Aston Villa are reborn under Emery but can he restore them to (relative) greatness?

Date published: Thursday 26th January 2023 9:02 - Ian King

Aston Villa manager and Alex Moreno, going for the same ball

Aston Villa have been transformed under Unai Emery, but is it fair to say that all they had to in order to improve was ‘get a better head coach in’?

This sort of revival is a hefty reason why clubs change managers as regularly as they do. Since his arrival at the start of November, no other club in the Premier League has looked quite as transformed as Aston Villa under Unai Emery. Indeed, no club other than Arsenal has claimed more points.

They’ve won five out of their seven league games with him in charge, and the fears of relegation which hung heavy in the air over Villa Park after what turned out to be Steven Gerrard’s last game as manager, a 3-0 defeat at Fulham which was every bit as calamitous as a brief glance at the final score suggests, already feels like a rapidly fading memory.

Villa remain in the bottom half of the table for now, but only just, and with the sort of momentum that they’ve developed since the start of November, it’s tempting to wonder how high the limits might be on what they do with the rest of this season. Champions League qualification feels like a pipe dream – they’re 11 points off fourth place – but European qualification to either the Europa League or the Europa Conference League certainly do not.

As things stand, they’re only three points (and, to be fair, a quite substantial goal difference) off sixth-placed Brighton, while a win from their home match against Leicester City at the start of next month could put them above both Liverpool and Chelsea in the Premier League table. It is a stunning turnaround following a dismal start to the season, which can be summed up by one stark statistic: Aston Villa won two from the 11 Premier League games that they played this season under Gerrard. They’ve won six of nine since.

It would be understandable if Aston Villa felt that this sort of form – particularly in the Premier League – was something like a cold shower. It has been 12 years since they last finished in the top half of the top flight. That Villa finished in sixth place in the Premier League four times in seven seasons between 2003/04 and 2009/10 certainly seems to be at least half-forgotten outside of Birmingham.

The last 12 years of the club’s history has been defined by the mismanagement that took them down to the Championship in 2016 and then held them captive for three years, and the fight to reclaim some of their former glories. Since returning to the Premier League in 2019, the club’s main focus has been retaining that place.

In their first season back, two wins and two draws from their last four games kept them up, just one point above Bournemouth and Watford. After the 2020/21 season started with four straight wins – including that 7-2 pummelling of Liverpool – they settled into a comfortable mid-table position, with Jack Grealish in particular earning a level of admiration which saw him secure a nine-figure transfer to Manchester City.

And last season ended with them in 14th place in the table, a league position which would have been somewhat higher had they not ended their season with two points from their last four games. But then again, considering that two of those last four matches were against Liverpool and Manchester City (who were racing for the line at the top of the table), perhaps a relatively meagre return from those last few games isn’t that surprising.

Of course, things haven’t quite been perfect since Emery’s arrival. The perfect complement to Villa’s upswing under him might have been a run deep into the FA Cup, but this was scuppered at the first hurdle when complacency brought a somewhat embarrassing home defeat against League Two Stevenage,

Winning a cup would be a good way of reminding the rest of the Premier League that Villa are back and getting the club back into European competition for the first time since 2010 and 2011, when they were knocked out of the Europa League at the first hurdle by Rapid Vienna in successive seasons, would have sent out all the right signals to the rest of the teams in their division. And their last two wins – against Leeds United and Southampton – weren’t wholly convincing.

But considering the absolute state they were in by Steven Gerrard’s last game in charge, to complain too loudly about these things feels somewhat churlish. Far better to win 2-1 against Leeds and 1-0 against Southampton than to lose 3-0 to Fulham. And it’s worth recalling that since Gerrard left the club, Aston Villa have beaten Manchester United, Spurs and Brighton. If they can continue the upward trajectory they’ve maintained since the start of November, those wins might yet prove extremely important come the end of this season.

So is it really as simple as ‘get in a coach who knows what they’re doing’? Well, that would be a little unfair on Steven Gerrard. An unbeaten season in the SPFL with Rangers felt sufficient to give him an opportunity in the Premier League. That others chose to interpret this as a stepping stone to the Liverpool job is hardly Villa’s responsibility and, to give him credit, something that Gerrard always vehemently denied.

Last summer saw Steven Gerrard lose coach Michael Beale, who’d been his assistant in Glasgow and initially at Villa, and in one ultimately fairly damning comment from Emi Martinez, the goalkeeper noted that, “It’s the first time in 14 to 15 years of my career that the assistant coach does all the talking, Michael Beale.”

On top of this, the decision to strip Tyrone Mings of the captaincy at the very start of the season felt like an unnecessary misstep, while none of Gerrard’s post-Beale tactical shuffles worked. And there were plenty of tactical shuffles tried.

So, what of that headline? Can Aston Villa be restored to greatness, and what might that look like? Well, it’s now almost 41 years since they became the champions of Europe, and repeating that in the foreseeable future seems…unlikely, to put it mildly. The football world has changed a lot over the last four decades.

But that doesn’t mean that Villa’s future is necessarily a cul-de-sac. A place in the Europa League this season remains achievable. They’re five points behind fifth-placed Spurs and with a game in hand.

Should they manage that, well, the new manager is a Europa League specialist, a four-time winner of the competition, which includes winning it three years in a row between 2014 and 2016 with Sevilla. And one of the prizes for winning that is…a place in the Champions League.

This may all sound like a bit of a pipe dream, but it does at sound mildly plausible and even if it’s all highly unlikely, that Aston Villa supporters may be able to so much as contemplate the idea speaks volumes for the work that Emery has already done since arriving at the club.

After the decade they’ve had, Aston Villa supporters deserve the chance to dream a little.

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