Aston Villa’s season got off to the worst possible start under Steven Gerrard. A 2-0 loss away at newly promoted Bournemouth was not an ideal start by any means. A 2-1 win at home to Everton painted over the cracks before we were pulled back down to normality after three consecutive losses to Crystal Palace, West Ham United and Arsenal.
However, Villa then went four games unbeaten, drawing to champions Manchester City at home, beating Southampton at home, and drawing to ten men Leeds United and newly promoted Nottingham Forest both away from home. Despite not losing for four consecutive games, there were barely any positives. Pressure was slowly piling on Steven Gerrard and his stubbornness and arrogance meant nothing was going to change. Villa then lost 2-0 at home to Chelsea which turned things from bad to worse, especially after Gerrard stated that “teams like Chelsea should be coming to Villa and wiping the floor with us,” suggesting that he has zero faith in the squad at his disposal and that we were destined for mediocrity.
But, the final straw came on a Thursday night at Craven Cottage as Marco Silva’s newly promoted Fulham side beat Villa by three goals to nil. Gerrard was booed off by the travelling Villa fans and was sacked shortly after the full time whistle.
After two games under a caretaker manager in Aaron Danks, a 4-0 win at home to Brentford and a 4-0 loss away at Newcastle United, Aston Villa appointed Unai Emery.
It was a very exciting appointment that the majority of the fans got behind. Emery is a decorated coach who has won four Europa Leagues and managed some of the top clubs across Europe in Paris Saint Germain, Sevilla, Villareal and Arsenal.
Of course, you had the occasional fan who was a bit wary of the appointment after he somewhat “failed” at Arsenal in his last Premier League tenor, however the majority backed the appointment and were extremely excited about the future under Unai Emery.
It was going to be tough for the new manager as his first game was facing Manchester United at Villa Park, a side who Villa hadn’t beat on home soil in the league for thirty years. Villa defied the odds and saw the red devils off, and Unai Emery was off to a wonder start.
Villa then faced United again in the Carabao Cup at Old Trafford where they lost 4-2, however there were definitely positive signs to take, just individual mistakes letting the side down. However, Villa then travelled down to Brighton where they faced Roberto De Zerbi’s in form side at the AMEX, and a double from Danny Ings got us three points before the World Cup break commenced.
After a World Cup where we saw a few players in Leander Dendoncker (Belgium), Matty Cash (Poland), represent their countries, and Emi Martinez win the whole thing as well as the golden boot, Villa were back in action on boxing day as Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool side travelled to B6 and were the first side to beat Aston Villa under our new manager.
Villa responded in the best possible way to their boxing day loss by seeing off Tottenham away from home by two goals to nil. Arguably the best performance we’ve seen under Unai Emery in his Villa reign.
A draw at home to Wolves and a shocking FA Cup loss to Stevenage was soon cancelled out as we beat Leeds at home and Southampton away. Villa then lost three consecutive games as Leicester and Arsenal both beat Villa by four goals to two at Villa Park and Man City won by three goals to one at the Etihad, Villa have won their previous two, away at Everton and at home to Crystal Palace.
It is no doubt that Villa are one of the most in form sides in the Premier League at the moment. Since Emery’s appointment Villa have took twenty two points from a possible thirty six after only taking nine from a possible thirty three under Steven Gerrard. But just how has Emery transformed this Aston Villa side into a real force and a threat to the rest of the Premier League?
Unai Emery’s preference to set up in a 4-4-2 shape compliments Villa’s current squad. The goalkeeper and centre backs are integral to Villa’s set up as Emery’s style, similar to a lot of elite coaches, is all about building from the back. With Tyrone Mings being very comfortable on the ball and Emi Martinez and Ezri Konsa having adequate on the ball attributes, playing out from the back has proved to work wonders so far, despite some fans disliking the idea.
Emery’s full backs are a complete contrast to how Steven Gerrard wanted them to be. Gerrard’s idea was to play Digne and Cash as inverted full backs, joining the midfield, like Rico Lewis at Man City or Olexander Zinchenko at Arsenal, however, in simple terms, our players, specifically our full backs, were not good enough to do so. Our full backs were joining the attack, however they weren’t fast enough in transition and we were left far too exposed at the back. Evident in the image below, Emery’s full backs are much more traditional, they stay wide, attack when they need to but are much more cautious in transition than when playing under Steven Gerrard.
The double pivot of Boubacar Kamara and Douglas Luiz is what manager’s dream of. The perfect balance. Kamara acts as the ball winner, and Luiz acts as the more creative six and dictates more.
Emery’s wingers are the polar opposite of each other, yet they work so well. On the right hand side, Emery opts towards a more direct player who can carry the ball, but can also join the double pivot to form a midfield three and create overloads - skipper John McGinn especially has thrived within this role, and Jacob Ramsey has also been a good option.
On the left, Emery wants a more expressive player who can roam into the middle behind the two strikers and can create. Both Buendia and Coutinho have looked good in this role so far.
The two up front consists of a second striker and a main striker. Leon Bailey has been the main second striker since Emery’s appointment, however in Villa's previous game, Emery opted for Buendia to play as the second striker with McGinn and Ramsey on either flank. Bertrand Traore was recalled from Istanbul Basaksehir in January ; it will be interesting to see whether Unai Emery tries him out in this role as it seems like something which he would suit.
The main striker Ollie Watkins has scored five in his last six, there is absolutely no doubt that he suits this setup, and there is no doubt that the decision to sell Danny Ings was not a bad one as Ollie Watkins is a more complete player with more attributes to offer. When it comes to contention for the England squad, Ollie Watkins is a must in terms of players for Southgate to consider.
Not only has Unai Emery transformed the shape and the way in which we set up, he has also transformed the mentality of the squad.
Referenced earlier in this article, Steven Gerrard stated in October that, "teams like Chelsea should be coming to Villa Park and wiping the floor with us." If the manager has a mentality that any team with a better squad than us should walk all over us, then that will reflect in the players. The players may then think that the manager has zero faith in them going into games against big six clubs, and then the contest is over before it's even started as our players have given up.
Unai Emery has come in and completely shifted this losing mentality of settling for mediocrity. He's a serial winner and his mentality has started to reflect in the players, hence why Villa are picking up so many points.
Under Steven Gerrard, Villa picked up just two points away from home from a possible eighteen. Since Unai Emery has come in, Villa have only dropped points on the road to Manchester City. Emery has completely transformed our away form to the point where we are now better away than at home. It seems as if under Gerrard, Villa were afraid of playing away and were only comfortable in a familiar environment. Emery has come in and this is no longer the case. Twelve points out of a possible fifteen away from home is something that is going quite under the radar for Unai Emery's side.
It's also worth noting that Villa have won seven league games under Emery, and in those games we have only conceded three goals. We don't concede many goals when we win, and that is a sign of a very good team. A clean sheet is a foundation to build on and get a result from, and that is what Emery's side do.
Players like Ollie Watkins, Philippe Coutinho, Emi Buendia and John McGinn have all started to pick up form since the appointment of Emery. This could be down to Emery showing faith in them. The sale of Danny Ings to West Ham may have sparked some confidence in the boots of Ollie Watkins as he may have felt that the pressure is on him and that he must deliver. He has responded perfectly to that delivering five goals in his last six.
It seems the whole mentality has completely shifted from a weak, losing outlook on performing, to a determined, resilient, winning outlook on performing.
It would have been quite easy to give Unai Emery loads of money to spend in January to get in the players that he wants in order to try and skyrocket up the Premier League table.
We decided against this as the same mistake has happened before, a manager comes in. we give them loads of money to spend, they don't deliver. Emery has had to work with what he has got and has only been able to strengthen areas which desperately needed strengthening. If he delivers this season and the owners are happy with the progress, which they should be, I'm sure they will back Emery this summer.
Villa saw two new arrivals in January as left back Alex Moreno joined from Real Betis, and Colombian wonderkid Jhon Duran signed from Chicago Fire. Bertrand Traore was also recalled from his loan spell at Istanbul Basaksehir.
There were more departures than arrivals as Danny Ings, Frederic Guilbert, Morgan Sanson, Marvelous Nakamba all left either permanently or on loan. Ludwig Augustinsson and Jan Bednarek also returned to their parent clubs in Sevilla and Southampton.
Emery used his first window at Aston Villa to strengthen areas with cause for concern and to get rid of anyone he seen as dead wood. Looking at our squad now, we have two or more options in every position and look pretty stacked with proven Premier League caliber.
So, what does this mean for the future of Aston Villa? It's obvious that Unai Emery was brought in on the basis that this is a project and steady progression every year is what we are after. Last season under Steven Gerrard, Villa finished 14th in the league, however they are currently level on points with Chelsea in 10th, so they wil surely be aiming higher than that.
Teams like Fulham, Brighton and Brentford have had exceptional seasons so far, but who's to say that they won't fall off towards the latter stage of the season and Aston Villa can pick up and potentially finish above them? I think top half would be an acceptable finish for Aston Villa. Considering where we were under Gerrard and what Emery has done, anywhere above 10th place, I'd be happy with. Then we can give the man the funds he needs to properly invest in and improve this squad. European football or domestic success must be an aim at the start of next season...
BY HARRY BATTERS - @HarryBatters