Aston Villa v Brighton
Saturday, Villa Park, 12.30 (Live on BT Sport)
If someone told Unai Emery at the start of this season that his Aston Villa team would finish above Brighton, would he consider it a successful campaign? Emery chuckles under his breath ever so slightly, sufficient time to think of a quip. “They have started very strong,” he replies, smiling.
The inference is there and the reality is Villa and Brighton, who meet on Saturday lunchtime and were separated by a point last season, are trying to outdo each other. And, in other ways, learn from one another given the respect between Emery and Roberto De Zerbi, the Brighton head coach reportedly coveted by Real Madrid.
There is a reason Emery elicits an element of excitement as he discusses Brighton’s punchy, attacking approach and why he mentions De Zerbi in the same breath as Pep Guardiola. Emery and De Zerbi exchanged compliments before the final day of last season, when Villa won 2-1 to seal qualification for the Europa Conference League, four days after Brighton secured sixth and a spot in a European competition for the first time.
“It was an amazing day,” Emery recalls. “But in football you have to always try to do something again, a new objective, a new moment and try to create new memories for the future. I am very excited.”
That is where Brighton and De Zerbi come in. Before their last meeting Emery namechecked Brighton – as well as Sunderland and Andorra FC – as teams who had caught his eye and his admiration for De Zerbi dates back to the Italian’s spell at Benevento, when the club were newcomers to Serie A in 2017-18. Benevento were relegated but De Zerbi was praised for his daring, possession-hungry style, something he then transmitted at Sassuolo and Shakhtar Donetsk, before replacing Graham Potter at Brighton last September.
This week Emery alluded to the way Brighton have seamlessly replaced key players and cited the impressive manner in which De Zerbi’s team impose themselves on games, even in defeats by West Ham and Chelsea.
Emery clenches his left fist to demonstrate Villa must match Brighton’s passion and personality. “I always try to watch the teams we are going to face but when there are some teams that are especially different that can maybe teach us different tactical ideas I really focus on them, and one of those is Brighton,” Emery says.
“As coaches we want to add something if we can be better. I like to analyse every team we are facing and then try to add, especially [from] teams that are doing something different, at set pieces, tactically, offensively or defensively.
“The most difficult way is to build, to create a style keeping possession, trying to avoid the opponents’ pressing and I appreciate a lot those teams and their coaches. The most important one is maybe Guardiola and now De Zerbi as well has been a little bit different and very, very successful.”
For both sides the game will act as something of an early-season barometer. Perhaps more so for Villa given Brighton have overcome Newcastle and Manchester United. Villa have won four of their six league matches but came unstuck against Liverpool and Newcastle, both of whom will fancy their chances of qualifying for the Champions League. Villa and Brighton may have to battle it out to be the best of the rest.
“I am really very, very motivated,” Emery says. “I explained to the players: ‘Tomorrow [Saturday] for us it is a key moment.’ The Premier League has 38 matches but some matches are special and different. We are three points behind them. It is a very, very good opportunity to try to catch them and that is the challenge.”
Emery and De Zerbi are highly regarded by their peers and would appear to share many of the same problems. As a result of their respective success, both began the season trying to compete on four fronts. That workload has been lightened after both exited the Carabao Cup in midweek, Villa at home to Everton and Brighton at Chelsea.
Both also have work to do in Europe after losing their opening game, Brighton at home to AEK Athens in the Europa League and Villa away at Legia Warsaw. Both managers have invariably since fielded questions about strength in depth given the volume of matches. If Villa return to winning ways it will be 10 straight league wins at Villa Park. “I think it will be an amazing match,” Emery says. “Usually they are very good at controlling the game in their structure and that is the challenge, to try to break it.”