Aston Villa have appointed an ‘elite coach’ in Unai Emery but they’re not an elite club

Emery Villarreal Credit: Alamy
Emery Villarreal Credit: Alamy

What first attracted Aston Villa to the four-time Europa League winner Unai Emery?

Emery replaces Steven Gerrard, who had won one trophy in three seasons with Rangers, and would never have been interviewed without his playing record. The Liverpool legend’s name appealed to the ego of Villa’s chief executive. His appointment – reportedly made without speaking to other candidates – was a vainglorious punt.

Replacing Gerrard with Emery changes the story. The club now has an ‘elite coach’ to return them to top-six finishes and European competition. Pundits and fan forums appear to agree. Widely positive reaction says that Villa have hired a ‘winner’, ‘one of Europe’s best’.

Indeed, on these very pages, it has been argued that Aston Villa have failed upwards.

This is fine as far as it goes. Ranking coaches working today by silverware, Emery would place much higher than any other plausible Villa boss. No-one would dispute that he is the most decorated man ever to fill the position. The question fewer people seems to be asking is, how relevant are continental medals to lifting a mid-table Premier League team?

Recent history suggests: not very. The current Premier League era is defined by the 2008 takeover of Manchester City, at which point the ‘big four’ became five. In the four years it took City to buy the title, the managers who achieved a top-six finish with ‘other’ clubs were Harry Redknapp (three times), Martin O’Neill (twice), and David Moyes and Alan Pardew (once each).

During that 2008-2012 period Spurs also became established at the top table, with repeat Champions League money and Gareth Bale making a Big Six. In the ten seasons since 2012, Agueroooooo! and all that, the managers who achieved a top-six finish with ‘other’ clubs were Moyes and Brendan Rodgers (twice each), and Roberto Martinez, Claudio Ranieri and Ronald Koeman (once).

What did those eight men have in common? Not age, nor playing career, nor nationality, nor coaching qualifications, nor preferred tactics. None would be considered ‘elite’, unless you asked Rodgers to describe himself in five letters or fewer. But with the exception of Koeman, all had extensive prior experience managing in the top flight in England.

This is not ‘can you do it on a wet Wednesday night in Stoke?’; it’s the reality that money has made the Premier League, for better and worse, a league like no other. At time of writing Villa are 17th in the table but 18th in all of Europe for their wage bill. Emery will get the obligatory January warchest

™ Credit: Alamy
™ Credit: Alamy

, but also third-string players earning more than anyone in his Villarreal squad. He is expected to match and motivate enormous resources to find microscopic margins and an extra five to seven points a season. The quality of opposing coaches and players is unparalleled, and finishing five or so points worse off risks total ruin. This is not the Europa League.

While Villa were appointing Gerrard a year ago, Emery was rejecting Newcastle. The Magpies’ second choice, Eddie Howe, was no-one’s idea of an ‘elite coach’, and he inherited a squad inferior to Gerrard’s. But he has improved his players individually and collectively, and recruited well. Newcastle’s annihilation of Villa at St James’ Park last Saturday provided a nice ‘what if?’ illustration on the difference a year makes with a suitable manager. Howe is now odds-on to be the ninth name on that list of top-six gate-crashers and the eighth backed by substantial previous Premier League experience.

Of course, it is more common for managers to get Premier League jobs if they have a Premier League track record, and many who achieved top-six finishes failed subsequently. But nearly all managerial stints end in failure; all the clubs can do is appoint the person with the best chance of fleeting success.

Do four Europa League titles set Emery up to manage Villa? Among coaches who’ve won a major European trophy, eight have managed an ‘other’ English team since 2008 as I defined them above. It’s not a roll call of glory: Juande Ramos (Spurs before the Big Six), Sven Goran Eriksson (Leicester), Dick Advocaat (Sunderland), Quique Sanchez Flores (Watford), Rafael Benitez (Newcastle, Everton), Carlo Ancelotti (Everton), and Gérard Houllier and Roberto Di Matteo (er… Villa).

Emery may yet succeed. He is similar to Howe as a details-oriented coach, more comfortable on the training ground than before the microphones, which sets him up to improve an under-performing squad. His Arsenal record means little given the post-Wenger instability. And, as Villa’s tenth permanent manager in 12 seasons, the bar is low. Gilding three more humdrum Premier League seasons with a domestic cup would represent a 25-year high point for the club.

But while Emery differs in CV and character to Gerrard, his appointment is a similar vanity gamble by the board. If Villa qualify for Europe, they have the ideal coach to lead them. This feels like fretting over who to hire as a live-in chef when you win the EuroMillions.

Meanwhile both Sean Dyche and Ralph Hassenhuttl have outperformed Villa on a fraction of the resources. Either would likely get a top-half finish from the current squad; neither received serious consideration for last month’s vacancy. They are respected but over familiar. They are not ‘elite’. To have done a very good job in similar circumstances is disqualifying; two middling seasons at Paris St Germain is a feather in the cap.

Such is the situation that Emery now enters with Sunday’s debut at home to Manchester United. Since 2019 Villa have spent over £400million on 25 players, of whom perhaps three have seriously increased in value. Without the sheer dumb luck of having had Jack Grealish, the club would not be in the Premier League.

Relegation is again a genuine threat. One departed man’s brilliance, and the owners’ eye-watering largesse, can only protect for so long other players and executives from a litany of poor performance and muddled decisions. Appointing a head coach with many qualities but no track record of doing the job in hand risks being the latest.

Pete May

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