Project Emery: comparing Aston Villa's performance before and after Steven Gerrard's sacking

2R2CY0P File photo dated 13-11-2022 of Aston Villa manager Unai Emery who said he has plenty more to offer as Aston Villa boss after being nominated for the Premier League manager of the season award. Issue date: Friday May 19, 2023..

It has been a little over seven months since Aston Villa fans were chanting ‘We want Gerrard out’ on a dismal mid-week away trip to Craven Cottage, but with one game remaining in the season they sit on the verge of qualifying for European competition for the first time in 12 years.

Fulham’s 3-0 victory back in October did grant Villa fans their wish and within a week Unai Emery had been appointed as Steven Gerrard’s successor, and tasked with dragging the club away from the threat of the relegation zone.

Villa now hold seventh place in the Premier League, the position which grants the holder entry to the Europa Conference League qualifiers, and lead a three-way race that includes Tottenham and Brentford for that final spot.

Emery, a four-time winner of the Europa League as a coach with Sevilla and Villarreal, could be the man to take Villa to Europe almost a decade on from Rapid Wien knocking them out of the Europa League qualifiers to deny them progress to the group stages.

Cycling between 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1, Emery has overseen a turnaround in the squad’s results and holds a 60% win rate in the Premier League. All without performing major surgery to the squad in the January transfer window, making the additions of full-back Alex Moreno from Real Betis and striker Jhon Duran from Chicago Fire.

Using PFF grades and data, we will explore how performance has changed under Emery compared to Gerrard’s 12-game tenure to start the season by looking at the influential figures of Emi Martínez, Ollie Watkins, and the midfield duo of Douglas Luiz and Boubacar Kamara.

Aston Villa goalkeeper Emi Martinez
2PMX19P Birmingham, UK. 15th Apr, 2023. Emiliano Martinez of Aston Villa saves from Callum Wilson of Newcastle United during the Premier League match at Villa Park, Birmingham. Darren Staples/Sportimage Credit: Sportimage/Alamy Live News

Emi Martínez

PFF shot-stopping grade: 98.8 (position rank: 1/38)

A World Cup-winner and a holder of the astronomically high shot-stopping grade of 98.8 for his performances in the Villa goal, Emi Martínez has come a long way since his days of being ferried out by Arsenal on loan moves to Oxford United and Rotherham.

Across the Premier League, Bundesliga and Ligue 1, only two goalkeepers have generated grades of 90.0 or higher this season. Borussia Dortmund’s Gregor Kobel (90.0) and Strasbourg’s Matz Sels (90.1) have reached that milestone but still remain some way off the level of Martínez’s 98.8.

Below are the shot-stopping grades for Martínez in Gerrard’s final six games in charge followed by the first six under Emery.

Grades under Gerrard (last six) Weekly position rank Grades under Emery (first six) Weekly position rank
68.8 10/19 61.3 14/21
58.1 16/20 72.2 4/20
60.1 12/20 61.5 12/19
70.5 6/19 68.8 8/19
54.9 12/19 85.7 2/18
74.5 3/19 74.7 5/20

Improvement in the quality of Martínez’s shot-stopping has been timed with the season’s run-in, ranking in the top three in three of his last six appearances with grades of 81.6, 81.2 and 80.4.

The break for the World Cup in Qatar afforded Emery time to develop his blueprint with the squad and that focussed on cleaning up errors in defence. Under Gerrard, Villa recorded two clean sheets in 12 games whereas in their last 12 under Emery they have seven.

In Tyrone Mings (85.0) and Ezri Konsa (81.1), Villa possess two central defenders who have graded in the top-20 in our challenge model.

Ollie Watkins

PFF shooting grade: 87.6 (position rank: 6/124)

Last month we detailed the skills of Ollie Watkins that had led to a goalscoring streak of 11 in 12 league games as the focal point of Villa’s surge up the table. His two goals in the comprehensive 3-0 victory over Newcastle United in April took the club to within six points of fourth place.

Watkins has seemed to revel in being the main man for Villa following the sale of Danny Ings to West Ham in January. Prior to the deadline day move which saw Ings depart in a £15m transfer, Watkins had scored just four league goals in 20 appearances — a time in which he generated one shooting grade over the 80.0 mark when Gerrard was in charge.

However, his hot-streak saw Watkins become the first player for Villa to score in five consecutive Premier League games as he took his tally for the to 14. But that hot-streak has turned cold of late.

A drop in volume has coincided with a fall in Watkins’ shot quality. Recently, he has failed to score since that game against Newcastle which was arguably Villa’s most complete team performance of the season.

Below details how Watkins graded in the six games that preceded the Newcastle game and his last six appearances that have left him waiting to snap a 580-minute goal drought.

PFF shooting grade in streak (Match-day 26-31 Weekly position rank PFF shooting grade in drought (32-37) Weekly position rank
49.4 21/24 55.6 17/20
80.8 5/20 59.7 15/23
77.9 6/22 58.4 15/19
73.8 9/21 57.1 19/21
67.5 15/25 62.3 15/22
89.4 2/27 43.1 24/24

Douglas Luiz and Boubacar Kamara: a midfield partnership made for Europe

If we were to consider the best free signing made this season across Europe’s top-five leagues, Boubacar Kamara’s performances for Villa this season would leave him firmly in the running.

In striking up a partnership with Douglas Luiz, Kamara has quickly endeared himself to Villa fans despite missing portions of the season with knee and ankle injuries.

Consistency as a passer, challenger and carrying has seen Kamara fill Villa’s need for a No.6, whilst also being able to offer cover at centre-back as he did for Marseille at times last season alongside William Saliba.

Name PFF passing grade (position rank) PFF carrying grade PFF challenge grade
Douglas Luiz 77.7 (24/163) 71.9 (38/139) 70.1 (26/165)
Boubacar Kamara 70.8 (58/163) 80.7 (13/139) 74.7 (13/165)

Last weekend against Liverpool, Kamara played the full 90 minutes for the first time since the end of February as Emery was able to start Kamara and Luiz together for the first time since February.

At the age of 23, Kamara has already experienced European Cup competition as part of the Marseille squad that reached the Europa Conference League semi-finals last season when they were beaten by Feyenoord in a classic two-legged tie.

As far Douglas Luiz, the January window saw him linked with Arsenal and Liverpool before he committed to Villa by signing a four-year extension.

With Kamara a year into his five-year deal, Villa’s midfield appears to be in safe hands while the same can be said of their head coach, Unai Emery.

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