Aston Villa should cherish Unai Emery while they can. It is a matter of time before an established Champions League club makes him an offer he can’t refuse.
Sorry to put a dampener on Villa fans’ upbeat mood after a brilliant start to this season, but this is the reality of the sport. Owners and sporting directors can see the quality and impact of Emery’s work at Villa Park and he will be on their wanted lists.
After his experiences at Arsenal and Paris St-Germain, Emery is a coach with unfinished business at the top level.
In an ideal world, Villa’s extraordinary transformation is the start of a prolonged era of success under Emery. In all likelihood, the club and supporters need to grasp the nettle and embrace the chance to qualify for next year’s Champions League and win the Europa Conference. Opportunities like this do not come around often. Lap it up because you cannot be sure how long it will last.
This is the best Villa team since Ron Atkinson fought for the title and won trophies in the early 1990s, and the most consistent since Martin O’Neill was regularly challenging for European qualification over a decade ago.
Emery’s excellence is good news for Villa and bad news for underperforming managers. Clubs will look at his example and realise that one of the biggest myths in football is ‘there is no quick fix’ or ‘you cannot just wave a magic wand’. Actually, with top managers there is and you can.
Villa sacked Dean Smith and Steven Gerrard because they feared relegation. Since Emery’s arrival in November 2022, only Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool have won more Premier League points.
You can never overestimate the immediate and broad influence of a great coach.
If the manager fails to get a tune out of his team, you constantly hear how a club is a shambles from top to bottom; owners, board members, scouting departments, sporting directors and the professionalism and dedication of players all comes under the spotlight.
Most of the time that is a diversion or an excuse.
When you have the right fit as manager, the entire club looks well run. Obviously there are many factors behind a team’s success. Sometimes, it really is as simple as recruiting a brilliant manager.
No matter what state a club appears to be in, the least supporters should expect from coaches of genuine quality is proof of their training ground work. That is non-negotiable. Managers may not inherit the players they need to immediately enjoy consistent results or create a side capable of finishing in the top four, winning trophies, or getting promoted. They may walk into a club which is a basket case at the top, and has no structure or quality below the first team.
The one area where no chairman or chief executive should be able to interfere is on the training pitch from Monday to Friday; how a coach sets up the team, what patterns he drills into his players, and how he will demonstrate to the wider public the direction he intends to go short-term and long-term.
Emery, just like Roberto De Zerbi at Brighton and Ange Postecoglou at Tottenham Hotspur, has found that perfect formula of a swift transformation and positive results and they have all done so with different methods and tactical set-ups.
I have never been a believer that one style is more preferable to another. We see across the Premier League and beyond which coaches consider themselves more progressive in terms of dominating possession and pressing high, and others who prefer to be pragmatic and will switch plans depending on the quality of the opponent.
Ultimately, it does not matter. What is most important is they have the ability to impose a clear idea on how the team plays. Emery’s teams have clearly identifiable traits. He loves his side ‘narrow’ with his wide players adding to the numbers operating through the middle of the pitch. His teams are tough to break down and counter-attack with speed.
So far in his career, Emery’s approach has been particularly well-suited to those just below the established European hierarchy, dragging them to a trophy-winning, Champions League qualification standard.
His work at Sevilla, Valencia and Villarreal was hugely impressive. He has been a master in the Europa League, winning the competition four times, at his most effective when stamping an identifiable imprint on a struggling group of players and changing the culture around the training ground.
The problem for Villa long-term is I am not sure any ambitious coach covets a reputation for being a prolific Europa League winner. They all want the biggest prize.
Emery had his chance with spells at Arsenal and PSG. It didn’t go to plan. In retrospect, the timing and circumstances worked against him.
Replacing a legendary figure such as Arsene Wenger at Arsenal was almost daunting as it was for David Moyes being Sir Alex Ferguson’s immediate successor, while Emery’s domestic success at PSG was overshadowed by Champions League disappointment.
Villa have given him the platform from which he will get his next opportunity. No doubt Villa fans will argue he can achieve his ambitions with them.
He has been reunited with sporting director Monchi and created a mini Spanish empire at Villa Park, granted all the control he could wish for on football operations.
Villa have spent good money on a lot of players since their Premier League – Moussa Diaby, especially, was a coup – but what is most impressive under Emery is that the core of the side is the same as that which he took over.
When I hear Villa’s players joking about Emery’s long meetings and meticulous attention to detail on the training pitch, it takes me back to when Rafa Benitez joined Liverpool in 2004. Critical to the success is a dressing room of players understanding how far behind they have fallen and hungry to learn. In Ollie Watkins, Ezri Konsa, Douglas Luiz and John McGinn, Emery has inherited talented players who want to reach the next level. Those who have become accustomed to being mid-table, or even in relegation battles, tend to be more receptive to change.
You do not always get such an environment at clubs where players are already on massive contracts and believe they are already at the top of the football pyramid.
Over the last 12 months, no coach in Europe has had such a profound impact at a club of Villa’s stature.
You can guarantee it will not be long before he is coaching in the Champions League again. There is a big chance that will be with Villa next season. If not, there will be a queue of clubs at Unai Emery’s door.