From tears to cheers: Leon Bailey’s transformation at Aston Villa is remarkable

Leon Bailey - From tears to cheers: Leon Bailey’s transformation at Aston Villa is remarkable

There was a moment last year when Leon Bailey left the pitch at Villa Park disconsolate, and in floods of tears.

After missing an open goal against Wolves, it seemed to perfectly capture Bailey’s Aston Villa career in a microcosm, as a player with obvious quality yet unable to produce consistency.

Now Bailey leaves the field to standing ovations, and the transformation in the £25 million signing has been remarkable after emerging as a key figure in Unai Emery’s Champions League mission.

Bailey was electric here against Nottingham Forest and the turnaround in his performances provides further evidence of the effect Emery has on individual players.

He terrorised Forest’s makeshift left-back Moussa Niakhate in the first half, attacking with speed and trickery and ending the game with a goal and an assist.

Villa are one of the Premier League’s great entertainers and Bailey is at the forefront of their thrilling performances, thoroughly deserving of his new contract which was signed last week.

“Bailey has been more consistent at home and there is still work to do away, but we are working with him,” said Emery.

“He has been positive and is using his qualities through the team. Leon is getting better and his progress has been very important as he’s scoring goals and assisting. I will keep pushing him to be more consistent, especially away from home.”

This was only Villa’s first home win of 2024, after a recent mini-wobble, and takes them five points clear of Tottenham, who are in fifth place and do not play this weekend.

Though there is a chance of fifth place being enough to secure Champions League football for English teams next season, Villa remain in a decent position despite a number of injuries.

England international Ollie Watkins now has 14 goals and 10 assists this season, taking him level with Mohamed Salah for goal involvements (24).

Ollie Watkins scored the opening goal of the match
Ollie Watkins scored the opening goal of the match - Getty Images/Catherine Ivill

The only slight concern for Emery from a satisfactory afternoon was a potential problem for defender Pau Torres, who has recently returned from an ankle injury and was taken off at half-time after complaining of discomfort.

“We were very motivated after losing two matches at home and I was feeling comfortable,” said Emery.

“We are building, together, a winning mentality. As tempting as it can be to think of the injuries & setbacks as an excuse, we have a no excuse culture at this football club. We must be ready to win.”

This was a difficult afternoon for Nuno Espirito Santo, with every defeat seemingly significant with the threat of a points deduction hanging over the club.

Forest’s defending was abysmal in the first-half and Nuno admits the situation has to be addressed as he fights to avoid relegation.

With Nuno Tavares expected to be out for a number of weeks with an injury, Forest opted to play Niakhate, a centre-back, on the left of the back four and it proved costly.

Forest’s two centre-backs Murillo and Felipe were also replaced at half-time after both picking up yellow cards.

Douglas Luiz, scorer of two first-half goals for Aston Villa, is congratulated by team-mates

Villa were 3-0 up before the 40th minute after a close-range finish from Ollie Watkins and two goals from Douglas Luiz.

After the second goal, a number of Forest players formed a huddle and appeared to point fingers at each other. Morgan Gibbs-White, the captain, was furious.

“We started really bad and it was too easy for the opponents to score. It was a very bad first half,” said Nuno.

“Bailey is a strong opponent and had too many one-on-ones. It is too easy for the opponent to score against us.

“We are always able to score, so we need to balance these two parts of the game. We have the courage, we have the talent so we have to find the balance in both situations. I am really sorry for our performance.”

Forest did respond with goals from Niakhate and Gibbs-White, but Bailey capitalised on further defensive lapses in concentration to kill off the game.

Villa’s slim hopes of emerging as surprise title contenders may have disappeared, yet their season is still very much alive.