Aston Villa’s transformation under Unai Emery has confounded all expectations.
The club were 16th in the table with 12 points from 13 matches when he arrived in November but, since a 3-1 victory over Manchester United on Emery’s debut, Villa have been on a constant upward trajectory.
Villa have won 49 points from 25 matches under the Spaniard, giving them a points-per-match average of 1.96, the fourth-best in the Premier League since he joined.
In other words, they have performed consistently to UEFA Champions League qualifying level with a squad that Steven Gerrard looked to be taking close to relegation.
Instead, Villa will spend the summer preparing for European football for the first time since 2010/11 after finishing seventh, their highest league finish since 2009/10, thanks to a 2-1 win over Brighton & Hove Albion that was their 18th in the league this year, the most they have registered in a single Premier League season since the inaugural 1992/93 campaign.
Curiously, the underlying statistics don’t reflect what the eye test tells us.
Villa’s numbers for Expected Goals (xG), Expected Goals Against (xGA), possession and pressing are all about the same if you compare Gerrard and Emery’s numbers, as are various other statistics around passing, defensive actions and chance creation.
Villa under Gerrard and Emery
|Stats per 90min||Gerrard||Emery|
But the numbers don’t tell us everything. Villa have moved from an expansive and disorganised team to one that sit behind the ball in regimented rows and jump into action at targeted moments, hence why they record fewer defensive actions and aren’t creating many more opportunities.
Under Emery, Villa are a meticulously prepared team who adapt their game considerably to exploit the weaknesses of their opponent, but who broadly speaking look to draw the opponent on to them before attacking quickly in behind.
This was in full flow against Brighton, who were caught offside six times by Emery’s aggressive defensive line and, for both goals, were caught by the speed of Villa’s transitions after the ball was won in the middle third.
Watkins' goal v Brighton
Some teams who outperform their underlying numbers are lucky.
Villa, coached in such detail, are just extremely precise and ruthlessly efficient. They will be chasing down the top four next season.