The impact that Unai Emery has made at Villa Park should not be under-estimated, the Spanish coach transforming the club’s fortunes in a short period of time.
When the former PSG and Arsenal boss took the reins in the Midlands last November, Aston Villa were well and truly in the doldrums, browbeaten by an abject campaign overseen by his predecessor who had unquestionably alienated the fan-base, and reportedly alienated half his dressing room.
At the time of Steven Gerrard’s dismissal, the Villans hovered just a point above the drop-zone having won only three of their 13 games. Up front, goals were hard to come by. At the back, they were persistently porous and prone to mishap.
With confidence on the floor and performances shorn of inspiration, there was naturally an awful lot of restructuring for the 51-year-old to do. Indeed, it amounted to an overhaul.
That Emery has done this so comprehensively, and so quickly, is to his enormous credit and perhaps shouldn’t overly surprise considering his pedigree.
After all, this is a manager who has won the Europa League a remarkable four times, winning a European Coach of the Season merit in 2014. Luring him into a relegation dogfight was quite a coup.
Not that relegation is even a passing concern anymore, not after a startling turn-around has seen Villa pick up 42 points from a possible 63 under the erudite Spaniard, scoring in all-but-one of his 23 games in charge across all competitions.
With a defence that has kept clean sheets in 42.8% of their fixtures and an attack rejuvenated by the brilliant Emi Buendia, and a forward in Ollie Watkins who can’t stop scoring, Villa have steadily climbed the table.
Just six months into Emery’s tenure, Villa are now well backed in the football betting to finish inside the top six, with even a Champions League spot not out of the question.
It's a transformation that began on the training field, with Emery very much an attention-to-details coach who demands that long hours are spent correcting flaws identified via video analysis.
One such example is that a third of the goals conceded under Gerrard came from set pieces.
Aston Villa were in 17th place right before Unai Emery was hired in October.— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) April 25, 2023
He's now led them into 5th place and a Europa League spot 😮
Truly remarkable turnaround 👏 pic.twitter.com/klVC0B8Qs4
Bringing Tyrone Mings back into the fold helped in this regard, as too did the promotion of a set piece specialist coach whose opinions are now adhered to.
A change in formation meanwhile to a 4-2-2-2 was designed to get the best out of a previously failing midfield. The form of Douglas Luiz and John McGinn have improved dramatically as a consequence.
All of which bodes extremely well for Villa’s health in the short-term but also prompts speculation as to what they can ultimately go on to achieve under the experienced coach.
To a large extent, where they eventually finish this term will answer that, but certainly – with or without European football – Villa should be fancied in the Premier League betting to be nowhere close to the lower echelons of the top-flight in 2023/24.
Instead, a top six battle will likely ensue, while the renowned cup specialist will insist on nothing less than a deep run in at least one of the knockout tournaments. Villa last won a trophy in 1996.
A pivotal transfer window awaits too, with deadwood needed to be moved on and Emery expected to lean into his La Liga contacts. If he gets that right then frankly the world is Aston Villa’s oyster, a club that only last winter looked doomed to flail and drop.
*Credit for all of the photos in this article belongs to AP Photo*