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Unai Emery’s Aston Villa: This Premier League season’s greatest story

Unai Emery inherited Aston Villa’s second-worst start to a Premier League season and turned it into the club’s best finish in 13 years, arguably making it this Premier League season’s greatest story.

Aston Villa v Brighton and Hove Albion - Premier League - Villa Park Photo by Barrington Coombs/PA Images via Getty Images

Every Premier League season is laden with major storylines and compelling B plots. But the 2022-23 campaign seemed particularly stuffed full of narratives.

Arsenal nearly won the league. Except they didn’t, really; they kept the seat warm for 8 months before fading away into the role of “good effort, but…” runners-up. Chelsea had an all-timer of a meltdown season, and we’re all thankful for it. Newcastle United combination of state-powered finances and Eddie Howe’s sheer coaching prowess cracked open the top four. Tottenham Hotspur did what they’ve been threatening to do for years and wilted into upper mid-table. Brighton qualified for Europe for the first time ever, and De Zerbi is dezerbing of all the plaudits that come his way. Former Premier League winners Leicester City were relegated. Leeds United, Leeds are falling apart again. On and on we go.

But over in B6, not-so-little old Aston Villa put together perhaps the most remarkable story arc of the season. We all know it, even if it won’t get recognized enough.

When Villa, who after an underwhelming start to the season had slipped into 17th and finally fell apart at the seams with a mortifying 3-0 defeat to Fulham on October 20, appointed Unai Emery four days later, the reaction from outside Villa circles generally fell into one of two categories:

“Unai Emery, the four-time Europa League-winning coach with a proven record of success? Why would he go to Villa?”

“Unai Emery, the guy who didn’t win anything with Arsenal and pronounces ‘good evening’ funnily? What are Villa thinking?”

Well, here we are.

Unai Emery Aston Villa Press Conference
Unai Emery replaced outgoing manager, Steven Gerrard, on October 24th, 2022.
Photo by Aston Villa/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images

Many season recappers and mainstream media outlets would have you believe that, outside of Howe’s Newcastle and De Zerbi’s Brighton, no team outside the increasingly stupidly monikered “big six” achieved much of note this season.

But Villa fans, and those external observers who were actually paying attention, know that it’s not just that Emery has given a struggling squad a lift, or injected confidence into an ailing team, or got the best out of out-of-form players, or any of those lightweight improvements. No, what Emery has done is genuinely and comprehensively transform a team who had lost all redeeming features and turn them into a team whose players, fans, and owners are not only delighted to be in Europe but already ready to compete there.

It is, frankly, nothing short of astonishing given what came before.

We don’t need to recap those first two months of the season in full but the salient point is that the appointment of Steven Gerrard, a Christian Purslow vanity project gone wrong, almost brought the club to its knees. Villa had nine points, two wins, six defeats, and seven goals scored from 11 games at the time that Gerrard was sacked before the team bus had even left Craven Cottage that night in October.

There was no tactical nous, no game management, no attention to detail. Players being played out of position, some of the better players - think Douglas Luiz and Emi Buendia - not even being played at all. No identity, no bravado. In essence, very little to like.

But the most galling and infuriating thing about that time, looking back, is that Gerrard publicly declared that the players weren’t good enough so many times that you wonder if some of the players had begun to honestly believe it about themselves or their teammates. The Tyrone Mings “look me in the eye” quote was the infamous headline soundbite but the truth is Gerrard pushed the increasingly hostile spotlight onto his players with such frequency that the gallows-humour discussion among fans after each poor performance became a sardonic question of which player he would dig out in front of the camera that week.

It was always inevitable that a man like Mings would have the mettle and the fortitude of character to take things like public shaming and the captaincy debacle on the chin and come out on the other side largely undamaged. But we can count our blessings that other players weren’t razed to the ground by Gerrard’s dangerous mixture of incompetency, arrogance, and self-supposed infallibility.

It’s this context, plus much more, that is omitted from the external assessment of Villa’s qualification for the Europa Conference League, the club’s first foray into continental competition since the grim Rapid Vienna sequel in August 2010. “It’s only seventh,” will be the laughable cry of some, whether the cry is one for attention or one born from sheer ignorance.

It’s not even just about the statistical journey of the last eight months: going from 17th to 7th, from Villa’s second-worst ever start to a Premier League season to their highest finish in 13 years, going from 0.8 points per game under Gerrard to 2 points per game under Emery, winning 15 of 25 games since the Spaniard’s arrival, the seven-game winning streak at home to end the season, the fact no team other than Man City won more Premier League games in 2023.

It’s about the fact that with only one month of the transfer window and two signings (a cheapish left–back and a teenage substitute striker) under his belt, Emery has proven conclusively that these players are good enough, that the buck should stop with the manager, that quality coaching can trump all else.

Wolverhampton Wanderers v Aston Villa - Premier League
Álex Moreno was one of two additions to the Aston Villa squad during the January transfer window of 2023.
Photo by Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images

There’s a strong argument to say that no Premier League club made a better or more seismically important decision than NSWE’s choice to take the reins themselves and do whatever was necessary to spring Emery from his comfort zone at Villarreal and bring him to Villa Park. I’m sure I’m not alone among Villa fans in saying that I think he should have been recognized as the manager of the season.

Pep Guardiola won that honour, because of course he did, for making a team of the world’s greatest and most expensive stars a bit better than they otherwise would have been. Howe has worked wonders at Newcastle but with Saudi Arabia’s might behind him; De Zerbi, the media darling, has been sensational but inherited a Brighton team in September who were already in fourth place and on a roll. This isn’t to diminish their genuinely remarkable achievements but to contextualize them.

At Villa Park, that comparatively under-covered and underappreciated corner of the English football world, seven months under Emery have been utterly transformational and full of his masterstrokes.

Backing Ollie Watkins as the leader in attack to the extent that he sold Danny Ings in January, at the time our top scorer. Turning a shambolic defence under Gerrard into the kings of the offside trap (it’s heart-stopping to watch at times but, by and large, it works supremely well). Letting Jacob Ramsey flourish in a wider position, resulting in national recognition for the kid. Looking at players like Mings and John McGinn, ready to be tossed on the scrapheap by Gerrard and by a portion of the fanbase back in autumn, and saying “no, you’re damn good enough.” Overseeing the final stages of Luiz’s evolution from rawly talented player to virtually the complete modern central midfielder.

Perhaps more than anything, though, it’s turning Villa from a team you’d bet could lose any game they play into a team you’d bet could win any game they play. “This club’s got no ceiling,” said McGinn in an end-of-season interview on the club’s website. That’s the kind of thinking Emery has instilled already. This Villa team exudes confidence, and why wouldn’t they? Professor Unai’s at the wheel.

All told, Emery has led this great club to its highest level both on and off the pitch in 13 years. If this season hadn’t had to end, god knows what would have happened. Imagine if we had five more games? But enough of that kind of thinking, because what Emery has achieved since November is enough. It’s more than enough; it’s more than we could realistically have dreamed of. If you look closely, it’s the greatest story of this Premier League season.

The truly great thing? You get the feeling that with these owners, this squad to build upon, and this endearing workaholic genius of a manager in charge, where Villa go next is entirely up to Villa.

Aston Villa v Brighton & Hove Albion - Premier League
Unai Emery has not only reinvigorated the Aston Villa squad, he’s given a fan base something to believe in again.
Photo by Aston Villa FC/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images