Ollie Watkins scores against Olympiacos

Back in the big time

It is tempting to explain the turnaround in two words: “Unai” and “Emery”


Five years ago, Aston Villa were stuck in the Championship. Next season they will be playing in the Champions League, the premier club tournament in world football.

It is tempting to explain the turnaround in two words: “Unai” and “Emery”. The reality is a little more complicated. It is a club rich in history, the biggest in the Midlands, and its billionaire owners are savvy operators. Dean Smith, the boyhood fan who took the team back into the Premier League in 2019, can also share credit. The spine of today’s team — Emi Martinez, Ezri Konsa, Douglas Luiz, John McGinn and Ollie Watkins — are Smith signings.

But then there is Unai Emery. He became Villa’s head coach 13 games into the 22/23 Premier League season. Steven Gerrard, a big name out of his depth in top-level management, had left the team just above the relegation zone. During his last game in charge — a 3-0 defeat away to Fulham — Villa were tactically lost and utterly demoralised.

In Emery’s first match, the same group of players defeated Manchester United 3-1. By the end of the season, they finished seventh, qualifying for the Europa Conference League.

Emery has instilled a no-excuses culture at Villa Park. Whilst some managers complain about referees and use grievance to foster a team mentality, the Villa coach refuses. Villa lost Emi Buendia and Tyrone Mings to season-long knee injuries and have played without key players Pau Torres, Alex Moreno, Boubacar Kamara, Jacob Ramsey and Youri Tielemans for significant spells.

“When we can use or find an excuse, it is a mistake,” he says. “Every team will have injuries … we believe in every player.” Sure enough, when fringe players had to step up, as Calum Chambers and Jhon Duran did in the 3-3 comeback against Liverpool, they repaid Emery’s faith.

But his success is down to more than man-management. He has a clear belief about how the game should be played. He demands control and wants his players to dominate possession. He is happy for them to slow play down: to pass across the back to draw the press from opposing teams.

In possession, he wants ball-playing defenders capable of passing “through the lines” to wide players coming in-field and forwards who sometimes play deep. Out of possession, he wants defenders to play a high line to compress space.

Emiliano Martinez

The approach carries a risk that can be mitigated. The high line invites counter-attacks from pacey forwards, but the well-marshalled defence catches opponents offside more than any other, and Martinez — the world’s number one goalkeeper — has become an effective sweeper.

Equally, wide players coming inside can leave fullbacks exposed when the opposing team attack down the flanks: when Villa look frail at the back, it has often been when they face long diagonal balls or play switching from one side to the other.

This is what happened during the heavy 5-1 defeat at Newcastle on the opening day of the season. Few predicted Champions League football that day, but Sir Alex Ferguson, that wily old dog, was undeterred. Asked which team had impressed him during the opening round of league fixtures, he picked out Villa. “It’s a surprising game, football,” he said. “You can play teams off the pitch and not score — that’s what Aston Villa did.” Ferguson was widely derided at the time, but nine months later he is vindicated.

Now Villa face the opportunity and challenge of the Champions League. They are guaranteed £50 million from qualification alone, and participation means the club can attract better players. Already they are linked with summer transfer moves for the Spanish stars Mario Hermoso, Carlos Soler and Alex Baena.

But the financial side is perhaps more important. Champions League revenue creates an enormous structural divide between the haves and have-nots of the Premier League. The top four have vastly higher incomes than the others, and financial fair play rules cap spending as a per centage of income.

In practice, these rules are a means of protectionism. The clubs that benefited from years of extravagant spending by wealthy owners now prevent others from doing the same. This is why breaking the oligopoly is such a big deal. Last year, Newcastle; this year, Villa. The so-called “Big Six” — so beloved by the pundits at Sky Sports — is no more.

And yet … During a domestic season in which Everton and Nottingham Forest have been deducted points for spending too much, fans have seen Chelsea continue to spend hundreds of millions. Manchester City, who last year were charged with 115 breaches of the rules, remain unprosecuted and unpunished. Now the Premier League may relax its rules, but English clubs playing in Europe will still need to meet UEFA’s limits.

In other words, clubs new to the Champions League face a squeeze greater than those not in Europe and those who have enjoyed the big European revenues for years. It feels like the goalposts are moving but, as Emery might say, to make an excuse is to make a mistake. Villa are back in the big time, and he intends to stay there.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover