Only Manchester City have won more Premier League points in 2023 than Aston Villa, but Unai Emery’s past casts a little doubt over their top-four hopes.
Unai Emery became a comedy figure at Arsenal. The butt of all jokes towards the end of his relatively short tenure, the fall guy at a club trying to work out what it wanted to be at the start of a new era.
He wasn’t blameless, yet Emery was also by no means the root of all issues at Arsenal, who suddenly went from having the long-serving Arsène Wenger in charge of virtually everything, to trying to implement an almost entirely new culture. Some would argue he was always on a hiding to nothing; others, including himself, might say Emery was abandoned by the club.
The “good ebening” mockery may seem like small fry in the grand scheme of things, but it was indicative of a general lack of a respect shown to a coach whose biggest mistake was arguably joining a club in such a state of flux.
But nearly a year ago he returned to England with a point to prove.
Emery had previously tried to improve his understanding of English by watching the Birmingham-based television series Peaky Blinders. He might’ve maligned the difficulty of understanding the Brummie accent at first, but he’s certainly speaking their language now with Aston Villa setting their sights high.
Upsetting the Established Order
Emery replaced Steven Gerrard in late October 2022 with Villa languishing just above the bottom three in 17th. The turnaround since has been remarkable, hitting new heights on Saturday with the 6-1 demolition of Brighton at Villa Park.
It has to be mentioned that the margin of this victory was a little misleading; Brighton actually created chances worth more expected goals (xG) than Villa (1.72 to 1.49), who benefited from an own goal and a significantly deflected strike. But all the same, Emery’s side were ruthless, extremely positive and so difficult to keep quiet.
It was their 10th successive home league win, which is the kind of run they’ve not put together in the top flight since a streak of 13 in 1983. Only Manchester City are currently on a longer winning sequence at home in the Premier League (13), and Villa became just the ninth team to achieve this feat since 1992.
Victory left them with 58 points this calendar year, another figure only Man City (71) can better over the same period. So, it’s not just a brief uptick in form that Emery has inspired; this is a sustained improvement and highlights how only Pep Guardiola’s treble winners have been more consistent than them in the league this year.
This in itself is a major achievement and should provide real optimism about what they can go on to accomplish this season. Even within this run, they’ve shown an ability to bounce back from disappointments; they lost three games in a row in February but have since won 48 points, second only to City. And on the opening weekend of this season, they were thrashed 5-1 by Newcastle United; they’ve won five of six league games since, scoring three or more goals in four of them.
“[Emery] thinks that it is better to win 4-3 than 1-0,” Villa’s president of football operations Monchi once said during their time together at Sevilla, and clearly that level of entertainment is on full display at Villa Park.
In His Own Lane
It’s never really felt like there’s a consensus on Emery’s standing in the coaching world. There are certainly many respected pundits, analysts and journalists who’d regard him to be among the best, but similarly, plenty would disagree.
It’s obviously a subjective argument that’s difficult to definitively settle either way, but his track record of moulding new squads into trophy-winning teams has probably been unrivalled in Europe over the past decade, and he’s very much tried to do things his own way.
A high press, a high defensive line and ball dominance may be in vogue, but none of those are particularly relevant to Villa at the moment; only four clubs have tallied fewer high turnovers (48) in the Premier League this season, the average starting position of their passing sequences (39.8 metres from their own goal) is the sixth deepest, and they’ve recorded less than 50% possession (48.3%).
But the graphic below shows how versatile they can be, as Villa find themselves closest to the median in terms of passes per sequence and direct speed upfield. This suggests an ability to be subtle or break quickly, though at the same time it arguably masks some of their biggest strengths.
Villa are very good at transitioning from defence to attack. Their use of dynamic players going forward gives them the possibility to destabilise opponents with pace, dribbling ability or smart off-the ball movement… or a combination of the three. Ollie Watkins, Moussa Diaby, Leon Bailey, Nicolò Zaniolo and the injured Emiliano Buendía are just some of the options and all possess qualities that make them a threat when the opposition’s defence isn’t set.
As such, Villa have recorded 47 shots in transition, four more than any other team in the Premier League this term. It’s an even more impressive record when you consider their 84 transitions reaching the final third is only the 12th highest; this speaks to their efficiency and decision making when the opportunities arise, but also the effectiveness of their pressing in the middle section of the pitch as their deep defence requires the attack’s line of engagement to generally be closer to their own half.
Villa’s strength in transition is also reflected by the danger they carry in fast breaks, with a league-high 12 such situations leading to a shot, and only West Ham (three) have scored more goals from these scenarios (two for Villa). Emery’s side also rank highest for direct attacks (23); so, although the scatter graph above suggests they’re not the most direct side in the Premier League, they have the necessary abilities to spring attacks very quickly, and effectively, down either flank or through the centre.
There were two prime examples on Saturday alone. Watkins’ second and third goals saw Villa pounce on turnovers in the middle third before breaking at speed; Brighton couldn’t handle the pace, and both times Watkins’ movement proved exceptional, even if his hat-trick clincher was a little fortuitous.
But it’s also worth highlighting Villa’s defensive work. Despite the obvious attacking undertones, Emery has often been considered something of a pragmatist who likes his teams to play out from the back while being very well organised off the ball.
Such a passing style carries an obvious risk. This is highlighted by conceding 71 high turnovers in their defensive third this season, which is the third most in the division. And yet, only six of those instances have led to a shot for the opponents; that’s 8.5%, the second-lowest proportion in the Premier League this season, evidence of how their defensive organisation allows Villa to recover from turnovers in potentially precarious positions.
They do have the capacity to crumble, losing by three or more goals to Newcastle and Liverpool this season, but those occasions certainly aren’t the norm.
Could They Qualify for the Champions League?
Emery himself and many Villa fans would probably argue it’s too early to ask such a question. That may be right, but given their form over the whole year to date, they have to be considered a potential threat to the teams harbouring hopes of a top-four finish.
As already stated, if we look at the Premier League over 2023 so far, they’re one of the form teams and undoubtedly have a lot of quality in the squad. Obviously, it’s not possible to predict things like injuries, but they currently look on track to at least put the pressure on.
However, we also need to consider Emery’s past. Over the previous 10 seasons, the only club he’s managed to guide to a top-four finish in a league season is Paris Saint-Germain, and with all due respect, few would consider that an achievement.
Even his Europa League three-peat Sevilla side – which some probably consider to be his finest era – never finished higher than fifth in La Liga, while his Villarreal team came seventh twice.
This isn’t an attempt to downplay his achievements; on the contrary. At the very least it’s arguable that he was right to prioritise European competitions – ask any Sevilla fan if they’d have preferred to win the Europa League three years in a row or finish fourth three times in succession but not win anything, the first option would be chosen nine times out of 10.
But it does mean there are questions about whether Emery can successfully juggle a top-four push and a tilt for the UEFA Europa Conference League, which, if they won would be their first major European trophy since 1982.
Emery might have even given a clue to his priority in his very first press conference last year, saying: “My dream is to win a trophy with Aston Villa. It’s my challenge.”
Were he to break the trend of his past and succeed on both fronts, it would potentially elevate Emery to an altogether new level. Either way, no one’s laughing at him anymore.