OPINION: Unai Emery showing Premier League his real worth with Aston Villa

OPINION: Unai Emery showing Premier League his real worth with Aston Villa
Unai Emery on the touchline at Villa Park
Unai Emery on the touchline at Villa Park
Seasons in the Premier League can be defined by big decisions as much as small moments. In terms of Aston Villa, that decision was removing Steven Gerrard (42) as manager back in October and replacing him with Unai Emery (51).

At that point, they had won just two games out of their opening 12 league games and looked in real danger of being embroiled in another relegation battle. 

In stepped Emery, a man with real pedigree on the continent, working within a budget, and creating an identity for his players to follow and, typically, succeeding in.

This did not work in his other spell in England’s top flight with Arsenal, but he has built a niche in overachieving with middle-of-the-road top-flight clubs like Villa, Villarreal and Valencia. And it’s not only with teams that start with V that he has found success - he is synonymous with Sevilla and the European titles they have won. 

Those European dreams looks set to be reignited in the 2023/24 season after Emery’s work so far in the Midlands has seen his side go from bust to boom, from looking over their shoulder at the Championship to dreaming of the Champions League.

At both ends of the pitch, Villa have improved markedly under Emery. Since he joined them in November, their goals conceded per game has dropped from 1.45 under Gerrard at the start of this season to 1.05. Going forward they are scoring almost at will, increasing from 0.63 goals per 90 minutes to 1.5.

In their 1-0 win over Fulham on Tuesday night, Emery became the first manager to see his Villa side score in every one of his first 20 games in charge. That sort of consistency will never see you struggling for points in the Premier League.

Aston Villa's form in the Premier League over their last 10 games

That consistency since his appointment has seen them fly up the table. In the form standings over that time frame, they sit third with 42 points, behind only Arsenal and Manchester City. A full season at that rate would have them recording around 79 points - a figure that would have seen them finish in the top four in each of the last eight seasons.

Yet, with all of this improvement, you would be forgiven for not thinking too much about the Birmingham-based club this season. Given the rise of Arsenal, Brighton and Brentford, coupled with the fall of Chelsea and Liverpool as well as the chaos at Tottenham, Villa's progress has flown under the radar somewhat.

This could be due to Emery’s methodical approach. A 4-2-3-1 system, favoured by Emery for long swathes of his recent managerial career, has allowed Villa to be more patient on the ball and to create more chances. 

To see the real difference, their two performances against Fulham this season provide perspective. The 3-0 away loss at Craven Cottage back in October was the final nail in the coffin for Gerrard and his team were outplayed throughout, with the London side getting off 18 shots, bossing possession and not allowing Villa any space through the middle for their lopsided 4-3-3 to advance.

The changes Emery has made have seen a big shift in the way they play. In their 1-0 victory over the same opposition, they increased their pass accuracy by 7% - suggesting more build-up play - as well as limiting the Cottagers to just one shot across the 90 minutes.

Tyrone Mings (30) got the goal in midweek, a fine return for a player that has kept five clean sheets in his last five games, much improved under Emery and looking very settled in their defence.

Normally, under the Spaniard, the Villains have relied on Ollie Watkins (27) for their goals. He has 14 in the league this season, only one of those coming under Gerrard. This could be down to the fact that Emery has made him the focal point for their attacks, shipping off Danny Ings (30), who struggled for cohesion alongside his strike partner at Villa Park, to West Ham in January and trusting Watkins to make the difference. A run of 10 goals in 12 games during Emery’s reign suggests it is working.

Tyrone Mings and Ollie Watkins celebrate together against Fulham

With success on the pitch and European football looking very much on the cards, Villa fans could be concerned about what that foray onto the continent could bring. After all, they have been there before this century under, mainly, Martin O’Neil and that eventually ended up with a trip down into the second tier.

But with Emery at the helm and with his incredible, albeit niche, European record, things feel more positive. They also seem to have a sustainable business model that has seen their net spend increase on transfers to around £50million over the past two seasons, but they have reaped the benefits. After a 14th-place finish last season, they are set for their highest league finish in more than a decade.

Off the pitch, investment is showing that this upturn in fortunes could be here to stay. Villa Park is set for a redevelopment that would see the attendance rise to more than 50,000 - an increase of nearly 20% - with more than £100million being spent on this regeneration of one of England’s most mythical grounds. 

Villa Park looks set for a revamp in the near future

Much like their transfer dealings, this move is one of considerable investment but one that will show its worth as time goes on.

For Villa, entry into Europe for the first time since the 2010/11 season, will mean more games and a need for a bigger squad to cope with the demands of four competitions. However, their main aim will be to keep Emery happy and allow him to continue working with a squad that is evidently performing for him. 

His work in the seven months he has been at the helm has been remarkable and does a lot to right the wrongs he had at Arsenal, where he struggled to control a fractured dressing room after a club legend had finally left the dugout.

Now, he seems more experienced and more in tune with his team but there is always a new test around the corner, where small moments and big decisions will define him once again.

Follow Aston Villa this weekend with Flashscore.


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