With the dust settled and European football confirmed, here are Five Reasons to Be Cheerful as Villans this summer:
It was in the 77th minute of a home match against Rapid Wien when Aston Villa last scored a goal in a European competition. Emile Heskey scored the goal, but Wien replied a minute later, ultimately knocking Villa out of the Europa League qualifying tie. Fast forward thirteen years, and Villa will finally be playing in Europe again, participating in the Europa Conference League, which has a poorly chosen name.
I would be lying if I said I never thought I would see Villa play at the Conference level, as the first season in the Championship had me fearing the worst. However, this new Conference League is one that Unai Emery desperately wanted to participate in. On a personal level, it means that Emery has continued his long consecutive run of coaching in Europe. His excitement at reaching Europe will also stem from the additional allure it brings to both incoming and existing players, offering them the opportunity to win another trophy on top of the three domestic ones and the chance to play more games and develop his strategy and style of play across the squad.
Finally, the excitement for Villa fans lies in the knowledge that Emery will go all out to win the competition. With his record in Europe, would you want to bet against us?
2. State of Play
This season has been one of high emotions at Villa Park. The start under Steven Gerrard was underwhelming, and as performances deteriorated, it led to growing frustration among supporters. Despite the promise of continual improvement, the club seemed to have lost direction and was once again flirting with relegation. However, since November, the club successfully executed an aggressive handbrake U-turn and swiftly entered a direct race for European football.
With the season concluded, Villa finds itself in an enviable position. The men’s team has established itself as the best of the rest outside of the traditional top 6, commonly known as the Sky 6. With stable, dedicated, and wealthy owners, the club is in safe hands. Villa has the privilege of having Unai Emery, a truly elite European coach, who shares grand ambitions with the owners and CEO. The team has proven to be talented and capable under the right guidance, and a strong team spirit has emerged. The stadium has ambitious renovation plans, the training ground has already undergone elite-level renovations, and the women’s side is growing at an impressive pace.
All in all, Villa will enter the 23/24 season in top shape, aiming to maintain the “continual improvement” that appeared to be a failed gimmick just eight months ago.
3. Changing of the Guards
Over the past decade, the Premier League has seen little variation in the dominance of certain teams at the top. Aside from Leicester City’s brief spell at the top, a fixed top six has consistently occupied the highest positions and claimed domestic trophies (as well as influencing refereeing decisions). However, the recent season has brought a severe shock to the system, with Chelsea finishing in 12th place, Tottenham in 8th place, and Liverpool in 5th place.
Villa and Brighton have surpassed Spurs and Chelsea, while Newcastle has displaced Liverpool from the top four. It is now clear why the owners of the so-called Sky 6 felt the need to join a closed-shop European Super League.
The comfortable income from the Champions League is no longer guaranteed for these teams, as new challengers supported by their respective owners emerge. This summer promises to be intriguing, with Newcastle, led by Saudi ownership, and Aston Villa expected to make significant reinforcements in preparation for their European campaigns and continued pursuit of top-six finishes. With Liverpool and Manchester United seeking new owners and Chelsea and Spurs seemingly managed by incompetent ones, it creates an opportunity for well-run and organized clubs to dislodge them.
Villa End of Season Sale
4. The A-Team
Under Gerrard and towards the end of the Smith era, the expensively assembled Villa squad faced deserved scrutiny as another relegation battle seemed likely to be on the cards. However, after an exhilarating seven months under Emery, a wholesale overhaul of the squad no longer appears necessary. With fresh eyes, it is evident that there is now a strong core within the team consisting of Martinez, Moreno, Mings, Konsa, Carlos, McGinn, Luiz, Ramsey, Buendia, Kamara, Watkins, and Bailey. Many of these players have shown significant improvement under Emery, reaching the levels fans had always hoped to see.
As European matches loom and a long run in the competition is anticipated, the squad will need to be reinforced. In addition to the aforementioned players, Villa has some decent reinforcements in Coutinho, Digne, Traore, Duran, Ashley Young, and Dendoncker. To further elevate the club, the focus should be on targeting players who will compete for starting positions, thereby pushing current first-team players to the bench.
There will likely be some departures as players seek regular football, potentially including Digne, Chambers, Coutinho, and Cash (unless Emery believes he can mold him into a specific role). Emery has already demonstrated ruthlessness in the January transfer window by selling Ings and offloading Nakamba, Archer, Guilbert, Augustinsson, Bednarek, and Sanson. Therefore, I anticipate significant movement in both directions this summer as Emery builds a squad tailored to his style of play and preferred formation. If the first major signing, Moreno, is any indication, Villa fans should be filled with excitement.
5. Unai Emery
Finally, as we reflect on this season, a review of Villa’s managers over the past thirteen years reveals a lack of quality and inspiration. The late Gerrard Houllier, an internationally respected manager, achieved success and won trophies throughout his career. Unfortunately, his tenure was cut short due to ill health, and what followed only accentuates the impressive nature of the current incumbent.
From McLeish to Steve Bruce, the managerial position was characterized by ineptitude. Dean Smith guided the club back to the Premier League, albeit a tad fortuitously. However, he was the first manager to unite the fanbase and foster a positive atmosphere at the club. While his time eventually came to an end due to the lack of progress in the Premier League, many fans fondly remember his tenure.
However, with Unai Emery, Villa has something truly special. His career is adorned with trophies and successes, and in just seven short months, Villa fans recognize their fortunate position to have him on board.
Emery’s deliberate acknowledgment of the fans at the beginning of each interview has helped rebuild the bond between the supporters and the players and coaching staff. The results and performances under his guidance have been remarkable, from the very first match against Manchester United to the impressive final day victory against Brighton.
Villa has shed the bad habits, curses, and fragility that plagued them for a generation, finally displaying a genuine intent to win. One thing to be grateful for this summer is that Villa is now in the competent, respectable, and secure hands of Unai Emery. This is something that fans have been unable to say for the majority of the past thirteen years.