Aston Villa: from relegation to Europa League qualifiers?

In their Matchweek 30 fixture on Saturday, a well-oiled Aston Villa side defeated Nottingham Forest 2-0. Substitute forward Bertrand Traore curled the ball low into the corner in the 48th minute after an unforced error by the Forest defense, and none other than an in-form Ollie Watkins scored from close range in the final seconds of stoppage time, sealing the game and marking his ninth goal in the last 11 games. This victory is a part of a grand surge of momentum for Villa, as their win over Forest marks their fourth straight and their sixth win overall in their last 10 Premier League matches (6W 1D 3L).  

Aston Villa had not been in such good form for the whole season, however—through Matchweek 14, they had only managed to win four of those games. Under former manager Steven Gerrard, Villa was sitting precariously above the relegation zone, achieving a best placement of 13th in the standings and only four points above a relegation position. While 13th in the standings earned Villa 5 five placements of clearance from the relegation zone, a short series of 2-3 losses would be enough to send them tumbling down to the bottom of the table. This is mainly due to just how close the race to stay in the Premier League was for teams at the bottom of the table (and this trend has continued in dramatic fashion throughout the season). 

When former Villareal manager Unai Emery arrived at Aston Villa, it was unclear whether he could make an impact on the club’s success. His previous stint as manager in the Premier League was rocky—he coached the 2018-19 Arsenal squad, which was famous for low chemistry, issues in the dressing rooms and poor performance in the transfer market. It is hard for a manager to enter a club during a time of unrest and transition and make a positive difference, and just as many managers fail as succeed. Graham Potter’s stint this season at Chelsea, a club with lots of money and young talent at its disposal, is evidence of that. 

Emery, however, has revolutionized Aston Villa since his Matchweek 15 entrance, turning the club into an efficient and controlled offensive unit. Since Emery’s appointment, Villa has scored at least one goal in all 16 of their games and has accumulated 32 points on the leaderboard (10W 2D 4L). This figure beats every other club in the Premier League in the aforementioned timeframe, save for two: Manchester City (32 points) and Arsenal (39 points). These two clubs are international powerhouses, both in terms of player talent and their budgets. It is safe to say that Emery has Aston Villa punching well above their weight and outperforming talented squads such as Man United and Newcastle. 

In their most recent matches, both Brighton and Liverpool (Aston Villa’s closest competitors) couldn’t secure a win; Newcastle overcame Brighton 2-1 and Liverpool secured a 2-2 draw with league leaders Arsenal. Villa’s three points, earned with their win over Forest, have allowed them to jump into sixth place in the standings – a position that offers the prospect of Europa League contention.  

The Europa League grants two spots for teams in the Premier League: one for the fifth-ranked team and one for the winners of the FA Cup. However, if the FA Cup winners qualify for the Champions League (granted to the top four in the Prem), the team forgoes their Europa League eligibility, and the spot is instead granted to the sixth place team in the Premier League—which is where Villa is sitting currently. Both Manchester City and Manchester United are in the top four in the Premier League Standings and are still in contention in the FA Cup Semifinals. The odds are high that one of them will win the cup over their weaker opponents Brighton and Sheffield United, thereby granting Europa League eligibility to the sixth place squad. 

There is still much work to do for Unai Emery, however; there are still eight weeks of matches and a lot of points left to consider. Both Brighton and Brentford are right on Villa’s tail in the standings, and they are having phenomenal seasons. Villa also has a tough series of matches to end the season, with Newcastle, Man United, Tottenham and Brighton among their opponents. It will be necessary for Emery’s squad to maintain their momentum and finish out the season strong to maintain sixth. Despite this, what Emery and Villa have already accomplished is impressive in a league that has polarized the top teams and the bottom teams—they have climbed out of the jaws of relegation like no one else has this season. I look forward to seeing if Villa can make their dreams of Europe come true.