Let’s take a look at how Unai Emery has transformed Aston Villa. From finishing 14th on the Premier League table in 2022, Aston Villa are now actively fighting for a top 4 finish this season. It sounds insane when we put it like that, but it’s even more insane when you hear the details of this turnaround.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is the story of how Unai Emery has transformed Aston Villa
Villa thought that Steven Gerrard was the messiah after they let go of Dean Smith. The former Liverpool captain had just won the Scottish Premiership with Rangers without losing a single game all season, so Aston Villa swore he was going to take them to the Promised Land, but he did the opposite.
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In his first season in charge, Aston Villa finished 14th, 3 places lower than they finished the previous season. That season memorably ended with them bottling a 2-goal lead against Man City which helped the Mancunian club win the league yet again.
The 2022-23 season started in the same manner. Gerrard won just 2 of the first 12 games of the season, leaving Aston Villa 16th on the table, just one point above the relegation zone. So, he was sacked.
With Aston Villa already in a relegation fight, that was not a job anybody wanted to take, but Emery left Villareal, where he had enjoyed some success, to take on this huge challenge. This guy beat United to win the Europa League in 2021, and knocked both Juventus and Bayern Munich out of the Champions League to reach the semi-final in 2022.
He was having a good time with Villareal, but he decided to move to the Premier League instead and take on this impossible challenge.
But did you say impossible? Nah, not for Unai Emery.
The Spaniard didn’t take long to turn things around at Aston Villa. He significantly improved the win percentage from 32.5% under Gerrard to 63.1%, winning 15 of his 25 games in the Premier League as manager of Aston Villa. That’s almost double the win rate under Gerrard!
As a matter of fact, in that same season he took over, he took Aston Villa from a relegation battle to securing qualification for European football the following season. That is simply just mind-blowing.
But how did he do it?
Well, here’s how.
First of all, he strengthened the defense. Aston Villa were leaking goals before Emery came in, and he knew that if they were to move forward, that was one of the first things he would have to change. And he managed to improve on that in a short period of time.
From having conceded 20 goals in 13 games before he joined, Aston Villa went on to concede just 7 goals in his first 7 games in charge, and these included games against Man United, Liverpool, and Spurs. Super impressive!
Emery is one coach who is generally very particular about defense and that’s why 3 of the 7 players he has signed for Aston Villa so far are defenders.
And while the defense was taking shape, he was also massively improving the attack. Aston Villa scored, at least, a goal in Emery’s first 20 games in charge, and that set a new Premier League record. It was the most consecutive games a team has scored in from the start of a manager’s tenure in the history of the Premier League.
This combination of a refurbished attack and transformed defense automatically made Villa a better side. Thanks to Unai Emery, Villa recorded their joint-most wins in a 38-game league season in the 2022-23 campaign.
Aston Villa also won 7 straight Premier League games towards the end of the season making it the first time the club had achieved that feat in 30 years.
He really hit the ground running. Perhaps it helped that he already had experience in the Premier League having already coached Arsenal years prior.
But it wasn’t enough that he improved the defense and attack, Emery also had to effect a tactical change in the team in order to see results in the long run. The Spaniard changed the formation from 4-3-3 or 4-3-1-2 under Gerrard to something more like a 4-2-2-2 formation.
This formation allows him to have enough defensive cover when needed and also allows him to play effective counter-attacking football.
Gerrard used to be dependent on a traditional number 10 in either Coutinho or Buendia, but Emery’s setup seems to favor midfielders with high work rates like Kamara, McGinn, Zaniolo, and Luiz.
Also, because of how linear his setup often is, Emery highly depends on flying fullbacks to create from the flanks, and Ollie Watkins has really benefited from that.
Speaking of Watkins, the English striker is the clearest evidence of Unai Emery’s superb man-management. Watkins is the same guy who has been at Villa under the previous managers, but he looks like a different beast under Emery.
Under the former Sevilla boss, Watkins became the Aston Villa player to score in the most consecutive games and most consecutive away games in the Premier League era, and the first Villa player to score two hat-tricks in one season in 46 years. Right now, he has 12 goal contributions in 13 Premier League appearances so far this season, which puts him in the top 7 for both goals and assists in the league so far.
Antonio “Rodri” Saravia, an individual performance coach and former striker, is an active presence on the training pitch and off the field and has spent time with Watkins poring over clips of Edinson Cavani, Aubameyang, and Carlos Bacca, who excelled under Emery at Paris Saint-Germain, Arsenal and Sevilla respectively.
Emery has told Watkins, who last year outlined his desire to develop into a “killer” striker, to focus on staying within the width of the opposition’s 18-yard box and to conserve energy rather than straying into the channels with little reward.
There’s also Douglas Luiz who currently has 7 goal contributions in 13 appearances, that’s more than he had in 34 appearances in the whole of the 2021-22 season. He also became the first Aston Villa player to be involved in, at least, one goal in 7 straight Premier League home games.
Also, in talking about how Emery has transformed Villa, we could not go without talking about his recruitment. The Spaniard just doesn’t go about signing flashy players. He goes for players who suit his structure.
He brought Pau Torres with him from Villareal, and he has been nothing short of solid. He is great at defending and also good at moving the ball forward. He is currently top 10 in the list of players with the most passes in the Premier League so far this season. And not to forget that he has already scored 2 goals in 13 games; impressive for a center-back.
Then there’s Moussa Diaby, the right-winger who was signed from Bayer Leverkusen and has managed 6 goal contributions in 13 Premier League appearances so far.
But Unai Emery’s success story at Aston Villa would not be complete without the owners of the club, Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens. These guys have both been very supportive and have given Unai Emery 100% backing. Maybe this was something he was lacking at Arsenal.
They hired Emery’s good friends in Monchi and Damian Vidagany to be President of Football Operations and Director of Football Operations at Aston Villa respectively. In fact, Vidagany publicly said that having another chance to work with Emery was one of the main reasons he took up the job.
And together, these guys appear to be pushing the club in the right direction.
So, yeah, Unai Emery is the man! He showed it when he did the Europa League 3-peat with Sevilla, when he won the Europa League with Villareal and took them to the semi-final of the Champions League, and he seems to be doing it again with Aston Villa right now having them in a real race for the Premier League top 4.
But do you think he’ll be able to see it to the end? Will he be able to secure a top 4 finish with Aston Villa and maybe even win the club a trophy this season? What do you guys think?
Let us know in the comments.