Aston Villa back in big time on their own merits

<span>Unai Emery encourages his players.</span><span>Photograph: Paul Childs/Action Images/Reuters</span>
Unai Emery encourages his players.Photograph: Paul Childs/Action Images/Reuters

The Sky Sports cameras on celebrity watch as Aston Villa homed in on booking their Champions League place with the 3-3 draw against Liverpool on Monday eventually looked beyond Hollywood and royalty. “It’s only taken them 30 years to recognise me,” says Gary Shaw, a 1982 European Cup winner and Villa Park press-box regular, with a chuckle. “They’ll be panning up saying: ‘There’s Tom Hanks’ or ‘There’s Prince William.’ Finally, they noticed I’m there.”

So are Villa. Back among the continent’s elite for the first time since Tony Barton’s European champions subsequently reached the quarter-finals, bowing out to Juventus in March 1983. “I’m a Villa supporter since I was a kid and to have won the biggest club trophy you can as a player was incredible,” Shaw says. “Now, to qualify for the competition – you wouldn’t have dreamed it at the start of this season. Unai Emery should be manager of the year, no question.”

Related: Aston Villa secure Champions League spot to end 41-year wait after Spurs’ loss

Even if their form has levelled out in the second half of the season, especially since an anterior cruciate ligament injury ended Boubacar Kamara’s campaign in February, Villa’s achievement in finishing fourth in the Premier League for the first time since 1996 is down to their own efforts more than others’ failings. Even if they fail to win at in-form Crystal Palace on Sunday, 69 points is the going rate for finishing fourth over the past six years.

Praise is quite rightly showered over Emery, who steered them into seventh place last season after staving off the threat of relegation that loomed under Steven Gerrard, but even if John Townley, of the Claret and Blue Podcast, calls him “the messiah” (“If he’s achieved this in 20 months, what could Villa do over the next five years?”), he and all fans recognise it is the players who have implemented the gameplan.

Beating Manchester City and Arsenal, the Premier League’s best two teams, 1-0 at home in the space of 72 hours in December underlined the reality of Villa’s top-four credentials. Fans recall sensing something special was afoot when their fellow European qualifiers Brighton (6-1) and West Ham (4-1) were thrashed in successive home wins in the autumn.

When the going got tough in the spring, injuries kicking in during the 14-game run to the Europa Conference League semi-final, wins at Fulham and Luton exemplified the squad’s mettle, capped off by completing the double over Arsenal with an assured second-half display at the Emirates.

Emery has improved players, honed a tactical system and bought well last summer, with Pau Torres, Moussa Diaby and Youri Tielemans helping compensate for key injuries to Emi Buendía, Tyrone Mings, Jacob Ramsey and Alex Moreno.

Martin O’Neill is full of praise, having seen his old club achieve the ambition he craved when his team thrice finished sixth from 2008-10. “Well done, Villa,” the new chairman of the League Managers Association says. “What a great season for them. They have spent some money and invested pretty well and a lot of their signings have come off for them.

“I saw them beat City at Villa Park and they played exceptionally well. They’ve had a consistent record this season, especially at Villa Park, where they’ve largely been outstanding.” They won 15 successive home league games, a club record, in 2023.

“Leon Bailey had the beating of Josko Gvardiol that night and he has really kicked on since. John McGinn has done exceptionally well, very commanding in midfield, and Douglas Luiz has been a very fine player for them. The goalkeeper [Emi Martínez] has produced some big moments for them as well.”

Ollie Watkins was voted Villa’s player of the year by supporters and players at the awards night on Tuesday, when Tottenham’s defeat by City, showing on a big screen, allowed Villa to celebrate clinching fourth place together. Penalties aside, the England striker has, by seven, the most goal involvements in the Premier League (32) and if he scores at Selhurst Park will become the first Villa player to score 20 league goals in a campaign since Peter Withe for the 1980-81 league champions.

Comparing his heat map under Emery with it under the previous regime confirms how much more centrally Watkins is playing. Also, he has fewer touches (28.74 per 90 minutes, compared with 35.54 under Gerrard) but a higher proportion in the penalty area (21% versus 15%).

Emery has encouraged Villa to play such a high back-line (the average offside line is 30.4m from goal) that no team has run fewer kilometres per 90 minutes this season and yet caught opponents offside more often (164). It is a risky strategy – it is not as if they press high (19th for gaining high turnovers) – but one that has allowed Villa to play high up the field.

They are third-best for goals from direct attacks, where the pace of Watkins, Diaby and Bailey stretches teams. Yet they have a higher average points return when only one of the latter pair plays, giving the team more the option of more controlled buildups. Kamara dropping from midfield into a back three, in possession, worked particularly well, releasing McGinn, Bailey and even Douglas Luiz.

“We have got embarrassed at times,” Shaw says, “but even the [opening-day] 5-1 defeat at Newcastle could have ended up 6-6, we created so many chances. Thankfully we’ve been able to score more than the other team more often than not. The way we attack has been captivating: the interchange of passing, the awareness of others moving positions has been excellent and this despite having to change players around a lot.”

With key players regaining fitness this summer, Kamara by September, the boost of Champions League revenue, a new deal with Adidas and the potential sale of Douglas Luiz or Ramsey should help stave off the threat of sanctions under profitability and sustainability rules after a £119.6m loss last year.

They have achieved so much this season despite playing 17 cup games, culminating in a Europa Conference League semi-final. “Playing Thursday to Sunday so often has been tough, and with relatively low numbers,” says Shaw, who was one of only 14 players used when Villa won the league title in 1981.

“It’ll be good to hear the Champions League music instead of Black  Sabbath.”