Unai Emery’s first spell in England wasn’t the most fruitful. In 18 months at Arsenal, the Spaniard was dismissed, having failed to take the club forward.
But a Europa League triumph with Villarreal was enough to rebuild his reputation, and now he’s back in the Premier League with Aston Villa. He was appointed in November, replacing the departing Steven Gerrard.
And so far, his time at Villa Park has been a roaring success. He has steered them well away from relegation trouble, and now takes them into a race for European football as the season comes to a close.
Only title chasers Arsenal and Manchester City have picked up more points since his appointment.
But is this just a rich vein of form? Or are they ready to take the next step next season?
Right now, it’s difficult to say. But there are indications that Emery’s men could continue to challenge.
In truth, they never should have been struggling in the way they were under Gerrard. Emiliano Martinez was a starter in a World Cup-winning side, while Douglas Luiz and Philippe Coutinho are Brazil internationals.
Lucas Digne has 46 caps for France, and Diego Carlos and Boubakar Kamara were targeted by several clubs across Europe before opting for a move to Villa.
That’s just a handful of the talent in their squad. At the beginning of the campaign, many people touted Villa for a top-eight finish.
But it’s not just the South American flair that has taken the Villans into contention for European places. The standout in that run has been striker Ollie Watkins, who has exploded into life since the turn of the year.
Watkins has scored eight and assisted one in his last ten outings. This comes after a run of just three goals and four assists from his previous 21 games in all competitions.
This is where some people have doubts. Watkins’ personal best in the Premier League is 14 – an admirable return, but not one of a top-level goalscorer.
This leads many to believe that his form will eventually come to an end. And once he stops scoring, Villa may stop getting results.
This is a concern, but the England international can take confidence from Emery’s record with strikers. The 51-year-old has coached several forwards through the most prolific spells of their careers.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang won a Premier League Golden Boot under his tutelage. Alvaro Negredo’s best goalscoring season came in his Sevilla side.
Kevin Gameiro hit a career-best 29 in all competitions with Emery in the 2015/16 campaign. Roberto Soldado’s three highest-scoring seasons came under the Spaniard.
Carlos Bacca’s two most lethal seasons were with Emery as his manager. Gerard Moreno hit 30 in 2020/21 – his next highest tally is 20.
Even David Villa and Edinson Cavani, two of the most feared forwards in world football during their peaks, enjoyed their most prolific seasons in an Emery-managed team. This isn’t all a coincidence – Emery knows how to get the best out of his strikers.
Villa have quality all over the pitch. With the right investment in the summer, they can be a real threat to the top sides next season. It will be interesting to see how they fare.
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