Not the opening day Aston Villa hoped for
After so much hype, could the losses of Emi Buendia and Tyrone Mings bring Aston Villa’s season to an abrupt halt before it has even begun?
The Lions suffered 5-1 trouncing at the hands of Newcastle and two of their key players look to be out for most of the season with brutal ACL injuries.
“We didn’t control,” Aston Villa manager Unai Emery stated in his post-match interview after the Newcastle game.
To Emery, control is ever important. His style of football is as much about being in control of his opponent’s play as his own. The drilling of a tight backline, playing the offside trap, and a high-pressing front four aims to put his opponents exactly where he wants them when retrieving the ball.
From early on, it was clear that was not happening last Saturday. The departure of Mings at 2-1 proving the fatal blow as a rampant Newcastle devastated their makeshift back line.
The result, though humbling, will not be the biggest concern for the Villans. It is an opening game. They are always unpredictable. Emery will use it as a learning curve for himself and the players. It is the loss of two players so central to the fairytale of last season that will strike fear into fans’ hopes.
Hopes that had occasionally flirted with talk of the Champions League. After all, anything might seem possible following Emery’s transformational abilities last time out.
"“Get your passports, see you in Europe!” – John McGinn roared at last season’s final day celebrations."
Villa’s surprise qualification for Europe last season was regularly described in superlative fashion. Remarkable, extraordinary, exceptional, all in constant use by pundits and fans alike. It is hard to argue they were wrong.
Unai Emery: A redemption story
Arriving in November, Emery inherited a disorganized mess residing in 16th place. The club barely above the relegation zone after a tumultuous end to Steven Gerrard’s reign. Emery was quick to establish his compact counter-attacking style of football.
A solidity and organization at the back they’d been crying out for, it provided instant success. Forty-nine points from 25 games, the fifth most in the league since his arrival. A seventh place finish and their first European football since 2010, Emery quickly became a fan favorite.
Managers often attempt to douse expectations. Take Claudio Ranieri constantly talking about avoiding relegation being the priority in Leicester’s title-winning season. Emery doesn’t. He openly encourages high expectations.
“My dream is to win a trophy with Aston Villa,” Emery said. “It’s my personal challenge at the beginning. My second objective could be to play with Aston Villa in Europe.”
This, on arriving at a club facing a relegation battle. Most managers would talk of the table, getting to safety, but Emery was busy talking up trophy hopes. For him, it was about raising expectations. Setting a higher standard. Amongst players, amongst staff, amongst the fans.
In April, Mike Taylor of the BBC West Midlands, wrote how this has been at the core of the club’s success and the rejuvenated spirit in Villa Park:
“By setting such a positive tone and challenging all at the club to demand more, Emery has fueled the most exciting atmosphere around Villa for years.”
Attend Villa Park now and you will see a club transformed from the misery of the 2010s. Fans riding on the highs of Europe and further expectations.
Owners with European intent
Expectations shared by the owners, Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens. Many pointed to the treatment of Dean Smith and Gerrard as cut-throat. Cold-hearted, especially in the case of Smith who guided them back to the Premier League.
Yet, when you look at spending levels, you can understand the owner’s frustrations at lingering just above the relegation places. The Villans have the seventh highest expenditure and net spend since their return to the Premier League in 2019.
In that sense, Emery has simply taken them to where they should be. Competing in the top half, as they are financially. That is not to take away from the impressively quick turnaround he has overseen. But, to state, that it is not the limit. It is the beginning.
Emery himself has added a new aim to the list.
“The present and the future for me is to try to play Champions League with Aston Villa. That is my dream,” he told Sky Sports in preseason.
Top four: Emery’s unrealistic pipe dream?
If it is anything to go by, the club’s impressive transfer dealings have been a clear statement of intent.
Youri Tielemans on a free gives flexibility to an already talented midfield. The likes of John McGinn, Douglas Luiz and Jacob Ramsey forming a core part of Emery’s strategy to dominate the centre and force opponents wide.
Moussa Diaby, signed for €55 million from Bayer Leverkusen, provides a goalscoring alternative to Ollie Watkins up front.
He offers European experience, scoring an impressive seven times in 16 appearances in the Europa League. It was no surprise then that he was Villa’s lone goal scorer on his debut at the weekend.
Though with Mings’ possible season-ending ACL injury, the most important signing appears to be be centre-back Pau Torres. Having played under Emery for two years at Villarreal, he is an experienced player with an understanding of the Spaniard’s style.
A positive to hold onto amongst the pain of the last week’s worsening news.
To their credit, Villa have been proactive in response. Less than a week since Buendia’s devastating injury, the club are on the verge of signing a short-term replacement. Fabrizio Romano reporting on X, formerly Twitter, that midfielder Nicolo Zaniolo is set to join on a year-long loan from Galatasaray.
The likely re-emergence of Liverpool and Chelsea as credible top four challengers meant it was always going to be difficult for Aston Villa to top last season’s seventh placed finish. Mings’ injury makes that challenge ever greater.
But it is not one to lose hope in. The Villans have a talented manager with a clear philosophy that both players and fans have heavily bought into. There were always going to be setbacks. At least these have come at a time when they can still be rectified in the transfer market.
It may not be the Champions League that Emery and the owners have dreamt of, but Villa are certainly here to challenge. To be in and around what is quickly becoming a Top Eight. To dream of the European glory that West Ham have proved possible.
This will be no disappearing act, with or without Mings.