Visit a few English training grounds and you are sure to see the slogan ‘Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard’ prominent on a wall.
This slightly glib motto has struck a chord with a number of managers but fails to consider another element.
When you can combine ferocious hard work with talent, you have a pretty unbeatable recipe and this is precisely what Aston Villa have in Unai Emery.
Nobody at the club will say so, but a top-four finish may be within reach for Villa this season.
To put that into context, when Emery replaced Steven Gerrard a year ago, his first task was to ensure Villa were not dragged into a relegation battle.
Unai Emery – and his clipboard – are now a familiar sight at Bodymoor Heath as the Spaniard marks his first anniversary in the Aston Villa job
Villa have been transformed since Emery arrived with the club fearing a relegation battle
An emphatic 4-1 win away to AZ Alkmaar on Thursday boosted Villa’s chances of making the Europa Conference League knockout stages
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Now they are two points off the top of the Premier League and have delivered these results without four of Emery’s key men from last season: Tyrone Mings, Emiliano Buendia, Jacob Ramsey and Alex Moreno.
‘He dreams the same way we dream,’ said skipper John McGinn. ‘He is patient when it comes to his ideas and tactics, but he is the same as us: he wants to win and he wants to win now.
‘You can see that with how ambitious he is, the signings he is making. It’s up to us as players. You either get on board with it, get on the train and improve to a level where he wants to get to, otherwise you’ll be shifted out and we’ve seen that already.’
Emery feels there is no time to waste. When Villa were heading home after Thursday’s Europa Conference League thrashing of AZ Alkmaar in Holland, Emery and his staff were straight on to their laptops.
Not to relax with the latest Netflix drama, but to review the game just gone and prepare clips and tactical pointers for the players to consider ahead of Sunday’s meeting with Luton at Villa Park, where Villa will target a 12th consecutive Premier League home win.
‘Genius’ and ‘superstar’ are just some of the words used at Villa to describe Emery.
Emery is across every detail of Villa’s tactical plans and gets stuck in on the training ground
Emery wasn’t afraid to criticise goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez – but he took the advice on board
Staff who knock on his door and are admitted to his office at the club’s Bodymoor Heath training ground have become accustomed to seeing the Basque poring over his laptop, preparing for Villa’s next challenge.
Emiliano Martinez was publicly put on notice by Emery for heading forward for a late corner against Arsenal at Villa Park last season, leaving his manager furious when the Gunners broke clear and scored the decisive fourth goal.
Emery’s anger played into wider doubts about whether Martinez was sufficiently comfortable with his feet to meet Villa’s new requirements.
Yet Martinez is thriving again and no stone is left unturned to ensure he keeps improving. During a game, the Argentina goalkeeper’s every move is filmed before a full debrief.
When such levels of detail are devoted to improving a World Cup winner, it is no surprise that Villa are flying. Only Pep Guardiola has secured more league points in 2023.
Top modern players expect a manager who can both coach and manage. The ‘gaffer’ figure of the last century, who would leave most of the training ground work to his coaching staff, does not cut the mustard with today’s stars – as Gerrard discovered.
Emery is in the thick of the action every day, clipboard in hand, before leading the regular afternoon video analysis sessions. Players are rarely fond of long meetings in front of the screen yet Villa’s squad are seeing the benefits.
‘Under Gerrard I wasn’t really getting the best out of my game,’ said Ollie Watkins, who has forced his way back into the England squad under Emery.
‘That wasn’t down to him, I had just kind of fallen into a rut, but I feel like I have gone on a different path and really focused on being a striker.
‘Before I was trying to do everything, trying to cross it and get on the end of my own cross and head it. Now I am just focused, being the main man.
Ollie Watkins, who has scored nine goals this season so far, is revelling being the ‘main man’
Villa fans are enjoying the good times under Emery and a top four finish is a possibility
‘He put a lot of faith in me and gave me confidence to go out and perform, just focusing on scoring goals and helping the team.’
Watkins’ new clarity is testament to the individual conversations Emery held with each player during his first week in charge, and which he has conducted regularly ever since.
Those chats were accompanied by video clips and a simple message: ‘This is what we need you to do. Don’t worry too much about anything else.’
Emery was given permission to shape the club in his own image and there have been significant changes since his arrival.
He has been backed in the transfer market and the wage bill has grown significantly, with new deals for key men like Mings and Watkins and lucrative contracts for the new signings, particularly French forward Moussa Diaby.
Chief executive Christian Purslow departed last summer, while sporting director Johan Lange will join Tottenham in November having been on the margins for some time.
Villa broke the bank to sign Moussa Diaby for a club record £51.9million in the summer
Emery features on a flag in the Aston Villa section during their game with AZ Alkmaar
Emery controls the football side of the club with two other Spaniards, transfer chiefs Monchi – whose title is ‘president of football operations’ – and Damia Vidagany, a long time Emery ally who is ‘director of football operations’.
Emery’s Villa record
Win percentage 59.52 per cent
Former Derby midfielder Inigo Idiakez took over as Under-21 coach in the summer and joins an academy structure that is admired across the country.
The possible problem for Villa comes if Emery is ever offered a job among Europe’s elite. If he is tempted away by Real Madrid or Bayern Munich, would the rug be pulled from under Villa?
Lange was careful to build a structure designed to survive changes of manager. Emery deserves his power but it is important that when he eventually says goodbye, he does not leave scorched earth behind him. The work Lange did can be adapted but it would be unwise to dismantle it.
Villa fans will be relieved to know there is little prospect of Emery walking away at the moment.
In his first press conference as boss, Emery said he wanted to bring trophies to Villa.
Yet the nature of modern football means that in his mind and those of his owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens, a top-four finish would eclipse any other prize.
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