Aston Villa return to the European stage after more than a decade away… with Unai Emery in charge and the club thriving with a data-driven approach, nights under the lights look set to become the norm for years to come

Aston Villa return to serious European action for the first time in more than a decade on Thursday but the club’s work behind the scenes should ensure these nights are regular events in the years ahead.

It is easy to look at Villa’s trajectory in the last 10 months and attribute it to one decision: the appointment of Unai Emery to replace Steven Gerrard last autumn. 

When Emery arrived, Villa were worrying about relegation. Now after disposing of Hibernian in the qualifiers, they face Legia Warsaw here in the first group match of the Europa Conference League. The latest stage of Villa’s push for the summit.

Emery’s work has been outstanding yet without smart moves in the background, his job would be considerably more difficult. 

Had Emery taken charge after Villa were promoted in 2019, for example, he would have found a giant club with few solid foundations.

Aston Villa return to serious European action for the first time in more than a decade tonight

Unai Emery’s (right) work has been outstanding but work behind the scenes has helped

Unai Emery’s (right) work has been outstanding but work behind the scenes has helped

Now they have broad-based, data-driven scouting system covering more than 40 leagues in detail, with algorithms tailored to flag targets early. 

There is a thriving academy and a loan policy that helped them recoup £35million in player sales this summer. Plans are in place to increase the capacity of Villa Park to 50,000.

There are many examples of why Villa now work so well but three will suffice. First, the signing of Colombian forward Jhon Duran from US club Chicago Fire for a fee worth up to £17m in January 2023.

The 19-year-old’s spectacular volley in the 3-1 win over Crystal Palace on September 16 was one of the goals of the season so far – and his third in just six appearances this term. 

While Premier League followers knew little about Duran, he had been on Villa’s radar since he was with Colombian club Envigado, where he made his debut aged 15.

They first scouted him live in March 2022 and, convinced he had the attributes to shine in the Premier League, made their move later that year. 

Villa’s team – led by current global director of football development Johan Lange – held meetings with Duran and his father to explain the player’s role.

Though there was interest from several clubs including AC Milan, Benfica and Red Bull Salzburg, Duran dreamed of playing in England and was particularly attracted by the chance to work for Emery – a Spanish speaker like Duran. Emery liked what he had seen on film and held discussions with Duran online before the deal was agreed.

Villa's data-driven scouting system helped them uncover Colombian striker Jhon Duran (right)

Villa’s data-driven scouting system helped them uncover Colombian striker Jhon Duran (right)

Duran’s progress made it easier for Villa to sell homegrown striker Cameron Archer this summer. Though he never started a Premier League game for Villa, the 21-year-old’s performances on loan at Preston and Middlesbrough had turned him into a player worth £19m.

Devised and overseen by Lange, Villa’s loan players are managed by Adam Henshall and former Villa midfielder Mile Jedinak. Data is used to identify ideal clubs: when considering Archer’s future, Villa analysts determined that Middlesbrough were creating plenty of big chances but struggling to convert them. 

They concluded this would be his ideal destination. Enter Archer, who hit 11 in 20 league matches and earned his move to Sheffield United in August.

Through Archer’s move, as well as Aaron Ramsey’s switch to Burnley and Jaden Philogene’s departure to Hull, Villa have made £35m – and as all three are home-grown, that counts as pure profit on the FFP balance sheet. Villa also inserted buy-back clauses into the deals, in each case worth about double the original transfer fee.

While the priority is to produce players for the Villa first team, turning a profit on them is the next best thing. The beauty of Villa’s loan arrangements is that it provides more financial freedom elsewhere – like spending £45m to buy Moussa Diaby from Bayer Leverkusen. 

Villa wanted Diaby two years ago after Jack Grealish left but Leverkusen were reluctant to sell. Now with only two years remaining on the Frenchman’s contract, Villa were able to do the deal – and leading clubs’ obsession with signing ever-younger players meant they had a relatively clear run at the 24-year-old, who already has two goals and two assists.

Aston Villa face Legia Warsaw (pictured) in the Europa Conference League on Thursday

Aston Villa face Legia Warsaw (pictured) in the Europa Conference League on Thursday

An expert manager like Emery is the icing on the cake yet Villa must have a clear plan if ever their serial winner leaves the club. 

Co-owner Nassef Sawiris gave Emery the keys to the kingdom and as well as bringing his own staff, the Basque has allies in key roles, like renowned transfer chief Monchi and director of football operations Damia Vidagany.

Yet what happens if Emery ever leaves? The top coaches always have admirers and if Emery were ever to leave Villa Park, the first-team set-up would likely have a number of gaps that would need to be filled.

Thanks to the efforts of the last three years, Villa at least have the structure to support a change like that. The return to European competition proper is the latest example of a club who keep getting things right.

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Source From: Football | Mail Online

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