Aston Villa said they’d act quickly and they’ve certainly done that by bringing in a new manager with genuine trophy-winning pedigree.
This, we might reasonably assume, is what a fresh start really looks like. Aston Villa were very clear about the fact that they would not delay in replacing Steven Gerrard, and Unai Emery has now been confirmed as the club’s new manager to start on November 1. To say that his arrival looks like something of an upgrade on the previous incumbent feels like an understatement.
Emery has been coaching since the end of 2004, and over that period of almost 18 years his win percentage has never dipped below the 46.2% that he managed during his abortive six months with Spartak Moscow a decade ago. For the record, Gerrard’s record over his 40 matches with Aston Villa was 32.8%. Emery has won the Europa League on four occasions – three times with Sevilla and once with Villarreal – and completed a domestic treble with PSG in 2017/18.
Aston Villa still require some work to get to the point of being in the latter stages of the Europa League, but the players demonstrated their potential in their last match against Brentford. While it was easy to get carried away with the schadenfreude of imagining Gerrard watching a team that had been mis-firing under him for so long suddenly pull their act together as soon as he was gone, that performance in itself summed up the curious position in which the team has found itself this season, a group of players collectively performing as substantially less than the sum of their parts despite having been assembled with the explicit intention of reclaiming European football.
Of course, there will be some who consider his previous time with in the Premier League with Arsenal to have been a failure, but this feels like another manifestation of football’s tendency towards extreme reactions to just about anything. Emery was, of course, the successor to Arsene Wenger, and this alone put him in an unenviable position, replacing a man who was simultaneously revered at The Emirates Stadium for what he had achieved for the club and reviled for having stayed on there for so long.
But Emery’s only full season was no worse than Wenger’s last and somewhat better than the two seasons that followed. Arsenal finished in fifth place, a point shy of Spurs and two behind Chelsea. Had they not failed to win six of their last eight games of the season, they’d have finished third by a comfortable margin, and on top of this he also took them to the final of the Europa League, although once there they were comfortably beaten by Chelsea.
By the time he left the club in November 2019, the case for his removal had started to look inarguable. A run of three wins in 11 Premier League games had dropped Arsenal to eighth place in the table, while they’d also been knocked out of the EFL Cup on penalty kicks by Liverpool after a memorable 5-5 draw at Anfield. Mikel Arteta arrived three weeks after Emery’s departure, but while Arsenal ended that season by winning the FA Cup, their league form didn’t significantly improve upon his departure and they ended the season in the same position in which they’d been when Emery was relieved of his duties.
Emery’s record at Arsenal was a little patchy, but perhaps he never really stood a chance in the AFTV-contaminated hothouse that Arsenal were at the time. Certainly once he returned to management in Spain with Villarreal in the summer of 2020, normal service seemed to resume. Villareal had just finished 14th in La Liga, but at the end of his first season he took them to their first European trophy, beating Manchester United on penalties in the final after knocking Arsenal out in the semi-finals. He took them to the semi-finals of the Champions League last season.
Pundits have already started questioning why Emery didn’t take the Newcastle job when that was dangled in front of him just under a year ago, and there is probably more than one answer to this question. ‘A lot of respect for Villarreal, and a lot of respect for Newcastle’ was the official line from a manager experienced enough to know the value of tact. Other suggestions have been made, such as him refusing a clause in his contract that would have seen him sacked had Newcastle been relegated last season or Villarreal’s ongoing involvement in the Champions League.
In truth, any of these are reasonable explanations, and considering how Newcastle have developed under Eddie Howe it seems doubtful that there’ll be many of them still harbouring resentment towards Emery over his decision. What is important to remember is that these reasons don’t really matter, whatever they might have been. Perhaps he just wants to manage every Premier League club in alphabetical order; it would certainly explain why Bournemouth haven’t gotten around to permanently replacing Scott Parker.
What is clear is that Unai Emery is a manager capable of restoring some of the sense of grandeur that has been missing from Aston Villa for far too long. This is a manager who has proven that he can win trophies and who has worked at the highest level of the club game, and this has ramifications for the senior management of the club itself. He may need to be backed in the transfer market in the new year, and he likely will next summer too.
And what you can say with a reasonable degree of certainty is that bringing in a coach of this calibre can teach a football club a lot about itself. For Aston Villa, there can be no more excuses. If the players are falling short, that’s on them. If the recruitment is bad, the sporting director Johan Lange will have questions to answer. The same goes for the owners, should he not get the backing that he may need to get the club back to where they intend him to put the club, and everybody has a responsibility not to start repeating that tired and lazy ‘good ebening’ trope.
But Aston Villa have given themselves a chance, and that is obviously a start. After a year of Steven Gerrard, for supporters at the very least it’s almost certainly a considerable relief.