From near-relegation to ‘good evenings’ in Champions League: Aston Villa’s journey symbolises ‘the beautiful’ in football

Aston Villa was hovering just above the relegation zone in October 2022. A year and a half later, the Villans rejoiced after securing a spot in the UCL for the first time since 1982/83. 

Published : May 16, 2024 18:31 IST , Chennai - 14 MINS READ

Aston Villa’s Youri Tielemans celebrates with Ollie Watkins and teammates
Aston Villa’s Youri Tielemans celebrates with Ollie Watkins and teammates | Photo Credit: Action Images via Reuters
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Aston Villa’s Youri Tielemans celebrates with Ollie Watkins and teammates | Photo Credit: Action Images via Reuters

“I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floating around accidental – like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it’s both,” says Tom Hanks in the 1994 movie ‘Forrest Gump’.

Aston Villa’s appointment of Unai Emery, while hovering just above the relegation zone in October 2022, was like an aforementioned mix of destiny and serendipity.

A year and a half on, the 67-year-old Hanks, an adopted supporter of the club, was decked up in claret and blue in the stands at Villa Park on Monday, watching his beloved team complete a late comeback to secure a point against Liverpool.

And a day later, when the north London faithful amusingly switched loyalties for a day as Manchester City beat Tottenham Hotspur, it was the Villans that rejoiced the most, securing a spot in the coveted UEFA Champions League for the first time since 1982/83 (back when it was known as the European Cup). 

‘El Mister’

Emery’s CV is up with the best managers of his generation. Taking Sevilla to three back-to-back European titles is no mean feat, nor is helping Villarreal to its first major trophy in 2020/21. 

Despite all his accolades, his previous tryst with English football – performing the almost impossible job of succeeding Arsene Wenger at Arsenal – failed to impress the Premier League regulars. So when Villa snapped him up from Villarreal after paying out his release clause, the jury was divided. 

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Clubs that fear the drop in the country generally opt to install a tried and tested manager in the hot seat, shoring up the defence and trying to nick goals on the counter.

But with the Spanish taskmaster, owners Nassef Sawiris and Wesley Edens took a path less tread, looking at the bigger picture rather than just immediate survival.

The 52-year-old gaffer, a workaholic who reportedly puts in up to 16 working hours a day, has transformed the fortunes of the club, taking it to the biggest continental competition within 20 months of his arrival.

The Emery push and pull

Emery is renowned for his extensive post-match research, going through hours of matchday videos to prepare his team.

The Spaniard improved the club last season with just a solitary signing in the January transfer window, thanks to his ability to push the players to their maximum potential and make the best use of their skills. 

The biggest gainer has been striker Ollie Watkins, who was going through a lean patch in front of goal ahead of Emery’s appointment.

Watkins was asked to make a slight tactical switch in his play by restricting his runs within the breadth of the six-yard box rather than going out wide when the ball was turned over.

The small adjustment has helped the England centre-forward reap great rewards, spearheading the Villa attack with 19 goals and 13 assists in the Premier League 2023/24 season – the joint-most goal contributions for any player in the campaign till now, along with Chelsea’s Cole Palmer.

Club captain John McGinn has been another one of the old-timers who have found a new dimension against Emery. 

“Every day I’m learning different things from him and trying to bring my qualities to the game. He’s given us all a lot of belief. He’s added so many bows to players like myself, teaching things I didn’t think I was capable of doing,” McGinn said last year.

Despite injuries to key players throughout the campaign, some smart recruitment guided by the pull of the charismatic manager has helped the club sustain its performances throughout the season.

The club brought in elite talents from the top European clubs, notably Pau Torres from Villarreal and Moussa Diaby from Bayer Leverkusen, while also completing the free signing of the experienced Youri Tielemens from relegated Leicester City.

Ruffling feathers with the big guns

Villa has been one of the hardest teams to play against in the Premier League this season due to the versatility of the tactics employed by the team.

Against favourable opposition, the team plays with more possession and control, but it is equally adept at playing quick attacks through the middle against the more attacking teams in the league.

Villa’s 2023-24 campaign got off to a torrid start with a 5-1 demolition at the hands of Newcastle United. But 13-time Premier League-winning manager Sir Alex Ferguson seemed impressed with their display on the day. 

“To be honest with you, I watched Aston Villa, and I can’t believe the scoreline. Honestly, Aston Villa played fantastic football and just lost to bad goals,” Ferguson said. “It’s a surprising game, football. You can play teams off the pitch and not score - that’s what Aston Villa did.“

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Under Emery, the team plays with a very high defensive line, a risky option considering the amount of space behind for the opposition striker to run into.  But, this helps the team congest the playing area, denying the opponent the chance to play expansive passes. 

The presence of a sweeper-keeper in Emi Martinez has been vital for this strategy to work. The team has the fifth-best defensive record in the league this season, shipping only 56 goals in so far.

Unlike teams like Man City, Villa doesn’t create a lot of goalscoring opportunities for itself. Its shots per 90 value of 13.59 is only the tenth best, lower even than Manchester United, a team that is struggling to score goals.

The clinical finishing ability of the Villa attackers helps mask this lack of creativity – its goal-per-shot ratio of 0.14 is the joint-best in the league.

One of the major reasons for Villa’s high position on the table is its head-to-head record against the top four. It has taken the most points (10) in the matches involving the current top-four teams, two better than Arsenal.

The European journey

Villa’s success this season is all the more praiseworthy, considering it had a UEFA Conference League campaign to go along with the hassles of the Premier League. 

Though the adventure was cut short at the semifinal stage by Olympiacos, the Villans can take the positives into the Champions League next season.

The club went head-to-head against two regular European participants in the playoff stages, getting past them in contrasting fashion.

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Eredivisie club Ajax was dismantled 4-0 at home after a goalless away leg, while Ligue 1’s Lille was more of an obstacle – Villa needing a late Matty Cash goal to take the tie to a penalty shootout, which it managed to edge.

Villa seems to be making strides in the market already, with reports suggesting a potential move for Spain and PSG midfielder Carlos Soler.

If the club continues its astute operation in the transfer window, a deep run into the Champions League cannot be counted out. Unai Emery looks set to provide many more ‘good evenings’ to the Villa faithful.

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