 4-4-2 out of possession. It’s sort of a 3-2-5 in possession. But his ability to make this happen incredibly consistently regardless of which specific approach he takes is, at least to a football nerd like me, rather beautiful.

You’ll have seen me offer variations on a tactic in previous recreations. But in this blog I’m going to talk to you more about how Emery – and as a result how you too – can play consistent football whilst deploying different tactical variations to their maximum effect. 

All of the variations we mention are available to download HERE. The ones we spend most time breaking down are clearly marked TCT Emery IP (in possession) and OOP (out of possession) with others all marked as ALT (alternative). But if you’re in this blog for the long haul let’s look at how Unai Emery’s Aston Villa have balled their way into the upper echelons of the Premier League. 


Most commonly Emery is associated with playing the once inescapable 4-4-2 formation, something he refined in an impressive stint at Villareal before returning to the Premier League. 

But this only tells half the story. Out of possession, Villa do indeed look like a conventional 4-4-2, with a high line squeezing space and increasing chances of a turnover should opponents look to force a pass into congested areas.

But Emery is not returning to what Mike Bassett would call the good old days and attacking in the same faithful 4-4-2. 

In fact his side go forward in a very fashionable narrow 3-5-2 or 3-box-3 shape. Most noted for the way in which usually at least one wide player comes inside to form the box and give an opposing fullback a difficult decision as to whether to follow (and leave space out wide) or leave them and risk a central overload.

I’ve divided my two main Emery tactics into an in possession (IP) and out of possession (OOP) variant to really double down on these two shapes. 

The in possession version nails the attacking shape and movement Emery has developed at Villa this year and still defends fairly adequately in a 4-4-2. The out of possession variant is more structured in the defensive 4-4-2 shape and still makes the attacking shape we want, though not as effectively. We want the option to switch between both if we need to. 

As you come to understand the two systems you might find yourself tweaking them in game to run a hybrid midway between the two, but that’s exactly what we wanted to develop in this recreation, understanding of the broader Emery system we want to run and how to tweak it in individual tactics.



As a result of these split approaches, there are subtle differences in how we might set up team instructions for each. Thankfully though, Villa’s general mentality is refreshingly simple. There isn’t anything particularly extreme about what they do style wise. But they are consistent, balanced and hugely effective regardless of emphasis in any one game.

Emery’s side are 7th in the league for possession (55%). So we keep the ball fairly well. They rank similarly in the top half for all the basic attacking metrics without standing out in any other than take ons via dribble in which they are 5th. 

As a result, I will flit between a positive mentality in games I expect to win and balanced against some of the bigger PL sides especially away from home. You can also manage this in game depending on if you’re searching for a goal.

A huge part of Emery’s genius is a deep and patient build up, in which his side play out from the back in choreographed and snappy passing patterns, before looking to attack space directly with passes and dribbles through overloaded central areas when the press is broken. 

Sucking the opposition in with this build up and with central runners then opens up space for the wide and high outlets further up the pitch to be at their most devastating.

To reflect this in FM we pass shorter, use a slightly higher tempo and instruct our team to run at the defence with a focus on playing narrower and concentrating attacks through the centre.

In the 4-4-2 OOP variant we add to the above ‘overlap left’ to make sure our wide player comes inside and looks for the wingback to feed. In this variant we also trigger ‘pass into space’ to place greater emphasis on through balls and counterattacks in behind which are a significant part of this Villa team’s threat in general.


Out of possession, it is endlessly noted that no team has caught their opponents offside more than Emery’s in the PL this season and Liverpool in second aren’t even close. So a high defensive line and instruction to step up has replicating this dynamic in mind. 

Somewhat out of sync with their fellow high flyers Villa are bottom of the league for tackles in the opposition third. So no overwhelming gegenpressing is in action here. Villa’s opponent PPDA (passes per defensive action) is however middle ranking (11th), which reflects their flexibility out of possession. 

Usually Emery’s side do counterpress initially with players in central areas winning the ball back and recycling attacks effectively. Against some sides they continue engaging high in general to sustain pressure. In others after this initial press they are happy to drop back into a well drilled midblock drawing their opponent on and creating space in behind for counters.

We go for the former dynamic in our more attacking variant and the latter in the one emphasising out of possession structure, but you should move between them as needed in individual games regardless of which tactic you’re using. Additionally as our out of possession 4-4-2 has conventional wide midfielders, we add trap outside to make sure we stay nice and narrow in our defensive shape. This isn’t necessary in the other tactic which has narrower roles utilised to start with.


Given the emphasis on formational flexibility and delivering consistent patterns of play we want to focus, for starters at least, less on what each individual position or player does and more on what roles in the team Emery seeks to consistently deliver, particularly going forward.

That is 3 players in a rest defence who are capable of playing out from the back, sustaining possession and defending in transition effectively.

Ahead of them, two players in a pivot, one nominally more defensive and one with more licence to bring the ball forward into the opposition third. 

There is one person on each side of the pitch holding what is sometimes called ‘minimum width’. That is enough to be outside of the widest defender, but not feeling the need to hold ‘maximum width’ by literally standing on the touchline. 

Two narrower attacking midfielders combine with the pivot in a ‘box’ and support the wide players whilst also being able to get in and around the central ST who doesn’t overcomplicate their game and looks to be a direct central threat capable of stretching the defence in behind.

In every Emery Villa system we will put together we ensure one other player, be it a wider option cutting inside or one of the narrow attacking midfielders is given the task of making more aggressive runs to get alongside that striker. That player fairly often makes it look like Villa have two up top even though I don’t think they really do.. 


So let’s start looking at things in more detail in FM24, beginning with the tactic that was the main go to and then highlighting some of the flexible tweaks we’re keen to understand.

Some things will never change. Like Emiliano Martinez operating as a Sweeper Keeper on attack. I want him to be part of build up, expansive when sweeping behind our aggressive high line and to have some freedom when building from the back with short passes in our initial 4+2 build up.

When creating our back three, the middle CB will always have least on ball freedom. In this case it is Diego Carlos the RCB who is a standard Central Defender on defend. To his left Pau Torres is a Ball Playing Defender with more freedom. 

I saw Villa play my side Fulham live recently and was hugely impressed by how Torres conducted play time and time again. In real life Emery has choreographed patterns that manipulate the opposition press and create space for Torres to work in when he finally receives the ball. This is a bit much for FM, so instead we just nominate him as the specific player we want the ball distributed to when playing out. 

The RB Ezri Konsa (or sometimes Matty Cash) sits on the right of the defensive three. He is a FB on defend and to make sure he largely stays with his fellow CBs I instruct him to sit narrower. I’ve not gone for an Inverted Full Back as Emery does allow the RB to play in possession as a conventional RB when needed.

All three of the defenders here having the same mentality and no use of stopper/cover dynamics helps them move in unison and keep their line, with the aim of catching teams offside regularly like Villa do in real life.

The double pivot is essential to both sides of our game. They both have ‘tackle harder’ added to help them step up and win the ball back in our counterpress as a pair, but each perform slightly different roles beyond that.

Boubacar Kamara (now sadly injured) as the DM on defend sits and screens more on the right. Douglas Luiz as a DM on support carries forward into space and is a goal threat arriving late. As a result I ask him to dribble more, get further forward and take more risks too. Other roles either trigger FM’s positional play rotation and disrupt our structure, or limit his ball carrying or shooting freedom. So the highly customisable DM is the best base for him as a key player in this side.

The width down the left comes from Alex Moreno (or Lucas Digne) as a Wing-Back on support. I ask them to run wide with the ball to create an overlap and cross from the byline. Our team instruction of low crosses means they’ll often cut the ball back to dangerous options in the box.

Ahead of him is usually John McGinn or (if he’s deployed in the pivot like of late due to injuries) Jacob Ramsey doing what Emery’s Villa system is famed for. Nominally playing on the left, this player is tucked inside at LAM to form our box midfield and create a channel for the LB to roam into. As an AM on support I ask him to stay wider and crucially set him to mark either the opposition RB, RWB or (if I want to double up on them) RW more tightly to ensure he comes back to defend in a conventional 4-4-2 as best he can. 

The right hand side of the box is usually Youri Tielemans, who is also an AM on support but takes more risks in passing. With the more defensive DM behind him this player tends to drop in a bit more and in doing so create dangerous space to feed through balls into the RW.

That RW is the wildcard in the system and arguably the most potent threat in the side (other than Ollie Watkins) Leon Bailey. As the only other forward player with an attack duty attached to his role, he often ends up as a pseudo second striker. But does this from a starting point of holding the width as a winger. I’ve added ‘cut inside’ onto him and the results have been devastating, 26 PL starts, 11 goals, 13 assists. 

As for Watkins, our Advanced Forward on attack instructed to dribble more, he leads the line and drives back the defence with his threat in behind and when carrying, in turn opening up even more space for those behind him to thrive in. 

In the out of possession variant, Bailey moves back to a conventional right midfield slot, but as he’s still has an attacking duty is often still the highest player other than Watkins. 

McGinn moves to LM, as a wide midfielder on support, with ‘get further forward’, ‘cut inside’ and ‘roam from position’ selected. These instructions, along with our team instruction to now look for the overlap means he still drifts inside plenty to form a box of sorts.

Otherwise the team looks largely the same. 

But we wanted to talk variants and getting the same positional functions in Emery’s system  highlighted above from different formations. So here are some alternates, inspired by variations Emery has deployed at different times this year.

The most frequently deployed this season has been when Ezri Konsa was injured and teams were having some joy attacking down Villa’s right channel, Boubacar Kamara was asked to drop in as a RCB in possession, allowing Cash to push on and hold some width and Bailey to attack more inside. The AM Youri Tielemans drops back to act as the second pivot in Kamara’s vacated space.

But Emery has been even more flexible. Earlier in the season prior to Bailey finding form, Moussa Diaby offered greater attacking output more centrally as a Shadow Striker alongside Watkins, with the right sided player holding width more conservatively.

We’ve also seen both wider midfielders come narrow, one into the pivot and one further on with both fullbacks pushing on and Kamara once more dropping in to form a back three. 

At one point early in the season we’ve also seen Pau Torres sitting at LB in the way Konsa has done at RB, mirroring the pattern we’ve become accustomed to in our main tactic.

By understanding the system, having clear principles of play and using subtle tactical tweaks in FM we can keep on producing the same shapes and patterns of play from different lineups. Endless Emery-ball opportunities to play with!


Speaking of playing, I of course took these all for a spin in testing. Largely focussed on the main two approaches I broke down above.

And we did pretty well! Whilst it wasn’t the total domination (in very different ways) I had for my Ipswich and Leverkusen recreations, my Emery system has me sort of where we’d want to be if we’re being true to life.

Come February I found myself 5th in the league, a single point outside the top four! But with Villa’s DNA in real life replicated in FM output. Midtable in possession (8th – 52%) and PPDA (13th) but high in goals scored (3rd), xG (4th) and dribbles (2nd).

Ollie Watkins scored 14 goals in 24 starts, Bailey as mentioned was electric averaging pretty much a goal or assist per game and key players: especially Douglas Luiz but also McGinn and Ramsey in our box midfield all chipped in well. LB remained a potent outlet for assists with Digne and Moreno sharing 11 between them so far. 

I found the side took a while to get to grips with the slightly unusual lopsided box tactic, but that it was highly effective and enjoyable in time, delivering eye catching results like a 7-0 win at home to Chelsea and 5-1 against Newcastle. It should be your first port of call in recreating Villa’s football, but against sides like Liverpool and Arsenal with true quality out wide, the more standard 4-4-2 came in handy.

Of the alternates, dropping Kamara in at RCB by using FM’s newly tweaked HB role was a lot of fun and quite useful at times, particularly when the less defensively minded Cash needed to be my RB of choice. Adapt or die, Unai Emery would be proud! 

Right, that’s it. High-flying Aston Villa broken down in Football Manager. I promised you all Inter Milan’s 3-5-2 next, so off to Italy we go. And in the meantime if you enjoyed this blog, any of my tactics so far (HERE is the download link for this Villa one again!), or have ideas for what you want to see from me, drop me a line on Twitter @CottageTactico!

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