Aston Villa are a football club transformed.
On 20 October 2022, Steven Gerrard was sacked as Villa boss after a 3-0 loss at Fulham left the team 17th in the Premier League.
A year on, Gerrard’s successor Unai Emery has the Midlands club in fifth position, just two points off the top, after Sunday’s 4-1 dismantling of West Ham made it 11 home league wins in a row.
Having already dragged them from relegation danger to European Conference League qualification last time round, Emery has continued to perform miracles, with Villa being talked about as realistic top-four contenders.
“We are after seven teams; Man City, Man United, Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal, Chelsea and Newcastle,” said Emery, with fifth place potentially offering Champions League qualification this term.
“We were not contenders to be in the top four in the beginning, but of course we need to take our dreams.
“Dream, always. My dream is to win the Champions League but now we are fifth and we are going to face each match trying to get a good performance.”
The turnaround in Villa’s fortunes since Emery was tempted away from Villarreal on 24 October last year really is quite remarkable.
The 51-year-old, who lasted just 18 months at Arsenal before being sacked in November 2019, has turned Villa Park into a fortress.
It is the fourth time that one of Emery’s teams have won 10 home games in a row in the league, and Emery with Villa is one of 10 Premier League managers to average at least two points per game in a single spell.
“For me to play at home is always something special,” said Emery. “We are feeling very good at home. We have to believe and always connect with the fans.
“We tried to add to the support and energy. We are trying to be positive and play in our style.
“We have to be focused and strong defensively, but then create a bigger noise with the fans by making them feel they are playing with us.”
Many of the players who failed to impress under Gerrard soon began to prosper under the Spaniard. Emery then bolstered his squad with the summer additions of Pau Torres, Moussa Diaby, Youri Tielemans, Nicolo Zaniolo and Clement Lenglet.
“Performances like this are why many people believe Aston Villa can achieve something really special this season,” Jamie Carragher said on Sky Sports after the win against West Ham. “Look at the bench and it is such a strong squad. Look at the quality they have brought off the bench.”
Speaking on BBC Radio 5 Live, Clinton Morrison said: “He went down there and laid the law out straight away. It’s a case of you buy into it or you don’t and these players have bought into it.
“Aston Villa are flying and there is one man you can point the finger at: Unai Emery. The club is transformed.”
Emery won the Europa League three years running with Sevilla before being named Paris St-Germain boss in 2016. Then in his first season as Villarreal boss, he won his favourite competition again in 2021.
“I don’t think there is anything revolutionary in what Unai Emery does in his teams – Sevilla, Villarreal or Villa now,” French journalist Julien Laurens said on BBC Radio 5 Live.
“It’s just that every team is well drilled. It’s all about detail. He’s a very demanding coach, he’s very intense – you can see that.
“I think when he has a dressing room with a lot of egos – maybe like in Paris – they don’t really respond well to that. When it’s a club that is a bit like him, like Villa – no offence to Villa, but it’s not PSG – then it’s much better for him. I think he feels more at home at a club than he ever did in Paris.”
Before Emery’s arrival, Ollie Watkins had a shot conversion rate of 13%. Since then it has risen to 20%. After starting last season with one goal in 10 league starts under Gerrard, he ended the campaign with 15 from 36.
The 27-year-old has been directly involved in 27 goals in 33 Premier League games since Emery’s first game in charge (18 goals, 9 assists); bettered only in that time by Mohamed Salah (35) and Erling Haaland (33).
Such form earned the former Brentford and Exeter striker a recall to the England squad earlier this month and his second-half strike against West Ham was his ninth for club and country this season.
“Watkins is on fire at the moment,” Carragher added on Sky. “The power for that goal, wow! That is a player that Unai Emery has transformed. He looks like a different player.”
Brentford defender Ben Mee said on BBC Radio 5 Live: “He was on loan at Weston-super-Mare in 2014. You wouldn’t have thought he would be playing for England in 2023.”
Watkins’ goal came after he took on backpedalling West Ham defender Kurt Zouma before turning back on the outside and beating the goalkeeper at his near post.
“I feel like that’s my game, really, when I’m one-on-one with the defender, a few stepovers,” Watkins told Sky Sports. “That’s what I want, to be able to work my magic.
“It’s definitely a mindset with me. The gaffer has always had faith in me here. I’ve always beaten myself up a little bit if I haven’t scored. I missed that chance earlier in the game, but I didn’t let it get on top of me. Earlier in my career I probably would have kept thinking about that.
“Before, I would run into the corner flags and be chasing things, but now we have attacking full-backs that do that so I try to stay central. I make more clever runs, I would say.
“There were times where I was dropping too deep to get touches on the ball, whereas now I’m not as bothered about that. I let the other creative players do what they need to do and receive the ball from them. I’m not too worried about touches. It’s working well.
“[Scoring] over 20 goals and going to the Euros is what I’m pushing for. I know my club form has to be good with Villa.”