Something twigged at Villa Park in the final moments of Aston Villa’s win over Bournemouth.
“Maybe the last 10 minutes is where we connected with our supporters the most,” said Unai Emery. “It felt really good on the pitch, the moment we have enjoyed the most with our supporters.”
And the fans? Well, they agree too. “It felt like everything came together on and off the pitch, the philosophy and the crowd connected,” season-ticket holder Ryan Mckeown, from the UTV Podcast, tells i.
“Emery has spoken since day one about giving us a performance and connecting, and this is the game where it happened. My favourite result of the season.”
Fellow Holte Ender and Villa Park regular for more than 30 years, Guy Dunstan, concurs. “It was heartening to convert an impressive performance into a convincing win, with two late goals generating a very positive atmosphere.”
From a 1-0 lead heading into the 80th minute, further goals from Jacob Ramsey and Emi Buendia rounded off Villa’s third win in four, and has them looking up when the Premier League returns this weekend.
Indeed, the table may traditionally be shown in two halves but that hardly does Villa justice. They sit 11th, level on 38 points with Chelsea in 10th, and only four points behind Liverpool in 6th.
They are also 11 points ahead of the club directly below them, Crystal Palace, who opted to rope in Roy Hodgson and sack Patrick Vieira in their bid to avoid relegation, a battle that has evolved into a fascinating nine-way scramble with just four points separating 20th from 12th.
Premier League table
If you’d have said back in October that nine teams were in the frame for relegation, you would almost certainly have included Villa in that list. On 20 October, Villa lost 3-0 at Fulham, and sacked Steven Gerrard some 90 minutes later with the club only out of the drop-zone on goals scored.
Aaron Danks stepped up, winning then losing 4-0, before Villa’s ambition – one that reportedly had them chasing Mauricio Pochettino and Thomas Tuchel – landed them a Europa League winner.
Viva la revolución. Under Unai Emery, Villa look a team transformed, and currently sit sixth in the Premier League form table for the past 10 league games, picking up as many wins as Brentford, Brighton, Manchester United and Tottenham in that time.
Their recent efforts have also seen Emery nominated for Premier League’s manager of the month for March, joining esteemed company in title-chasers Mikel Arteta and Pep Guardiola.
So how did they get here? On the cusp of a European push when relegation was the fear just five months ago?
First, the fall, and back to Emiliano Martinez’s telling, albeit fairly innocuous at the time, comments from last March.
“It’s the first time in a 14-15 year career that the assistant coach does all the talking,” Martinez told Ben Foster for Prime Video Sport, referring to Gerrard’s No 2 Michael Beale.
“He knows so much about football it’s just incredible. He does all the training sessions, he takes the important meetings – obviously Stevie G talks – when you are in every club the manager does the talking and the assistant coach helps. Actually with Michael we felt him and Stevie G both were managers.”
Beale would go on to leave Villa in the summer, joining QPR, while he has gone on to manage Rangers since. Viewed as the brains of the operation, Martinez’s views were echoed by Villa’s fans, and it was little surprise to see the season start with a run of two Premier League wins in 11 games under Gerrard.
It’s safe to say the atmosphere became toxic at Villa Park. Gerrard’s persistence with both formation and personnel, namely his tendency to stick with the misfiring Philippe Coutinho, was not having the desired effect, while stripping Tyrone Mings of the captaincy just before the season started was already an indication of a divided camp.
The sacking felt inevitable, and the Fulham defeat confirmed it. Here was a Villa side unable to cope with a newly-promoted team, albeit one that have gone on to push for Europe themselves.
Villa since Premier League return
2019-20: W9 D8 L21 – F41 A67 35pts – 17th
2020:21: W16 D7 L15 – F55 A46 55pts – 11th
2021-22: W13 D6 L19 – F52 A54 45pts – 14th
2022-23 so far: W11 D5 L11 – F35 A39 38pts – 11th
In came Emery with a two-fold mission upon his appointment in early November. “My dream is to win a trophy with Aston Villa. It’s my personal challenge at the beginning. My second objective could be to play with Aston Villa in Europe.”
A 3-1 win over Manchester United, their first win at home over this bogey club for 27 years, was quite the start, and what has unfolded is what Villa fans would tell you is a by-product of having a coach who knows what he’s doing.
“Going from what can only be described as pure misery during Steven Gerrard’s reign as Aston Villa boss to a breath of fresh air in Unai Emery, it’s clear to see that the Spaniard’s experience and coaching style has reinvigorated this squad,” Cole Pettem, from the 7500 to Holte podcast, tells i.
“The belief in the head coach’s approach has really made all the difference and the ability to buy into that sort of mentality can make any team a dangerous one for opponents to battle against.
“The only way Aston Villa were ever going to succeed under Emery was if the squad embraced his style of play and mindset as a collective. It’s fair to say those aspects have been consumed by the players and are now reflecting out on the football pitch.
“Playing out from the back was certainly a cause for concern in the early days of Emery’s time as Villa, but the work put in on the training pitch and patience in trusting the process has been key. It’s amazing what can happen when everyone buys into a mindset or ethos.”
Some of the changes from Gerrard to Emery include formation. A 4-3-3 under Gerrard left John McGinn neither here nor there in midfield, and arguably a whole team uncertain on their roles, while under Emery it has predominantly been 4-2-3-1 with a sprinkle of 4-4-2.
Gerrard vs Emery
Most likely XI under Gerrard – based on starts until the Fulham game:
- 4-3-3: Martinez; Cash, Konsa, Mings, Digne; Kamara, McGinn, Ramsey; Bailey, Watkins, Coutinho
Most likely XI under Emery* – based on starts since the Man Utd game:
- 4-2-3-1: Martinez; Cash, Konsa, Mings, Digne; Kamara, Luiz; Buendia, Ramsey, Bailey; Watkins
*An injury to McGinn sees him just miss out
And not only are Villa sharper with the ball – five of the six occasions they have averaged above 83 per cent pass completion in the league this season has been under Emery, which includes their past three games – their passes are shorter and more precise, too.
Attempted long balls under Gerrard totalled 70 or more in eight of their 11 league games this season. Since Emery took over, they’ve recorded more than 70 just three times in 14 games.
“We have amazing owners,” says another season-ticket holder, Jack Ryan. “They got it spot on and hired one of the best managers around, and he is clearly getting the best out of near enough every player.”
And when it comes to individual performances, Ollie Watkins is the headline-maker with six goals in his last eight games, but McGinn is back to form in midfield, and the centre-back partnership of Tyrone Mings and Ezri Konsa is producing clean sheets and laying down a marker for the returning Diego Carlos – the defender bought from Sevilla in the summer who suffered an Achilles injury in August and is now close to a return.
The key, though, would appear to be a midfield pairing of Douglas Luiz and Boubacar Kamara that has Villa fans waxing lyrical….
View from the Holte End – Aston Villa fan forum
Three season-ticket holders pick out their standout players under Emery…
Jack Ryan: “Mings has overcome the fall out with Gerrard and looks a colossus again. Konsa has been consistent, and reliable although he goes under the radar a bit. Alex Moreno has hit the ground running. Douglas Luiz has shown why Arsenal wanted him so badly after their £30m bids and he’s massively improved since January. Buendia is back in the Argentina squad. McGinn looks back to his old self thriving in the advanced roll. Kamara would have a strong shout too if it wasn’t for the injury. And Watkins is scoring for fun.
“For me, Watkins is the standout though. I believe only Marcus Rashford, Erling Haaland and Harry Kane have scored more than him since the World Cup. Not bad considering we’ve faced Man City, Liverpool, Spurs and Arsenal during that time.”
Guy Dunstan: “A toss-up between Kamara and Luiz. The player who has improved the most is Douglas Luiz. He’s been able to play further up the pitch and be more influential on the ball. Kamara has been key to giving Luiz and McGinn more freedom, hence their improvement. He’s a Rolls Royce of a player. On the basis that Luiz has played more games, he gets my nod, just!”
Ryan Mckeown: “I think it’s more telling about the ones that haven’t. For me, the main starting XI have all improved. Every positional role is completely different from what these players have ever played before.
“One full-back is more attacking; the other sits in and creates a three; the centre-halves are ball carriers; the wingers are box midfielders pushing into the eight and 10 positions; one of the forwards drops back into the winger position on the opposite flanks to the advanced full-back—there is a lot going on!
“My personal favourite standout is Douglas Luiz; we are finally seeing a manager tap into his talent for the benefit of Aston Villa.”
Here it is worth noting that it has not been perfect. Villa had twice led Arsenal before losing 4-2. You can copy, paste, and make a slight amendment to that, for Villa twice led Leicester before losing 4-2 as well. Oh, and to Manchester United too, with the exact same scenario playing out in their Carabao Cup encounter.
They also led West Ham then drew earlier this year, and also led Stevenage going into the 89th minute before suffering a shock FA Cup exit at the hands of the League Two club.
Those slip-ups made the Bournemouth victory all the sweeter, and left the feel-good factor reverberating around Villa Park during the international break.
And so, with a style that is taking shape and players finding form across the pitch, a late dash for Europe is the dream. And if not this season, the next, for though Villa fans are eager to return to the heady days, they know they are not quite there yet.
“Even the thought of sneaking into the Europa Conference League spot would make most Villa fans uncontrollably giddy, but in reality, that’s likely a step too far this season,” Pettem adds.
“The progress under Emery has been remarkable, so seeing Villa finish strongly would maintain the momentum heading into next season. Ideally, being able to be competitive and walk away with some points from the likes of Manchester United, Newcastle United, and Chelsea would also show the sort of progress made under this regime.
“Heading into next season, we’re going to see some key signings strengthen this squad and I’m uncomfortably confident in the fact that Villa will finish in the top 10 and compete for a domestic trophy – fingers crossed.”