Douglas Luiz’s transformation under Emery at Villa explained

Daily News
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Douglas Luiz’s transformation under Emery at Villa explained

Douglas Luiz was always capable of more and he knew it. But it is only under Unai Emery that the Brazilian has become the complete midfielder. It has been a key factor in taking Aston Villa to the brink of Champions League qualification this season.

His comments during the international break about having “more freedom” to express himself under Emery reflect his change of role. After being seen as a holding midfielder throughout his first three seasons in a Villa shirt, a different player has emerged.

Douglas Luiz is a goalscorer now. No midfielder in the Premier League has scored more in the competition since the start of last season. Four penalties from four attempts have helped boost that total but he is fourth even without his perfect spot-kick record.

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With nine goals and five assists this Premier League season alone, he has matched his total of goal involvements from his first three campaigns combined. As his two goals against Nottingham Forest showed, this is a player who wants to get on the end of things now.

“He is a player who has always had a good instinct to get into the box,” Emery tells Sky Sports. “He is scoring goals because his instinct is very good. He is feeling comfortable getting into the opposition box when we are in the attacking third.”

Speaking to Emery at Villa’s training ground, there is the opportunity to turn the laptop his way and show him a graphic depicting Douglas Luiz’s career heatmap before the Spanish coach took over in November 2022 – and how it looks in the time since then.

Douglas Luiz's heatmaps at Aston Villa before and after Unai Emery's arrival

Image: Douglas Luiz’s heatmaps at Aston Villa before and after Unai Emery’s arrival

It reveals that while the 25-year-old midfielder is still happy picking the ball up inside his own half, he is now much more accustomed to finding himself in possession closer to the opposition goal. It is from there that he can showcase his creative qualities.

“Of course, we are trying to use the structure to get him into the best position. It is about trying to adapt him to our structure and for him to feel comfortable in our structure. It is not only about our structure and it is not only about him. It is a mix of both.”

What is interesting is that although he is now often operating in more advanced areas of the pitch, that has not stopped him getting on the ball for Villa. In fact, the number of touches and the number of passes per 90 minutes are both at record levels this season.

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That indicates that Douglas Luiz is still exercising some control on the game but he is able to do that in more damaging positions. Emery, a micro-manager at heart, trusts him to do that. “The most important thing is, tactically, allowing him to play with freedom.”

But there is another aspect to the improvement that his manager wants to acknowledge. A lot of what has changed at Villa has been framed in the context of the coach’s arrival. But that is not the whole story here. Emery has helped him to help himself.

“The second most important thing is him,” he explains.

“Because now he is very focused on football. When I got here, he was playing, more or less, but he was not playing consistently in the starting eleven. When we arrived, I think progressively with us, he is getting better with his mentality.”

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FREE TO WATCH: Douglas Luiz’s double in Aston Villa’s 4-2 win over Nottingham Forest

Villa face Manchester City on Wednesday evening, the club for which Douglas Luiz signed as a teenager. That in itself is evidence of his early promise but the opportunity never came to make a senior appearance for the reigning Premier League champions.

He had only just turned 21 when Villa agreed to pay £15m for him, at a time when his professional career amounted to 17 league starts on loan at Girona. Perhaps it is only to be expected that he has grown since then. “He is a leader on the pitch,” says Emery.

Villa will need him in what his manager calls “the key moment” in the season. They are chasing a trophy having reached the quarter-final of the Europa Conference League, while the prospect of Champions League qualification could help transform the club.

Intriguingly, despite the player having flourished as a result of the freedom afforded him, an injury to Boubacar Kamara means that his role has now shifted again. It had been Kamara who had assumed much of the defensive responsibility in Villa’s midfield.

It has presented a problem for Emery because the other options are not such a natural fit for that position. “Players like Douglas Luiz and Youri Tielemans, they are similar, I think, they need a Kamara type to protect them when they are trying to build up.”

Tim Iroegbunam is one alternative. “But Tim is 20 years old. He is young and will need time. I think he has the potential to get to the level to play here with us at Aston Villa. But for now we need to be careful and look after him. He has to get it progressively, I think.”

The best solution right now is a compromise, for Tielemans and Douglas Luiz to mimic the qualities of a true holding midfielder through teamwork. “They can focus when playing together, trying to get the characteristics of Tim or Kamara, trying to get this balance.”

How Douglas Luiz adapts to that challenge will be a big factor in how Villa’s season plays out. But there is confidence that this is a player with the ability, and now the mentality, to help his team finish this season in style. His manager believes. “The key, overall, is him.”

Watch free Manchester City vs Aston Villa match highlights on the Sky Sports app from Wednesday

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