October 20th, 2022. Steven Gerrard’s Aston Villa travel to Craven Cottage to face Fulham in a Thursday evening game. They concede a penalty, score an own goal and have a man sent off in a 3-0 defeat. The travelling Villa fans sing “Steven Gerrard, get out of our club”.
“I’m a fighter and I will never, ever quit anything,” Gerrard says. He is sacked within the hour.
December 8th, 2023. Aston Villa beat title-chasers Arsenal to move to within two points of the top the Premier League. It is a club-record 15th home win in a row. Three nights earlier, Villa had inflicted one of the most resounding defeats in Pep Guardiola’s 15-year coaching career, dominating Manchester City as they have not been dominated for years. There is a strong argument that Unai Emery has Aston Villa playing the best football in their history.
To record a first Premier League victory over the club who sacked him four years ago would have been especially sweet for Emery. John McGinn mentioned afterwards that the coach had been personally “stung” by losing 2-4 to Arsenal at Villa Park in February. That was the last time Villa dropped any points at home.
McGinn was appointed club captain by Gerrard in summer 2022, but desperately struggled for form in that shapeless mess of a team. On Saturday he shared the credit for his match-winning goal with Villa’s back room staff who, he said, had seen him waste a similar opportunity in a recent Europa League game and advised him next time to spin and shoot.
The most extraordinary thing about Villa’s metamorphosis into title-contenders is that Emery is doing this with what is still largely Gerrard’s squad. Nine of the players who played in that appalling performance at Fulham last year also featured in the win against Arsenal. The only members of Saturday’s starting XI who were not already at the club under Gerrard were centre back Pau Torres and midfielder Youri Tielemans.
You might say it is not that surprising that the squad is performing better now that they are led by a real coach who will manage his 1,000th game later this season, rather than a big-name ex-player who went into management because it was the only way to stay in the game.
But you will search in vain for past examples of coaches who have made an impact like Emery’s at Villa. He has won 31 of his first 50 matches there. Guardiola won 29 of his first 50 at Manchester City, and he was taking over at a club that had been champions in two of the previous four seasons. Villa had won just 12 of the 50 matches preceding Emery’s arrival in November 2022.
This level of success is also new for Emery. His win rate of 62.5 per cent is by far the highest in Villa history (no previous Villa manager has hit 50 per cent), but it’s also well above his own performance in previous jobs (leaving aside the 75 per cent he recorded at PSG, who are so much richer than their domestic competition the statistics are hardly relevant).
In his time at Arsenal in 2018-19, Emery never succeeded in instilling the kind of organisation and spirit Villa are “transmitting”, to use a favourite word of the coach. Why have these players (and supporters) responded to his message and methods in a way Arsenal’s never did?
It shows again how the success and failure of players and coaches is contingent on many factors over which they have no control.
When Emery arrived at Arsenal he was replacing Arsène Wenger, a legendary figure in the history of the club who had grown stale in the job. Most Arsenal fans agreed it was time for a change, but many of them still loved Wenger all the same. His sacking made them feel sad. Emery, lacking Wenger’s fame, charm and charisma, seemed an anticlimactic figure, his appointment symbolic of the club’s decline. When results nosedived in the second season, everyone turned on him.
At Villa Gerrard had done a better job of preparing the ground for Emery, by being the worst manager of the club that anyone could remember.
His sacking remains memorable for the sheer scale of celebration that greeted it. There is no single reason why he had become so unpopular. As ever when a manager is dismissed, there had been bad results and questionable tactics. There had been pointless feuds, like the stripping of the captaincy from Tyrone Mings. There had been poor recruitment, like Philippe Coutinho proving to be as bad a signing for Villa as he was for Barcelona. There had been ill-judged comments, like his statement that “[Graham Potter’s Chelsea] should be coming to Villa Park and wiping the floor with us” (they did).
The mistakes were compounded by the nagging sense that for Gerrard, it was all about him – that he was preoccupied by his own feelings and his own image to the extent that it didn’t really occur to him to consider things from the point of view of the team.
His comments after that Fulham game are typical: “We were excellent at the weekend, I gave them a lot of praise ... but it’s very difficult to praise them on tonight’s performance.” It sounded as though he thought of the team as an altogether separate entity from their manager, whose job was simply to dispense praise or criticism according to what was dictated by the scoreboard. He left behind a demoralised club and a group of players who had been so derided that some of them were seriously fearing for their futures in the game.
Into this scene walked Emery, offering clarity, competence and conviction. This time he found a willing audience. Where Arsenal’s stars were bored by his long and repetitive video analysis sessions, the Villa players grasped eagerly at anything that promised the prospect of improvement. Now the defence that looked a rabble last year is running the best offside trap in top-level football.
According to McGinn, the mantra Emery drills into them every day is “stay humble”. The Villa players have easily internalised a message a lot of footballers struggle with. A year as the Gerrard team taught them more about humility than they’d ever hoped to learn.