TOM COLLOMOSSE: For the first time since the days of Martin O’Neill, Aston Villa have reason to be excited as they head into the new season – and Unai Emery deserves all the credit!
- Aston Villa had a sensational resurgence under Unai Emery’s guidance last year
- The Spaniard helped secure a place in Europe for Villa in the upcoming season
- Now, Emery will be hoping to build on their success and go one step further
Not since the early days of Martin O’Neill’s reign have Aston Villa entered a season with so much enthusiasm and expectation surrounding them.
Unai Emery transformed Villa last term to the extent they believe a top-eight finish, and a long run in a cup competition, should be the minimum ambition. They head to Newcastle on Saturday feeling supremely confident.
Villa fans are a fatalistic bunch and it is no wonder. In the last decade they have suffered a humiliating relegation to the Championship and were hours away from going out of business five years ago.
They lost hometown hero Jack Grealish to Manchester City in 2021 and were hurtling in the wrong direction again under Steven Gerrard last year until co-owner Nassef Sawiris made one of the most significant decisions in Villa’s modern history.
When Sawiris appointed Emery to replace Gerrard, he handed him the keys to the kingdom and so far, the decision has paid off spectacularly. Emery has more power than any Villa boss since O’Neill and in just nine months, Villa are unrecognisable from the club he inherited.
Unai Emery has helped oversee Aston Villa’s impressive resurgence over the past 12 months
Emery’s side clinched a European spot last season and will look to build on that this year
Emery runs first-team affairs along with acclaimed sporting director Monchi, hired from Sevilla this summer, and director of football operations Damia Vidagany, who is an increasingly influential figure. Vidagany sat alongside Emery at every press conference last season and he is now at the heart of decision-making along with his fellow Spaniards. Like Vidagany, Monchi speaks good English and his open, positive approach to player trading and contracts has been noted in the wider football community.
Christian Purslow departed as chief executive in June and though sporting director Johan Lange is admired by the ownership and remains at the club, he now has a wider brief and is no longer focused directly on first-team matters. Chris Heck is in charge of commercial affairs but Villa’s Bodymoor Heath training ground is emphatically Emery’s domain.
Monchi and Emery have driven Villa’s summer business, with Youri Tielemans arriving on a free transfer after running down his contract at Leicester, while defender Pau Torres and attacker Moussa Diaby cost a combined £75million from Villarreal and Bayer Leverkusen respectively.
Tielemans’ Leicester career tailed off in his final two seasons but at his best, he was an outstanding Premier League midfielder and he has adapted superbly, impressing immediately with his attitude. This will be the 26-year-old’s fifth full season in English football and as such, he already had a number of acquaintances in the Villa squad.
The settling process will be longer for Torres and Diaby, who have resumed regular English lessons since Villa returned from their tour of the United States. Diaby spent two years with Leon Bailey at Leverkusen and is familiar with Boubacar Kamara, Lucas Digne from playing for France.
Emery and Monchi (right) have continued to find success when working together, having formed a formidable relationship from their time at Sevilla
Villa confirmed the signing of winger Moussa Diaby (pictured) earlier in the transfer window
Torres, meanwhile, is living away from Spain for the first time and has arrived with his own support network. But he was managed by Emery at Villarreal and Spanish speakers Alex Moreno, Emiliano Martinez and Emiliano Buendia to lean on during his early weeks in the Premier League.
After delivering Villa’s first European campaign since 2010-11 by finishing seventh last season, Emery is determined to go full throttle at the Europa Conference League and has demanded two high-level players for every position.
Operating in a wide attacking role, Jaden Philogene has shone in pre-season and Emery is inclined to keep the 21-year-old academy product around rather than send him away on loan.
Emery believes Ezri Konsa can operate at right-back as well as in the centre and expects to use Torres at left-back on certain occasions, as well as in the middle. With Tyrone Mings at the heart of defence and with at least one attacking full-back in the XI, it will allow Villa to switch easily between a back three and a back four during games.
It will be fascinating to see how Torres adapts. The 26-year-old enjoyed having a natural leader like Raul Albiol alongside him at Villarreal and Mings will fulfil that brief this season. Top clubs looked at Torres for some time but were worried about his lack of pace, and there are plenty of speedy attackers in England who will be waiting to expose it.
Handily for Emery, he has many players who can respond in kind. Diaby and Ollie Watkins make a rapid front pair, Konsa and Mings are quick, too, as are Jacob Ramsey – who will miss the start of the campaign with injury – and Kamara.
There are high expectations for Spanish central defender Pau Torres – who joined this year
Emery will focus on making the most of these qualities and pre-season featured intense tactical work throughout. Squad spirits in the States were said to be high, with some players going together to see Canadian rapper Drake perform on one evening during the tour.
There remains work to do in the market. Fringe players must be moved on, and the club will consider approaches for Philippe Coutinho, Digne and Leander Dendoncker, among others. Even though Philogene is staying around, Emery would like to add another wide man and possibly a midfielder.
Villa would like to take Joao Felix from Atletico Madrid, though the player is not as keen. That may change later in the window, though, especially if Felix decides to reject an offer from Al Hilal.
Though the real tests lie ahead, Villa really do feel like a club going places under Emery. They are so optimistic, indeed, that enquiries for their top players have been rejected without a second thought this summer. It was yet more proof that the 1982 European Cup winners mean business.
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