The successful changes Unai Emery has made at Aston Villa

Matty Cash celebrating - - Alex Pantling/GETTY
Matty Cash celebrating - - Alex Pantling/GETTY

Since Unai Emery took over as Aston Villa head coach in the first week of November, they have shrugged off the torpor that surrounded Steven Gerrard’s brief reign and the dying days of Dean Smith’s longer, more rollercoaster tenure.

The statistics, as statistics tend to do, speak for themselves. Saturday’s often swashbuckling 3-0 victory over AFC Bournemouth (see report below) was the biggest under Emery. His charges have won eight games, drawn two and lost just four. That is a top-six return by any yardstick. They now sit in 11th place, but Newcastle United, Fulham, Brentford and Brighton & Hove Albion have still to visit Villa Park. With the wind at Villa’s back, the Europa League and Conference are within their sights. Here is what has changed since Emery's arrival.

Defensive urgency

Emery has kept faith with Ezri Konsa and Tyrone Mings in the centre of defence. The pair have similar qualities – tackling strength, tracking nous – and under Emery both are less prone to lapses of concentration. They go about their business differently, Konsa is a brooding presence, whereas even in the midst of Saturday’s hubbub, Mings could be heard bellowing encouragement and direction at his colleagues.

Full-back, though, is where Emery’s reset has taken hold. Matty Cash has won the right-back battle with Ashley Young, while Alex Moreno – Emery’s sole signing other than fringe player Jhon Duran – has displaced Lucas Digne. Cash and Moreno are front-foot players, with formidable engines. Both power up and down the flanks in imperial fashion, supporting and complementing Jacob Ramsey and Leon Bailey.

Midfield serenity

Gerrard did not fall for Douglas Luiz’s charms until Boubacar Kamara injured himself in September and John McGinn was struggling with a new, more defensive role. Emery has built his team around the pair, allowing McGinn to take more creative responsibility, while holding midfielder Douglas Luiz was directly involved in all three goals on Saturday.

Just ahead of them, Ramsey is, by his own admission, revelling in a new, more advanced role, and Bailey’s orthodox wingplay offers an outlet. In-between them, the twinkle-toed Emiliano Buendia is finally looking like a £33 million midfield helmsman after completing 90 minutes just once this season before Emery arrived.

Striking luck

With Emery wary of the often indisposed Philippe Coutinho and bold enough to offload Danny Ings, he restored Ollie Watkins to the team with spectacular results. Having scored once under Gerrard and once under caretaker Aaron Danks this season, Saturday was only the second time in eight games Watkins has failed to score. It did not matter: he gave the Bournemouth back-line a horrible afternoon. Villa have now scored in every league and cup game under Emery.

A new way

After Saturday’s game, Emery spoke of creating “a new way” for Aston Villa. These are early days, and the squad is rather threadbare, but having rebuilt the style of play in remarkably quick time with, overwhelmingly, those who struggled under Gerrard, he might just be onto something.

Report: Luiz is reborn as Villa show their potential

Douglas Luiz celebrates putting Aston Villa ahead - Douglas Luiz is reborn as Aston Villa show potential under Unai Emery - Getty Images/Marc Atkins
Douglas Luiz celebrates putting Aston Villa ahead - Douglas Luiz is reborn as Aston Villa show potential under Unai Emery - Getty Images/Marc Atkins

By John Aizlewood

He has not always been appreciated by Aston Villa fans, but Douglas Luiz is coming into his own. Signed by Dean Smith, but often lost as a sole holding midfielder and not always trusted by Steven Gerrard, the Brazil international has blossomed under Unai Emery and his season hit a high in Saturday’s comprehensive victory over a plucky but limited Bournemouth.

Since Emery’s first game in November, Villa have shown a major jump in form and they are in the top-six in terms of points gained in that time, staying on the coat-tails of the likes of high-flying Arsenal and the two Manchester teams.

Under Gerrard and caretaker Aaron Danks, Luiz managed just one assist, but in 14 games under Emery, the Brazil international has two goals and four assists.

In his programme notes, Emery declared a top-10 position was the target. After Luiz’s showing, Emery admitted “a new target might be needed”.

On Saturday, Luiz was everywhere and was directly involved in all three Villa goals: starting and finishing the first; taking the free kick that spawned the second and his  corner produced the third.

Alongside John McGinn, he was central to Villa’s victory; spraying balls to the left for Ollie Watkins, right to Jacob Ramsey and thwarting the attacking inclinations of Phillip Billing. No wonder, then, after the third goal, he turned to his former doubters among the Villa faithful and gave a theatrical bow.

“This was the team’s best performance since I have been here and Douglas Luiz’s best performance,” said Emery. “I am very happy with him. He’s so necessary to us, with both his skill level and his character within the squad. He’s incredibly focused and the way in which he holds his position allows us to take out other teams. He occupies good space, he’s offensively strong and he has the passion to get the ball.”

Aston Villa - Douglas Luiz is reborn as Aston Villa show potential under Unai Emery - PA/David Davies
Aston Villa - Douglas Luiz is reborn as Aston Villa show potential under Unai Emery - PA/David Davies

Luiz was not alone, of course. Unusually these days, Watkins didn’t score, but he gave Jack Stephens a torrid afternoon, while Emiliano Buendia was a will-o’the-wisp figure, flitting through the chasms in Bournemouth’s defence at will. Villa’s newish owners, Executive Chairman Naseef Sawiris and United States-based Chairman Wes Edens attended a game under Emery for the first time together.

“They seemed happy,” said Emery after the biggest victory of his reign . “They are the owners, we are the professionals. We are trying to establish a new way here and this was the day that I feel we are safe from the teams below us, but also the day we established a real connection with our fans.

Bournemouth’s best moment came in the 79th when Adam Smith was replaced by David Brooks, the Welsh winger making his first appearance since September 2021, when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma. “He’s had a tough battle,” said Gary O’Neil, the Bournemouth manager.

David Brooks - Douglas Luiz is reborn as Aston Villa show potential under Unai Emery - Getty Images/Robin Jones
David Brooks - Douglas Luiz is reborn as Aston Villa show potential under Unai Emery - Getty Images/Robin Jones

For them, Dominic Solanke missed a couple of chances, one thanks to a magnificent Tyrone Mings interception.

Yet for all O’Neil’s protestations that his side were still in it until things fell apart in a frenetic final 10 minutes, during which Villa swarmed forward and scored two late goals through Ramsey and Buendia, they were second best throughout. Only Neto’s heroics, thwarting Watkins and Mings, prevented a more comprehensive victory. As the relegation struggle approaches its denouement, once again Bournemouth have much to ponder.