With Emery, Alemany and huge transfer plans, Aston Villa may be building towards a bright future
With a new manager having already had a transformative effect on the team and a new man coming in from Barcelona, the future looks bright for Aston Villa.
It says something for the direction English football has taken in the 21st century that the presence of a club the size of Aston Villa in the top six or seven of the Premier League should come as something of a surprise. This is, after all, the biggest team in England’s second city, former European champions who have been present and correct since the Football League took its first steps a century and a quarter ago.
Villa’s revival has been as much a matter of the club’s recent history of mismanagement as anything else. The last decade of Aston Villa has been all about decline and rebirth, of a club which stagnated and then fell into the Championship before regaining its poise. Although they returned to the Premier League in 2019 after two years away, the three years that followed were largely about consolidation and establishing a place in the middle order of the division.
But after three years of relative consolidation, the 2022/23 season has had the feel of a rollercoaster ride. The dog days of the brief and unsuccessful Steven Gerrard era brought the feeling that the club could be sliding back into another period of stagnation. As autumn started to turn to winter, Aston Villa were getting dragged towards the event horizon of another scrap against relegation.
By the time a supine 3-0 defeat at Fulham left them in 17th place in the middle of October, separated from the relegation places only by goal difference and with just two wins from their first 12 games of the season, Gerrard’s flush had been well and truly busted. There have been many premature managerial sackings in what has been a decidedly skittish Premier League season, but the replacement of Steven Gerrard didn’t feel like one of them. By the time of the Fulham game, it was perfectly evident that the former England international was not going to suddenly develop the chops to dig the team out if its rut.
Since then, the revival of their fortunes has been nothing short of stunning. Midweek results elsewhere nudged them down to 8th, but under Unai Emery Aston Villa are right in the mix for a place in Europe next season, even though Champions League football is now just out of reach.
Emery’s obvious organisational skills have had a clearly transformational effect on a squad that had been looking moribund prior to his arrival. The very idea of Villa being able to challenge for European football would have been pretty close to unthinkable just a few months ago.
Regardless of where Aston Villa finish this season, preparations already seem to have started for the summer and beyond, and there’s plenty of reason for supporters to feel even more optimistic about their medium term. Mateu Alemany is heading to Villa Park, and that really is quite a coup. Alemany has recently confirmed that he is headed for a ‘new professional project’, and it’s already commonly assented that Birmingham will be his next location.
For all the things that Barcelona have got wrong in recent years, one thing they did get right was their summer recruitment in 2022. That much is evidenced by the fact that they are 13 points clear of Real Madrid at the top of La Liga with five matches to play. Considering the wretched state of Barcelona’s finances and the mood hanging over the club last summer, that is a significant feat. The right players were moved on, and the right replacements were brought in. It wasn’t enough in either the Champions League or the Europa League, but it was certainly enough to leave them well clear of Real Madrid at home. They can have this year’s league title signed, sealed and delivered by beating city rivals Espanyol on May 14.
Alemany was the architect of that transfer window, and it has been said that part of the reason for his departure is likely to have been Barcelona putting short-term gain before long-term strategising and a failure to properly build the recruitment department. Alemany, for example, does not want Lionel Messi to return to the club once his now-inevitable departure from PSG is confirmed come the end of this season, but the club is attracted to the idea.
Well if Alemany wants to build and Aston Villa are prepared to give him that opportunity to do so the results could be glorious, especially when we also recall that he will be working with Emery, who has already had that sort of effect on the players already at his disposal. If the owners of the club are ready to put money in, then doing so with an often-underrated head coach and a director of football who has a clear vision of how he wants to rework the recruitment side of the business seems like as good a time as any to do so.
Ferran Torres and Dusan Vlahovic are among a welter of names that have already been mentioned. This all may be a little hopeful, but just the mention of such names speaks volumes for the ambitions of the club.
There are caveats to all of this. There are other, wealthier clubs in the Premier League. Chelsea surely can’t be as bad again next season as they have been this time around, and it’s far from a given that Liverpool will be either. The Newcastle project’s pockets won’t be getting any more shallow and the Manchester City Death Star will continue to hover noiselessly in the background, getting on with the apparently very simple job of relentlessly winning football matches. And it should also be added that this is a very different job for Alemany in comparison with Barcelona. In many ways, that will preferable, but he will be stepping into a very different culture in numerous different ways.
But it’s now been 13 years since Aston Villa last played in Europe, and that wait could be over soon. Their narrow 1-0 defeat at Manchester United ended a run of 26 points out of 30 from their previous 10 Premier League matches, and with Spurs, Liverpool and Brighton their last three opponents of this season, the opportunity to close that gap back to 6th does still exist.
But even if they do miss out this year and the opposition is likely to be more competitive next season, there are causes to be optimistic for Aston Villa for the future. Emery was a sensible managerial appointment. There’s little to indicate that Alemany won’t be the same. When patterns like this start to form, it feels as though Aston Villa are being run well, and after much of their recent past that will feel like a blessed relief to their supporters. New horizon are starting to open up for a club that has been running at half-capacity for too long.
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