Second Chance Saloon: Unai Emery Defies The Doubters And The Memes At Aston Villa

Emery is a rare breed: a foreign manager afforded a second Premier League chance
10:00, 08 Apr 2023

When Aston Villa appointed Unai Emery as their new manager back in November, the reactions were all of a type. At best, people speculated that a manager who didn’t “do it in the Premier League” at Arsenal would flounder upon his return to the division. At worst, the same “Good Ebening” jibes that were barely funny the first time round were trotted out again. But there was precious little acknowledgment that a man who has won eleven major honours, including four Europa League titles, could actually do great things at Villa Park.

While it is early days, Emery has made a mockery of the memes and the moaning that accompanied his arrival. Bringing nous and knowledge gleaned at some of the giants of the game, like Arsenal and PSG, he has had a transformative effect in the Midlands. After a directionless eleven months under Steven Gerrard, Villa now boast an experienced and tactically mature coach.


The Premier League can be an unforgiving mistress, particularly for foreign managers. Being seen as having failed on these shores can lead to you not being invited back. Luiz Felipe Scolari, Frank de Boer, Felix Magath and Jacques Santini all came in with considerable pedigree and cabinets full of titles. But when brief spells at Chelsea, Crystal Palace, Fulham and Tottenham Hotspur blew up in their face, they were exiled from the Premier League permanently.

With the fullness of time, you can see Emery had been afforded a near-impossible job at Arsenal. The man he replaced was Arsene Wenger, as much an idea as a man in north London. The most transcendent, all-encompassing coach in the English game this side of Sir Alex Ferguson. As you saw at Old Trafford with David Moyes, replacing such a strident figure is a thankless, gruelling task.


But unlike Moyes, and several of the men who followed him, the quality didn’t really drop between Wenger and Emery. In fact it actually ever so slightly increased. The legendary Frenchman had finished sixth in his final season, reaching the Europa League semi final. Emery went one better on both fronts, finishing fifth and reaching the final of the same competition. But unlike Wenger, he did not have the cache of two decades and several trophies at the club. When form plummeted the following season he had to go.

Emery spent his two years away from English football doing what he always does. Namely, winning the Europa League. After clinching the gong three times with Sevilla, helping make them the most successful team in the competition’s history, he lifted the cup with their La Liga rivals in 2021. The following season he would take Villarreal to the Champions League semi final for the first time in their history. Being chewed up and spat out by Arsenal would have been the end of lesser managers. But Emery has thrived since leaving the Emirates.

The Spaniard brought that good feeling through the door almost immediately at Villa Park. Emery’s new charges beat Manchester United 3-1 in his first match in charge and have scarcely looked back. From uncertainty and inexperience under Gerrard to seventh in the table under one of Europe’s most seasoned managers, this has been a rollercoaster season for Aston Villa. 

Emery is proving why he has been the exception that proves the rule in terms of foreign managers getting a second bite of the Premier League cherry. Arsenal was a set of mitigating circumstances it is hard imagining any coach navigating at that point. But the fact remains he oversaw a slight improvement, even if it didn’t last. But what he was able to do before that spell and after, racking up trophies across multiple clubs, means he was an astute choice for the Villa board. Perhaps his success will lead to more foreign managers being allowed a second chance in the Premier League.

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