Aston Villa's qualification for the Champions League is a personal triumph for Unai Emery... the Spaniard has remoulded the club in his own image and taken them to unimaginable heights in just 19 months

Aston Villa qualified for the Champions League with Spurs' defeat by Man CityUnai Emery has completely transformed the club since he arrived 19 months agoArsenal are the real deal regardless of what happens in the title race - Listen to the It's All Kicking Off! podcast 

Shortly after 5pm on August 12, 2023, the away dressing room at St James’ Park was a gloomy place. Aston Villa had just been thrashed 5-1 by Newcastle and in the previous 24 hours, they had lost Tyrone Mings and Emi Buendia to season-ending injuries.

Unai Emery was faced with one of the most important team talks of his Villa Park reign and, as has generally been the case since he joined the club, the Basque nailed it.

‘Don’t worry,’ was his general message. ‘We played well. We gave away bad goals but we keep playing like that. We stay calm.’

Emery was not the only one who could see the bigger picture. ‘I couldn’t believe the scoreline,’ Sir Alex Ferguson told NBC Sports. ‘Aston Villa played fantastic football but just lost to bad goals. Sometimes you can play teams off the pitch but not score and that’s what happened to Aston Villa.’

From the most successful manager in Premier League history, it was a pretty strong endorsement and the following nine months proved Ferguson spot on. Villa will compete in the European Cup for the first time since 1983, and for the first time since the competition was rebranded the Champions League in 1992.

Unai Emery has led Aston Villa in to next season's Champions League after a stunning season

Unai Emery has led Aston Villa in to next season's Champions League after a stunning season

But the campaign got off to the worst possible start with a thumping 5-1 defeat by Newcastle

But the campaign got off to the worst possible start with a thumping 5-1 defeat by Newcastle

Emery was subsequently faced with one of the most important team talks of his Villa Park reign

Emery was subsequently faced with one of the most important team talks of his Villa Park reign

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It is a personal triumph for Emery. Villa handed Emery the keys to the castle when he replaced Steven Gerrard in October 2022 and their decision to give him such a high level of control has paid off spectacularly. A new deal and a pay rise is anticipated soon after the season ends, which will make Emery one of the best-paid managers in the league.

In only 19 months, Emery has remoulded the club in his own image: the key appointments at every level on the football side were driven by him and Villa’s Bodymoor Heath training ground has an increasingly Spanish feel.

Along with Emery, transfer chief Monchi – who has the somewhat grand title ‘president of football operations’ – and director of football operations Damian Vidagany run the show. Monchi worked with Emery at Sevilla while Vidagany has known Emery since they were at Valencia in 2008.

Not that Emery was unwilling to trust existing staff. Set piece coach Austin MacPhee was hired when Dean Smith was in charge but Emery has been impressed by the Scot and added him to his inner circle.

The standard of coaching and training is said to have gone through the roof since Emery and his team joined. Passing drills are sharper, exercises are undertaken always with the next opponent in mind – and Emery is at the heart of everything, clipboard in hand.

He will sometimes physically move his players so they are standing in exactly the position he wants when practising set pieces, virtually to the blade of grass. ‘Not here! Here!’ Emery will urge, until his players are arranged precisely how he wishes. Under previous managers, players were not expected to hang around at Bodymoor for long after training was complete. The afternoon is a golden time for Emery, however, who holds collective and individual meetings with players and illustrates his points using clips on an iPad.

Knock on Emery’s door at Bodymoor and you will usually see the manager, who keeps extremely long hours, poring over his laptop, devising his plan for the next game or analysing the previous one.

The message to players is simple: ‘This is what we want you to do. Do it, and you’ll be OK. Don’t worry too much about anything else.’

Like Emery, Sir Alex Ferguson saw the bigger picture that day and hailed Villa's performance

Like Emery, Sir Alex Ferguson saw the bigger picture that day and hailed Villa's performance

Emery has reshaped Villa in his own image since replacing Steven Gerrard in October 2022, appointing trusted confidantes at every level, including transfer chief Monchi (right)

Emery has reshaped Villa in his own image since replacing Steven Gerrard in October 2022, appointing trusted confidantes at every level, including transfer chief Monchi (right)

Emery is hands-on in training, with the Spaniard at the heart of everything, clipboard in hand

Emery is hands-on in training, with the Spaniard at the heart of everything, clipboard in hand

Just as he sets his players high standards, so Emery is extremely exacting of himself. ‘Demanding’ is one of his favourite words and he will rarely seek to pin the blame on another if he feels he has fallen short. That is why you will have to look very hard to find Emery criticising a referee, or complaining of injuries or bad luck. ‘I believe in every referee and sometimes I am a little bit upset when some coaches are speaking with the fourth referee all the time in 90 minutes,’ he said in February.

‘I don’t know what the conversation is that they can have! I don’t like to do it. Maybe they are pushing him, I don’t know?’

Referees might get an easy ride from Emery but woe betide any player who fails to follow the brief. During a break in play and with Villa 2-0 down at home to Olympiacos in April, Emery marched on to the pitch and confronted midfielder Douglas Luiz, expressing his views loudly and forcefully.

Luiz’s crime? Trying to do too much, too quickly. A couple of times the Brazilian tried to interject but wisely thought better of it.

‘Players can always improve – and they can improve their attitudes too, if they want to sacrifice their lives thinking more about football,’ Emery has said. ‘It’s not only when they’re at the training ground. It’s important they have this attitude when they are at home in their private lives as well.

‘I am never going to be a policeman behind them in their private lives. But what is completely necessary for me is that football is the priority’

That is why Emery ensures he stays in contact with injured players, inviting them to join him for a coffee or bite to eat in the canteen. He wants to ensure they feel part of the action but also to check on their mindset as they recover.

‘Your lifestyle outside the club is reflected inside,’ he has explained. ‘The mentality is to think football and show high commitment to your club and your team-mates. It’s important for them to be responsible and mature in their private lives as well.’

Champions League football will help Villa but this will be a busy summer. Emery is expected to target a full-back, another central midfielder and a forward, with back-up striker Jhon Duran a possible candidate for the exit door. While there is little appetite at Villa to sell a key asset, Premier League spending rules must be obeyed, which means homegrown star Jacob Ramsey, valued at about £50million, could also depart.

The Spaniard has taken Villa from the threat of relegation all the way to the Champions League

That is simply a stunning achievement and is reward for his diligence and coaching acumen

That is simply a stunning achievement and is reward for his diligence and coaching acumen

With a high wage bill and not a great deal of wriggle room within profit and sustainability rules, it may be difficult for Villa to do expensive deals. More transfers like the initial £8m they paid Middlesbrough for Morgan Rogers would go down very well indeed – while the Champions League remains the best selling point in the game.

Aston Villa won the competition in 1982 and they have started to shout about it again. On occasion this season, a replica of the most coveted trophy in European football has been mounted on a plinth at the mouth of the tunnel. Nobody expects Villa to emulate that next season, but simply being involved is a heck of a start.

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