The Premier League, at least this season, has become stratified in a way it never has before. There seem to be only two categories. You’re either fighting against relegation or you’re in the race for the Champions League. It’s a little more nuanced than that under the hood, though not by much. From the top, you have your Big 7 clubs, and then other clubs that are run so well and so efficiently that they’ve passed by other clubs who are either stagnant or don’t have a plan (or both, in the case of Chelsea). But those teams that have been passed by the more well-oiled machines, teams like Everton or Leicester or West Ham, find themselves so cut off that they’re fighting against the drop. Mid-table these days is basically just Liverpool and Chelsea.
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Aston Villa have threatened to be a well-run club for a while, though the term “punching above their weight” might not fit. They were a traditional power a few decades ago, and still remain only one of five English clubs to ever win a European Cup (precursor to the Champions League). They play in the country’s second-largest city in a stadium that has a larger capacity than Chelsea’s or Everton’s (though not for much longer). Villa should be playing amongst the big boys.
But of course, like a lot of clubs with big dreams but smaller brains, they haven’t been able to get unfucked for a while. Longtime chairman Doug Ellis seemingly would have rather lit his balls on fire than spend money. He sold to Randy Lerner in 2006 and…well, look at the Browns. A couple of ownership changes later and Villa finally landed under the guidance of Bucks owner Wes Edens and Egyptian billionaire Nassef Sawiris. It’s been up since then, with Villa finally escaping the Championship and avoiding relegation.
Villa have been a forward-thinking club, with a youth academy and scouting system that has produced more than enough players to achieve more than they have. They stumbled when hiring Steven Gerrard as manager last season (sigh), as Gerrard seemed overmatched, neither knowing what his best system was nor how to develop players beyond what they’d been.
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But Villa seem to have hit the jackpot with the appointment of Unai Emery to replace Gerrard. Since Emery took over, the Villans have racked up the third most points in the league, and are currently on a six-game unbeaten streak that has them in seventh, above Liverpool and Chelsea, and six points behind Spurs for the Europa League spot.
Emery’s name was slightly dirt-covered in England after his spell at Arsenal. Replacing Arsène Wenger, who took the Gunners to heights they never dreamed of before both in achievement and style, was always a tall task. The main criticism of Emery was that he was too reactive, never giving Arsenal a defined way to play or set up and always countering whatever the opponent was doing.
Different horses for courses
But this is still a manager who had turned Sevilla and Villarreal into serious forces in both the Champions League and Europa League, winning the latter four times between the two clubs and getting to another final with Arsenal. His time at PSG can’t really be held against him given that no one else has been able to solve that Rubix cube covered in slime.
At Villa, Emery does have a settled plan, which looks a lot like what he was using at Villarreal, a system that drove Liverpool nuts in last year’s Champions League semifinal. It’s a 4-2-2-2, with the “wide” midfielders consistently tucking in behind the midfield line of the opposing team to give the defenders and deeper midfielders an option for a pass that breaks pressing lines. The narrowness and togetherness allow Villa to play pretty quickly on the break, as Chelsea found out much to the detriment last week:
It also allows Emery to play three or four central midfielders, which pays off defensively. Sometimes you’ll see Villa end up with five at the back when they’re under heavy pressure, as any of the midfield can drop in to help.
Emery’s main bonus so far in his time at Villa Park is that he’s been able to get players playing at a level they simply hadn’t under Gerrard, with clear instructions and tasks. Ollie Watkins up top can’t miss right now — with five goals and an assist in his last seven games — clearly soaking up the simpler tasks of just looking to get in behind defenders or pulling out wide, both at speed. John McGinn has been completely revitalized under Emery, playing either as one of the two holding midfielders or a little more advanced as the tucked-in attacking midfielder. He was the best player on the field against Chelsea. Tyrone Mings in defense has rediscovered the form that got him into the England team not so long ago. Douglas Luiz has been an anchor as the holding midfielder. When dovetailing with McGinn they’ve been a force.
There are caveats, of course, there always are. The schedule has been kind to Villa of late. In this six-game streak, five of those came against teams in the relegation battle, though that’s a large list these days. The other was against the completely lost and bewildered Chelsea, who fired their manager right after losing to Villa. But hey, you can go a long way harvesting the organs of the teams playing worse than you, and that’s all you can ask.
Second, Villa are playing above their heads in a way that probably isn’t sustainable. In Emery’s time, they’ve scored 25 goals on just 20.8 expected goals, and conceded only 19 off 24.8 expected goals against. Emi Martinez is certainly a great keeper and has pulled this kind of act before both with Villa and a short time with Arsenal. But this good? Also helps when you get to play against Chelsea’s finishing. Maybe Watkins has been one of the league’s most dead-eyed strikers just waiting to bust out, but it feels like a market correction will be coming.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t an exciting time. Villa have money to spend, or should, and after only a net spend this season of about $50 million or so, there should be more for Emery to shape the squad as he sees fit.
Villa have always been thought of as a sleeping giant, next to Everton and West Ham or Newcastle. One of those teams finally woke up (with some blood money aid). It’s starting to feel like another has opened their eyes, too.
To see if Sam remains sober enough to view the Premier League accurately, if he ever has, follow him on Twitter @Felsgate.
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