You’d forgive fans of Aston Villa and Everton for counting the days until the end of the season. Supporters of the two sides could probably use a breather after seasons of turbulence. They meet on Saturday in a match that probably means more to the Toffees than the Villans.
Everton still have a relegation battle to fight while Villa are in mid-table not bothering anyone above or below them particularly. Neither is a position the clubs aspire to be in, even though the Merseyside club would probably take the safety blanket of 11th place right now.
These have always been clubs with loftier aims though. They have sixteen top flight titles between them, with Villa having netted a European Cup and Everton a Cup Winners’ Cup. But the days of racking up silverware are behind both, at least for now. However, both clubs are hoping for a new dawn next year after difficult seasons.
These are not baseless hopes. Villa and Everton have both undergone managerial changes this season that point to positive futures. At the start of the campaign, the inextricably linked Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard were in charge. However, their seasons went as well as their England midfield partnership.
Gerrard was the first to be ditched. The Liverpool legend was dismissed after losing six of Villa’s first eleven games of the season. Gerrard had only been in the role for eleven months, but had failed to fulfil the promise he showed when steering Rangers to their first Scottish Premiership title in a decade.
The club pivoted from youth to experience, replacing the relatively inexperienced Gerrard with Unai Emery. The former Arsenal, Paris-Saint Germain and Sevilla boss has won four Europa League titles in a decorated career. It was a clear show of strength from the Villa board to bring in a coach with experience and a proven winning mentality.
While it has not been plain sailing, the improvements are there for all to see. Villa aren’t thrilling anyone this season but they’re also not in danger. The most intriguing part of the Emery exercise is not what he offers this season, where midtable anonymity is the ceiling, but next year. With a summer to work with his players, and to introduce new signings, Emery could get Villa into Europe. And we’ve all seen what happens when Emery takes a team in continental competition…
Lampard suffered from a lack of improvement after a first half-season in the job that could be seen as a success. The Chelsea icon was airlifted into Goodison Park to save a team Rafa Benitez had sent spiralling towards relegation. Lampard managed it in heroic fashion and earned trust from the Toffees faithful as a result.
That trust was predicated on the idea that Lampard would ensure Everton would not end up down the bottom again. But they did and while there was some sympathy for Lampard’s plight due to dissatisfaction with the ownership, he had to go. 19th place and just 3 wins from 20 games during the 2022/23 season was unacceptable.
While Villa opted for European glamour, Everton went for pure English grit. A relegation battle is a unique beast and in Sean Dyche they found a man able to tame it. No club chooses defensive football but sometimes defensive football chooses a club. Dyche’s methods paid instant dividends, with Everton stunning league leaders Arsenal 1-0. After losing the Merseyside derby to Liverpool, a victory over Leeds United in a crunch relegation clash has lifted Everton up to 16th.
As with Villa, it is next season that is truly exciting. Dyche’s achievements at Burnley with very little money to spend are remarkable. While there is no guarantee Everton’s controversial owners will splash the cash, if they do then the Toffees could join Villa in a potential battle for Europe. Dyche managed to steer Burnley to a 7th placed finish and a spot in the Europa League. Imagine what he can do at what, with no disrespect is intended, is a far bigger club?
So while these two sides will hardly be twiddling their thumbs as they face off on Saturday, they can be forgiven for eyeing a brighter future. After each flirting with the next generation of young English coaches, they have now opted for experience. Emery and Dyche are very different managers but each brings the sort of pedigree that clubs the size of Villa and Everton deserve. That could be bad news for the rest of the Premier League. Next season, we’ll find out exactly how bad.
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