It's difficult to point to one particular player when it comes to who is the most improved under Unai Emery. There's pretty much an argument to be made for every member of the team. Having said that, I want to focus on John McGinn today given his man of the match performance on Saturday and his overall good form in recent games.
It wasn't long ago that many prominent figures were pointing at McGinn as a huge weak spot in the team, and rightfully so. Under Steven Gerrard, despite being handed the captain's armband, McGinn was a player lacking in confidence who was full of mistakes and was often played out of position. Villa fans across the globe would question whether the man who Scotland fans adored for his tireless displays was the same player who was coming back to Villa Park and stinking up the joint with misplaced passes and clumsy tackles.
This isn't me picking on McGinn by the way. The player himself admitted as much in an interview this past weekend saying;
"The start of the season for me was extremely difficult. The manager, Steven Gerrard, was first class with me, he had a lot of trust in me but I didn't really repay that. My performances were below par.
"I spent some time on the bench and put my head down and worked hard. I got my chance to come back in and hopefully I can keep doing that and keep my form up."
The stats also back this up. If we look back to the first time Villa played Chelsea this season back in October, McGinn only completed 9 successful passes with an overall completion rate of 69% and lost possession 10 times. He also failed to make even one successful dribble. Villa would go on to lose the game 2-0. This wasn't an uncommon occurrence either as he would only average between 61% and 74% successful passes in the final six games before Gerrard was sacked. The only exception being the 1-1 draw at Forest where he was carded, missed a sitter with that dreadful diving header and was hooked in the 77th minute.
Part of the reason that Villa supporters were so hard on the Scotsman was because we knew exactly how good he could be. Since signing for the club back in August 2018 for the bargain price of £2.7 million, McGinn has been a crucial part of Villa's promotion back to the Premier League and an even bigger part of keeping us there. But throughout the majority of 2022, it felt like McGinn was doing more harm than good by continuously giving the ball away and missing big chances.
Fast forward past the World Cup and a Unai Emery led Aston Villa are a completely different beast compared to the wounded animal we were under Gerrard. In the early days of Emery's tenure, McGinn was in and out of the side. As the player said himself, he had a lot of time on the bench to reflect. Once he was back in the team, though, he was back to his old self, and maybe even better.
Emery has played McGinn in a more advanced position, often playing on the right side of a midfield four. This new role has really brought out the best in McGinn as it allows him to drive forward, score worldies like we saw on Saturday, create for the two forward players, as well as still being in the right position to break up play and get involved defensively. He's arguably never been better.
Once again, the stats back this up. In Villa's 2-0 win against Chelsea this past Saturday, McGinn successfully completed 81% of his passes, completed 4 out of 4 successful dribbles, hit the woodwork and scored the second goal to clinch victory for the Villans. He was also awarded man of the match for his tireless performance.
McGinn has even somehow excelled in the same position that he crashed and burnt in under Gerrard. Stepping in for an injured Kamara, McGinn did a more than solid job in the middle of the park. In Villa's 3-0 win against Bournemouth when McGinn was asked to play in a more defensive position alongside Douglas Luiz, he completed 29 passes (87.9% success) while successfully completing 2 out of 2 dribbles. Right now, he's on fire.
His recent return to form is even more impressive when you consider the amount of change McGinn has seen during his time at Villa Park. He's always been better than Zidane but it's worth remembering he's been Bruce's, Smith's, Gerrard's and now Emery's man, yet he is still one of Villa's most important players. It takes a strong mindset to keep finding form despite all that change.
So, what's next?
At 28 years old, John McGinn is technically in the prime of his career. With that in mind, he'll be hoping that this return to form is permanent because if he finds himself back on the bench, he may not want to stick around. In all honesty, when everybody was writing him off at the beginning of the season, I really felt that he might be off in the summer. Especially with Emery looking at other midfield targets. Now, though, it's safe to say the Villa captain isn't going anywhere.
The only concern for McGinn's place in the team may be the potential incoming of Matteo Guendouzi. Although nothing is confirmed, all signs appear to point at the French midfielder being Emery's main target this summer. Although we don't know whether he'll play in one of the more defense roles currently filled by Kamara and Luiz, or further forward like McGinn and Ramsey, he will regardless be a threat to McGinn's place in the team. Whoever comes in this summer, though, I can't see McGinn giving up his shirt without a fight.
Personally I hope McGinn stays for a long time. Not only because of his impressive recent displays, but also because of his character. Although I miss Tyrone Mings being Aston Villa captain, McGinn is still more than worthy of the role. He's a great role model and represents the badge with pride while giving us a good laugh along the way. Whenever he does finally leave Villa, I hope it's in the twilight of his career and not to another English side. Maybe a move to his boyhood club Celtic may even be on the cards once he's slightly past his prime.
Until then, though, let's hope his current run of form continues as Villa potentially march towards a European place, because seeing John McGinn lead out an Aston Villa side back in Europe is enough to warm this old writer's heart.
Up the Meatball and Up The Villa!
P.s make sure you check out the latest AVFC Faithful YouTube video where Dan discusses why Villa must keep the greatest keeper in the world; Emi Martinez!