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Tactical Philosophy: Unai Emery

While this website has made its name focusing on the lesser known youth of this beautiful sport, and combined it with a tinge of tactical flavour meant for the football enthusiast, we found a large gap to be exploited in terms of combining the two. This mini-series thus focuses on young managers (below the age of 45) and their tactical philosophies, deriving what got them here and where they could go. In this piece, Nachiketh Ramesh gives an in-depth insight into the in demand Unai Emery.


Unai Emery’s father, grandfather and uncle were professional football players and it was in Emery’s genes to follow their footsteps. But the journey was not an easy one for the Basque. After representing Real Sociedad five times at the senior level, Emery was booted out. He spent most of his time playing for lower division clubs until an injury put an end to his playing career during his time at Lorca Deportiva.

Lorca Deportiva was the turning point in Emery’s life – the club’s president made Emery the manager of the team. Did the president play the card blindly? Or did he sense the potential in Emery? No one knows. But Emery’s team performed well and gained promotion to the second division and with it started Emery’s ascent to glory. Success at Lorca was followed by spells of over-achievement at Almeria and Valencia. With Almeria, Emery won promotion from Liga Adelante in the first season and guided La Union to eighth place in the first season in the top flight.

Unai Emery Sevilla

At the Mestalla he achieved 3 consecutive third place finishes in the league even after losing world class players every season. However, as his tenure came to an end Emery had to face unsatisfied fans and a board that needed something more than just a third place finish – a trophy to attest its place amongst those with power, Barcelona and Real Madrid.

After a brief and not-so-good time with Spartak Moscow, Emery returned to Andalusia to manage Sevilla. Sevilla was having a torrid period financially which resulted in poor performances on the field. Sevilla needed him to stabilize the team and Emery had never won a major trophy in his lifetime. A win-win situation for both the parties. Sevilla served as a platform for him to accomplish his dreams and Emery helped the club back to glory.

Tactical Philosophy

Of the four Spanish clubs he has managed so far, none was in a stable condition when Emery took over – some of the clubs were famous but were debt ridden while the others just could not find the money to back their manager. So, Emery had to adjust himself to these constraints and this might be one of the reasons for the pragmatic approach he often adopts. Unai Emery usually favors the  4-2-3-1 formation with a touch of 4-3-3 to it. Great flexibility in the midfield is one of the characteristics of his teams. Ever since his time at Valencia, Emery has been using a somewhat similar formation.


Defending when the ball is in the attacking third: Pressing the goal-keeper

Sevilla pressing the GK (2)

It is noticeable how Sevilla are pressing. The players are positioned such that the opponents (Barcelona here) are compelled to spread out. The two wingers are in narrow positions, occupying the region at the edge of the box – they have pinned back the center backs and forced the wing backs wide. The striker has fallen back to press alongside the central attacking midfielder – they have occupied the two central midfielders. The two deep midfielders are keeping track of the movements of any unmarked players in the central region and the wingbacks as well. They have formed a structure that resembles an “H”.

For the goal-keeper the safest option is to pass to either one of the wing backs. Suppose the ball is played to the right wing back, then the 3 Sevilla players positioned on his side can press and force him to make an error or lose the ball cheaply.

The pressing has stretched the opposition and once the ball is won back, Sevilla can use the space well to play out threatening passes. Also the huge gaps between the opposition players means they can’t counter-press with ease and even if they manage to press, then it will just create free spaces in some other part.

The structures don’t always resemble a set pattern. It depends on the opponents.

Defending when the ball is in the midfield zone: Forming structures that help in quick transition

Sevilla's organisation (3)

Sevilla, as the photo depicts, are pressing Messi who is in the deep midfield region. He is being put under pressure by the left-back and the left winger. Now, if either one of them manage to nick the ball from him (they do!) then it poses a serious threat to the opponents (almost scored).

As in the previous case, the midfielders and the forward have formed a structure, only that it is not an “H” shape but an odd hexagon. The ball, if put into the center zone of this structure, makes it easy for Sevilla to win. So Messi’s options are to dribble or to pass back. If passed back to the center back or the right back, then the forwards can impose themselves on the backline to win the ball.

If Messi loses the ball, then the striker, along with the central attacking midfielder and the winger in the far end, can attack the open spaces as either one of the ball winners bring the ball near the box.

Also note the pressing patterns of Sevilla in both the cases. They have a good structure that enables them to have access to the ball. Unlike many other teams who face Barcelona, Sevilla have exploited the spaces properly and pressed. If too many players try to press a player when playing against opponents like Barcelona, it can lead to exposure of defense if the pressing trap isn’t executed properly.

The two players circled in red are the defensive midfielders of the 4-2-3-1. They position themselves in such a manner that they keep enough pressure on the opponents in the central region and don’t open up their defense too much by pushing higher.

Defending against high defensive line and defending the ball in the defensive third: 4-4-2 and conceding the wings

4-4-2 defending (4)

While defending against teams that use a high defensive line, Emery usually deploys a 4-4-2 structure in the defensive third. The central attacking midfielder moves high-up to play as the second striker – forming a partnership with the striker in pressurizing the back-line. The team usually uses a blend of zonal and man marking system – the midfielder players are sought after and marked while the wide players are marked depending on the orientation of the ball.

Here, Sergio Busquets cannot play the ball through the middle – the two central midfielders are marked. He can, however, play it out wide to the wing backs in advanced positions. The orientation of Sevilla is to the left side of the pitch (from their point of view) and hence, have man marked the right winger and right wing back of the opposition (Neymar, on Barcelona’s left wing, is marked only because he has drifted inside).

The other wing back is free with acres of space in front of him and Sevilla are happy to see the opponents play out the ball to the wide regions. Once Busquets sends the ball to the left wing of Barcelona, Sevilla will orient accordingly and the players on the right wing of Barcelona will be relieved.

Attack: Midfield organization

The variation in midfield (5)

The most interesting aspect of Emery’s game is the three central midfielders. In the Sevilla team of 2014-15, it was Ever Banega who usually started as the central attacking midfielder. Grzegorz Krychowiak and Vincente Iborra played behind him.

As the game unfolds, Banega would fall back into deeper positions to collect and play out the ball. The resulting gap between the opposition’s lines was filled by Iborra. In the defensive phase, Banega offers support for the striker and in drawing out pressing patterns. He allows the team to have more fluidity in the midfield region while attacking and provides a good number of defensive options off the ball.

In this case, Banega has dropped to defensive midfield and has done so in order to have better control over the ball. Had Krychowiak stayed a bit up field, Banega would have stayed amidst the opposition midfielders.

Also Banega’s movement is followed by the left winger Vitolo, who has moved to the space left open by the Argentinian. This has created an overload on the right wing of Sevilla. Sevilla create such overloads to attain numerical advantages on some parts of the pitch. When the opponents switch their focus to the overloaded region, the ball will be moved quickly into free space.

Ivan Rakitic played like a box to box midfielder for Sevilla in his final season at the club. He was instrumental in winning the Europa League. A similar role is played by Banega.

Winning the ball by pressing and quick counter attacks:


When up against superior teams like Barcelona, the technique used by Sevilla is quite intriguing. Rather than playing into the hands of the opponents, they try to make things tough by executing well worked out plans.

Here, Banega is forcing Busquets to play the ball to Iniesta. Barcelona have five players in the half-space region, the same number as Sevilla. Barcelona have superiority in terms have quality and space utilization but they are very much unaware of the trap laid out by Emery’s players.

When the ball is played out to Iniesta (action 1), Sevilla players press and close down the space and cut out Iniesta’s passing options (action 2). As soon as the ball is won, Bacca can run at the defense of the opponents. So can Vitolo. Banega becomes the free man, with space ahead of him, to make use of the ball while the Barcelona defense is made vulnerable.

Sevilla defend by pressing and drawing out patterns that help in quick transition. They attack by either counter attacking from their own half or breaking down the attacking moves of the opponents in the attacking third itself.

Three career defining matches

Almeria 2 – Real Madrid 1: Almeria finished the 2007-08 season of La Liga in the top half of the table. To cap such a wonderful campaign was a sweet victory over Real Madrid in Estadio Mediterraneos. It was a 2-1 win – the winning goal scored by Alvaro Negredo.

Valencia 3 – Sevilla 1: The second leg of the semifinals of Europa League 2013-14 – against Valencia in Mestalla – was the match that set into motion the dreams of Sevilla players, and thousands of fans and it was the goal scored in the fourth minute of the extra-time that instilled the winning spirit in Unai Emery’s team. The goal, scored by Stephane M’bia, put Sevilla in the flight to Turin in place of Emery’s previous club. This match can be considered as the most important, in Sevilla’s back-to-back win of Europa League titles.

Sevilla 2 – Barcelona 2: Most of us will be remembering this match, the match in which Barcelona, led by Luis Enrique, let a two goal cushion slip by and dropped two precious points. The severity of the title race was so much that, Sevilla did not get sufficient credit for their exploits. It was a display of the never-give-up mentality of Emery’s team.

Three key players developed

Unai Emery’s clubs were usually the donors of talented players to the rich clubs and sugar-daddies. So, it was a necessity for him to dig up fresh talents from the youth academies every season. The departure of key players paved the way for the talented youngsters to showcase their potentials. Emery has developed many players, but Juan Mata, Jordi Alba and Ever Banega are the most important ones. Mata, now at Manchester United, won almost everything with Chelsea and was a core part of their Champions League and Europa League winning team. Jordi Alba, another product of Emery’s Valencia, recently won the treble and played a crucial part in Spain’s Euro 2012 victory. Ever Banega, part of Emery’s Valencia squad, was brought last summer and has done a good job in filling Ivan Rakitic’s boots.


Mauricio Pochettino 2015



Thomas Tuchel 2015

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