Stacy Murphy looks at recent events.
The 2022-23 incarnation of Aston Villa has been as strange as the season itself. Villa have both an underrated but underperforming squad, are now on their third manager in a month and have shown they can be almost indescribably awful and sublime in consecutive matches but are still giving us optimism despite being only three points above the relegation zone. Maybe I should qualify that to ambivalent optimism; to quote Marian Gold’s line in Alphaville’s 1980s Euro-hit Forever Young, “hoping for the best but expecting the worst”. Gold goes on to question “Are they gonna drop the bomb or not?” but in footballing terms I don’t think things in B6 are quite that bleak yet even if world events have made it a more likely prospect this year.
Fifteen league games into the stop/start and imminently interrupted season and Villa stand twelfth, with five wins having lost almost half their games. Terrible defeats at Bournemouth, Crystal Palace and Fulham coupled with an inability to break down Leeds’ ten men and another uninspiring draw at Forest showed Steven Gerrard was not up to the job. Even one of the two wins under his management, the extremely nervy 1-0 at home to a poor Southampton, was almost excruciating to watch. The virtual surrender at Fulham, admittedly aided by Douglas Luiz’s subsequently overturned red card (which with VAR you have to wonder how that is possible), pushed Gerrard through the exit door. On his appointment this time last year I had reservations about Gerrard as Villa manager mostly down to my dislike of him as player but was prepared to give him a chance, a chance he soon blew.
My favourite type of players are wingers; those from the Tony Morley/Tony Daley mould of fast, direct and with a trick or two. If a recent interview with Anwar El Ghazi, now of PSV Eindhoven, is to be believed one of Gerrard’s first pronouncements at Bodymoor Heath was he wouldn’t be using wingers so El Ghazi, Trezeguet and Bertrand Traore knew their game time was probably limited or nil before they had a chance to impress the new manager and justified my reticence towards the manager. In Gerrard’s preferred system this left Villa with no width apart from the full backs who were positioned almost criminally high up the pitch leaving two central midfielders to drop deep and wide to cover the gaps between centre backs and touchline. It is no coincidence that the arrival of Gerrard also saw a drop off in form for Jacob Ramsey and John McGinn, already struggling to find the best of his game, as they effectively played in positions alien to them.
Add into the tactics Gerrard’s odd treatment of Tyrone Mings over the captaincy and then dropping him for the opening game at Bournemouth followed by the strange “look me in the eyes” comment. In certain circles Mings is a divisive character but outside the odd clanger has been one of our best performers this season and probably deserved a place in the England World Cup squad although that was never likely as Gareth Southgate has an apparent distrust of the Villa player despite lauding the even more error-prone Harry Maguire. As someone I spoke to at the time said, Gerrard had picked the wrong fight as Mings was much more popular with Villa fans than he was.
The appointment of Gerrard has seen Villa waste yet another year as what has been seen as Christian Purslow’s vanity project has been an abject failure with his choice of manager failed to structure and coach the team, motivate the players and ultimately win enough games. It was telling that Nassef Sawiris has appeared to be driving force behind both the dismissal of Gerrard and the appointment of Unai Emery with Purslow seeming to be a peripheral figure during Emery’s unveiling press conference and the obligatory shirt stretching publicity photos show Sawiris with Emery.
Much of the media, liberally littered with other former Liverpool players and forever fawning over Gerrard, refuse to hold him responsible for Villa’s struggles this season. Now he has gone their narrative has become one suggesting it was players fault for failing to perform for the former England captain as first Aaron Danks and then Emery coaxed three creditable wins out of the squad in four games. That the same players put in a horror show second half at Newcastle in Danks’ last game as caretaker manager has been somewhat swallowed up by the fallout from the end of the 27 year wait to beat Manchester United at Villa Park.
So to Unai Emery, who wasn’t a name I had considered in the among the rumours of Mauricio Pochettino (always unlikely), Thomas Tuchel (ditto) and Shaun Dyche (scary but possible). Emery has the pedigree of a winner including being a much-vaunted four-times winner of the Europa League with Sevilla and Villarreal as well as guiding Arsenal to the final in his brief tenure there. His time at Arsenal is seen as a failure mostly by their fans but a European final and a fifth-placed finish is the stuff or dreams at Villa, at least for a start. As when Dean Smith took over we need to be realistic and see this season as one of, yet again, consolidation. If, as Smith did, Emery can push the club to an unexpected height by May he will have exceeded my expectation. Also if he can win a trophy as he has said he would judge his own success on can I please request an FA Cup win. On a four and a half year contract he will have five cracks at it but any trophy would do.
There appears to be a perception in the national media that Villa fans are very difficult to please. This probably stems from high profile and media-friendly managerial appointments such as O’Leary, O’Neill (happy to speak to Mat Kendrick again now he has a book to flog), Bruce and now Gerrard but I don’t think that idea could be further than the truth. All we want really is to be competitive and when that happens a challenge for honours should follow. Emery in just one game in charge has re-written a small piece of history but, if he is to emulate even a small piece of the success of one of his predecessors who would have celebrated his 90th birthday last Sunday, he shouldn’t look more than one game into the future but should expect 110% from his players.