Unai Emery is finally winning admirers in the Premier League after revitalising Aston Villa just five months into his redemptive return to English football.
Villa were languishing just above the relegation zone when Emery was hired following Steven Gerrard’s sacking after an underwhelming 11-month spell in charge.
Energised by the Spaniard, Villa have climbed to seventh in the table thanks to an impressive run of 10 wins from 16 league games.
Since the 51-year-old’s first game in early November, only leaders Arsenal and second-placed Manchester City have earned more than Villa’s haul of 32 points.
Villa host struggling Nottingham Forest on Saturday aiming to move closer to the sixth-place finish that would mean a return to European football for the first time since the 2010/11 season.
Emery initially targeted the top 10, but now he is setting his sights higher.
“In my mind is to have always the objective, and one of them is to try and be close and take the option (to get into Europe),” he said.
“We are very proud of our work. We are very proud of our supporters. We are very happy.
“To get into the top 10 has been very difficult. Now to get in a position for Europe is going to be more difficult.
“We are going to be demanding. We are going to be ambitious. We are going to be realistic.”
Villa’s current success is a far cry from the difficulties Emery endured during his first spell in the Premier League at Arsenal.
He first came to prominence in Spain, where he won the Europa League three years in a row with Sevilla.
That success led to a turbulent two-year stint at Paris Saint-Germain, which featured a Ligue 1 title triumph but also a tense relationship with the club’s star forward Neymar.
After leaving the French capital, Emery accepted the daunting task of replacing Arsene Wenger at Arsenal in 2018.
It was a move that did not pay off as Emery inherited a struggling squad and a fanbase unconvinced he was the right man to revitalise the club.
Emery could only muster a fifth-place finish in his first season and although he took Arsenal to the Europa League final, their 4-1 defeat against Chelsea laid bare the flaws in his team.
The Spaniard was sacked following a poor start to the 2019/20 campaign.
He headed back home to rebuild his reputation at Villarreal, leading the club to their first ever major trophy in 2021 when the “Yellow Submarine” torpedoed Manchester United in the Europa League final.
Emery also took Villarreal to last season’s Champions League semi-finals, beating Juventus and Bayern Munich on the way.
Despite his struggles at Arsenal, the Spaniard remained intrigued by the Premier League and reportedly fielded an approach from Newcastle in 2021 before opting against accepting a job that eventually went to Eddie Howe.
When Villa came calling after Gerrard’s dismissal, Emery found the lure of English football too strong to resist.
This time he has hit the ground running, with his honesty and amiable personality, winning over a squad that lacked direction and unity under Gerrard.
A 3-1 victory against Manchester United in his first match set the tone and his use of video analysis has helped Villa’s players understand his football philosophy.
Villa striker Ollie Watkins provides tangible evidence of Emery’s work, going from scoring once every season under Gerrard to netting 10 times since the Spaniard took charge.
As a former Villa striker himself, Chris Sutton recognises Emery’s impact on the team.
“At this moment in time, it looks to be a brilliant appointment,” he said. “They’ve got a manager who has great experience, works with great intensity and is super enthusiastic.
“It’s the same group of players bar the left-back (Alex) Moreno (who joined in January), and he’s getting more out of them. The players have responded.”