Sport Editor Joe Liddicot reviews a historic season for the Birmingham team

Written by Joe Liddicot
Hi, I'm Joe, a Third Year Political Science and International Relations student studying here at UoB. I have a passion for sport, especially football and basketball, playing and watching them both obsessively.

Those with a cynical disposition might have been forgiven for expressing reservations when Unai Emery was the man tasked with replacing Steven Gerrard in the Autumn of 2022. Villa’s status as a Premier League club looked decidedly vulnerable: a lack of identity on the field and a fractured relationship between manager and fans had led to a stumbling start to the season under Gerrard. A 3-0 defeat at Craven Cottage signalled Gerrard’s time, but the utter despondency of that performance made clear that his successor had serious work to do in changing the atmosphere at Villa Park.

Emery’s appointment was a statement of ambition. While a superbly successful and respected manager in Spain, his 2-year Arsenal tenure was, at best, mediocre, leading to doubts about his capabilities as a manager in the Premier League. It was far from a safe bet on Villa’s end, but their gamble paid off almost immediately and has continued to do so until the present day. With Emery, Alonso, Arteta and Iraola among others, we are seeing something of a Basque zeitgeist in the managerial world, and Villa are reaping the benefits of hiring yet another sharp tactical mind hailing from northern Spain.

Villa are reaping the benefits of hiring yet another sharp tactical mind hailing from northern Spain

Ending last season in 9th meant Villa were looking upwards, hoping to challenge the established order of the ‘Big 6’. This is a venture that is far easier said than done, though, with numerous teams swirling around the top half hoping to smash the glass ceiling of European football. 

One of those challengers, Newcastle, delivered Villa a brutal, humiliating loss to open the season. Teams that lose 5-1 on the opening day do not often go on to do great things. That bruising loss could have caused Villa to retreat back into their midtable shell, humbled and ashamed of any ambition they may have once shown. Instead, an incredible start to the season saw them sit just one point off the top of the table at Christmas. 3rd in the league after 18 games, a position far higher than even the most optimistic fan could ever expect. Highlights included a 6-1 thrashing of Brighton and two 1-0 victories over Arsenal and Man City respectively in the space of just 4 days. Villa were in dreamland. Whispers of ‘Leicester’ may have been shooed away but they were not laughed at.

Of course, no sensible observer truly considered Villa as title contenders. The goalposts had moved but they hadn’t moved that far. Champions League qualification was where Villa’s eyes were trained. With Ollie Watkins having his best-ever season up front, and Emery’s trademark high line causing trouble for opponents, there was no indication that their momentum might slow.

They continued to march through the new year, January and February came and went with Villa continuing to look comfortable with their newfound position in the league. They were rolling. Until a 0-4 home defeat to rivals Spurs in mid-March knocked some wind out of the claret and blue sail, a wobble that raised eyebrows from those in the chasing pack. Spurs looked primed to displace Villa after inflicting that crushing defeat, but Ange’s men couldn’t take advantage as Emery’s men continued to fight on, albeit now with a slight limp in their step.

Defeat to City and disappointing draws against West Ham and Brentford were the hangover from that Spurs wobble and a sign that their Conference League campaign was starting to produce some wear and tear. 

They emerged from this small slump in April with a galvanising 0-2 win over Arsenal. The victory showed Villa’s mettle and told their rivals that they wouldn’t be fading away without a fight. In Europe, defeat to Olympiacos in the Semi-Finals of the Conference League was disheartening and a fumble of an achievable chance at silverware. Despite this, there was a sense that brighter days were ahead in Europe. And so it proved.

The excellent balance of the squad means fans should be confident that Villa will see some success in the Champions League next season

A limp end to the campaign – 1 point from their final 3 matches – was still enough to carry Emery’s men to the top 4, two points ahead of Spurs in 5th. They may have crossed the finish line with little left to give, but Villa have more than proved their worth across 38 games. Ollie Watkins enjoyed a fantastic season, as did Moussa Diaby in his first season in England. Leon Bailey also impressed, finally justifying his £30 million fee. The excellent balance of the squad means fans should be confident that Villa will see some success in the Champions League next season, while they will also hope to compound this season with another high league finish. An important summer awaits, but Unai Emery and Aston Villa appear to be a perfect match, and eyes should be fixed firmly forward at such an exciting time for the club.

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