Aston Villa are currently seventh in the Premier League standings, two points short of Brighton in sixth, who have two games in hand. The Claret and Blue were 16th and flirting with relegation when current boss Unai Emery took over from Steven Gerrard.
Since then, Emery has transformed the club’s fortunes to the point where qualification for European competitions is not entirely out of the realm of possibility.
With nine games left before the season ends, Villa played top-half opponents seven times, including matches against Newcastle, Brighton as well as Manchester United.
The task is far from done, but with the form they are showing, it is difficult to bet against Emery’s Villa to do it.
Watkins on fire
Perhaps one of Emery’s most significant achievements this season has been fine-tuning the game of striker Ollie Watkins, who is currently on 11 Premier League goals for the season.
That figure means Watkins has already equaled his tally from last season and will no doubt be hungry for more. He has been especially impressive away from home.
The 27-year-old, now into this third season at Villa is blossoming under the guidance of Emery, his third manager.
“I sometimes want to come out of the box but he literally says ‘don’t go there.’ He says it as bluntly as that — ‘don’t go, stay there’. It makes me laugh but it works,” said Watkins, speaking to the Sunday Times.
In fact, Watkins is averaging lower figures for every possession metric as well as passing metrics. Emery has cut out the noise and helped channel his energies towards goalscoring, which has worked wonders.
His tally of 11 has come from an overall expected goals(xG) figure of 13.1, indicating a slight underperformance which indicates that there is more to come from the Villa man.
Averaging 0.50 xG per 95 minutes this season, Watkins is not a high volume shooter, but his healthy xG rate has come from becoming highly efficient in front of goal and picking his moments to strike.
His 2.40 shots attempted per 95 shows just that – a striker who has learned to become a much more measured about his game and is reaping the rewards for his patience.
“[Emery] is very demanding on us. It means I know what to expect from other players, say from the No. 10, Emi Buendía — I know exactly what Unai wants him to do when he has the ball and exactly what movement to make,” said Watkins, crediting his coach in his interview with the Sunday Times.
Achieving results where others aren’t
The race to survive relegation this season is the toughest it has ever been, every point matters and every win takes teams one step closer to safety.
Villa was in real danger of getting dragged into the scrap but Emery’s magical touch of being able to get big results has helped massively.
The very fact that only Arsenal and Manchester City have earned more points since he took over, goes to show his influence on the pitch and on the players.
From being sixteenth to now being at seventh in the league, Villa have done tremendously well to surge up the table when teams around them have struggled to pick up points.
The underlying numbers are far from the finished product, but implementing the kind of stylistic changes Emery wants to bring is no quick fix.
From being a side without a real identity under Gerrard in the past, these players are adjusting to Emery’s detail-oriented approach. The former Villarreal boss is implementing the kind of principles we see from modern teams – playing out from the back, attacking with numbers, controlling games with the ball and being hard to beat, out of possession.
There have been stumbles and matches though where they have been fortunate to get the result, the 2-1 win against Leicester most recently being a good example. Emery’s approach isn’t perfect and gaps are inevitably going to appear.
However, the hope for Villa is that they can continue to pick up points where possible with a tough schedule in this final phase of the season.
Change in styles
Emery is all about the minutiae as a manager, that detail-oriented approach has served him well throughout his career and it is showing it’s effects now at Villa.
“You have to take risks in football. I am trying to keep possession of the ball. When we have the ball with the goalkeeper, we are starting our build-up. If he is kicking the ball long, some we will win and some we will lose. I prefer to try to keep the ball myself,” said Emery, speaking to Sky Sports.
That risk-taking approach has hurt them several times since Emery took over, with heavy defeats against league leaders Arsenal, Leicester, Manchester City as well as Liverpool. But generally, the positives have outweighed the negatives.
Goalkeeper Emi Martinez has been one of those who have adjusted well to this approach. The 30-year-old has been a stellar signing for the club since joining from Arsenal and has only gone from strength to strength between the sticks at Villa Park.
This season, Martinez has been crucial for Villa’s build-up from the back, always being available to receive the ball to negate the opposition high press.
In fact, Martinez in 22/23 is averaging more passes than ever (30.6) and is averaging more defensive actions outside the box than ever (1.59).
His all-round style to goalkeeping benefits the pairing of Ezri Konsa and Tyrone Mings ahead of him, who have been excellent in their own right.
That emphasis on building out of the back and inviting pressure to create space in forward areas has resulted in an increase of average possession as well, with Villa averaging 50.7% possession as opposed to Gerrard’s 47.4% previously under.
Under previous management, Villa were the quickest team in the league, progressing the ball at a rate of 1.71 m/s according to Opta.
That figure has fallen down to 1.32 m/s under Emery, showing their shift in approach in controlling possession where they can.
Their final phase of the season begins against Forest, and at this point, they are entirely in control of their own destiny.
The teams around them are looking shaky, which presents an opportunity to do the unthinkable for Villa fans.
Your move, Unai.