FEATURE: Unai Emery’s Midlands Renaissance

When Michael Oliver’s final whistle rang around Craven Cottage on 20 October, you would have had to forgive the most die-hard Aston Villa fan for thinking that a return to the Championship – a league the Villans needed three attempts to get out of between 2016-2019 – was on the cards, after witnessing their beloved side succumb to a disappointing 3-0 defeat against newly-promoted Fulham.

The next day, unsurprisingly, Steven Gerrard was handed his P45 by CEO Christian Purslow – leaving the second-city giants in mid-table mediocrity with 12 points from the same number of matches, and only three points above the Premier League trapdoor.

Several names ended up on the shortlist to replace the former Rangers manager, including Sporting Lisbon boss Rúben Amorim. However, owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens agreed to pay Villareal their £5.25m release clause to secure the signature of Unai Emery, who had previously turned down the managerial hot seat at Newcastle United a year ago.

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Eventually taking over from temporary caretaker manager Aaron Danks on 1 November, the Spaniard walked into the Bodymoor Heath Training Ground with a big mission on his hands. Confidence was at an all-time low in the dressing room, with players such as Ollie Watkins and Tyrone Mings – who had been stripped of the Villa captaincy by Gerrard – reportedly alienated by the former Liverpool luminary’s approach to handling in-house issues, and fans increasingly concerned about the club’s Premier League status.

With vast experience under his belt, after most recently lifting the 2020/21 UEFA Europa League trophy with Villarreal and then reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League the following season, Emery took charge of the first match at his new home against Manchester United in front of a sold-out Villa Park crowd.

After finding themselves two goals to the good after only 11 minutes, courtesy of strikes from Leon Bailey and Lucas Digne, Villa eventually ran out 3-1 victors to get the Spaniard’s reign off to the perfect start. With a newly-found optimism, and the same style of play that made him so successful during his tenure out in Spain slowly making its way into the Villa DNA, the club boarded the team bus to face Brighton & Hove Albion at the American Express Community Stadium.

Reverting back to the classic 4-4-2 formation, and despite going behind almost immediately from kick-off to future FIFA World Cup winner Alexis Mac Allister, the visitors rallied and emerged victorious, courtesy of a brace from Danny Ings.

Emery was already making his impression felt – not only on the pitch with an injection of his patterned 4-2-3-1 formation but additionally with his renowned style of play of patiently playing out from the back to set up lethal counter-attacking football. The Claret and Blues picked up ten points from their next four matches, after a 3-1 defeat at Villa Park to Liverpool on Boxing Day.

With the threat of relegation looking like a distant memory, the former Arsenal manager’s second spell in the Premier League began to hit rocky waters as the 1982 European Cup winners suffered a hat-trick of defeats.

However, what came next was something not even the most optimistic of Villa fans could have envisioned, as a first appearance in a UEFA competition in over a decade, after being eliminated in the qualifying round of the 2010/11 Europa League campaign by Austrian outfit Rapid Vienna, started to materialise as a realistic end-of-season aim.

Already becoming a fan favourite for his brutal honesty, and willingness to openly criticise his players following a below-par performance, Emery further increased his popularity around the four stands at Villa Park by embarking on a magnificent 10-match unbeaten run before their 1-0 defeat against Manchester United on Sunday – rewriting a plethora of records across the club’s 149-year history.

Victories on the road against Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, high-flying Brighton and a comprehensive 3-0 win against Champions League contenders Newcastle United – which could have easily been closer to a cricket score if not for the woodwork and Magpies’ goalkeeper Nick Pope – registered a fifth home successive top-flight victory for the first time since 1993.

Only a few games later, they became the first-ever Premier League club to score in 20 consecutive games under the guidance of a new manager. Emery had not only breathed new belief into the dressing room in his short six-month tenure, but he had also embarked on a personal quest to get Ollie Watkins back into Gareth Southgate’s England squad. If reports were to be believed, the former Brentford striker did not see eye-to-eye with Gerrard – and was reportedly on his way out of the Bodymoor Heath Training Ground gates.

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However, under the Spaniard, Watkins looks like a new player, finding the back of the net on 12 occasions, breaking various records on the way – including becoming the first Villa player to score in five successive Premier League matches and additionally to net five consecutive away goals in the same number of games. Subsequently, the in-form striker is now in line for a new contract, despite his current deal not expiring until late 2025.

Mings has also embraced the presence of his new manager, despite having yet to be handed the captaincy back from John McGinn. The England international successfully reformed his partnership with Ezri Konsa at the heart of the defence, and along with World Cup winner Emiliano Martínez, the rotation of Matty Cash and Ashley Young at right-back, and Álex Moreno, Villa have registered nine clean sheets since the beginning of November.

With only defending champions Manchester City and second-place Arsenal picking up more points than the Spaniard (42 out of a possible 63) since his arrival, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Villans will have to renew their passports for a prospective tilt at navigating the Europa Conference League next season.

Another record could be on the cards to be broken against fierce local adversaries Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday afternoon, as Aston Villa are winless in the Premier League this season – spanning across five matches – when wearing their away kit.