Premier League 2023-24 preview No 2: Aston Villa

Guardian writers’ predicted position: 7th (NB: this is not necessarily Ben Fisher’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)

Last season’s position: 7th

Prospects

The overriding sense inside Aston Villa is that if Unai Emery was capable of completely reshaping the club inside six months last season, leading them into Europe after quickly extinguishing relegation fears, then what might be feasible this campaign?

Emery’s body of work in Birmingham to date has been hugely impressive and since the end of the season the owners have rewarded him with greater autonomy, a chance to continue what has been a mini-revolution of sorts. Emery’s fingerprints are everywhere you look, with the highly respected Monchi arriving as president of football operations, in effect a technical director, while he has appointed scouts and promoted Damian Vidagany, a right-hand man last season, to the role of director of football operations.

Related: Premier League 2023-24 preview No 1: Arsenal

Villa have made such impressive strides in a short space of time it is difficult to know what the realistic ceiling might be on the back of a full pre-season under Emery. Going the distance in the Europa Conference League? Top six? Top four? They have strengthened the spine with the arrivals of Pau Torres, Youri Tielemans and Moussa Diaby, a versatile forward with searing pace who was Emery’s primary attacking target.

Villa look particularly well stocked in central defence and central midfield but do not have as much competition for Ollie Watkins up front. Cameron Archer, who continued his prolific Championship goalscoring record in the second half of last season on loan at Middlesbrough, could be given another chance to impress in the opening weeks. Jaden Philogene has shone after returning from a fruitful loan at Cardiff but the January arrival Jhon Durán missed Villa’s pre-season trip to the United States through injury.

That Villa were happy for Ashley Young – part of the team the last time Villa were in Europe and a player-of-the-year contender at the age of 37 last campaign – to leave for Everton, was a clear sign of their plans to evolve this season. These are exciting times.

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The manager

The lights in Unai Emery’s office are usually the last to go out at Bodymoor Heath. “He is like a professor, not just a coach,” the Villa defender Diego Carlos recently said. Last season Emery reminded the Premier League of his status as an elite coach, revitalising Villa inside six months. An obsessive who works in granular detail and watches games back up to five times, he maintains being seen as a pesado, Spanish slang for a pain in the arse, is a veiled compliment. At Almería, in his second job as a manager, there were stories of people falling asleep during lengthy analysis sessions but at Villa the players have their eyes fixed wide open.

Leading the shirt sales

The sight of Douglas Luiz posing for selfies with supporters during stoppages in Villa’s friendly at Walsall speaks to his popularity. Soon after the Brazil midfielder exhibited his pièce de résistance, attempting to score directly from a corner, a party trick that came off twice last season. Left Manchester City for Villa in a £15m move in 2019 and has since established himself as a pivotal part of Villa’s spine. Voted fans’ and players’ player of the season back in May, he has a poignant tattoo on his right arm that speaks to both his childhood in Rio de Janeiro and his journey since: “I am from the favela and I have made it.”

Fulham’s Sasa Lukic, right, tries to stop Aston Villa’s Douglas Luiz during a friendly in July

Douglas Luiz is the reigning fans’ and players’ player of the season at Villa. Photograph: John Raoux/AP

Folk hero

Jacob Ramsey, who joined Villa aged six, is the latest homegrown hero but it is hard to look past Emi Martínez the World Cup winner who turned up for his first day back at training this summer with a maté cup decorated with a sticker of himself sprawling to deny France’s Randal Kolo Muani a 123rd-minute winner in Qatar and, naturally, another of Homer Simpson. Plus a flask decorated with the words Anda para alla bobo, a nod to Lionel Messi’s heated exchange with Wout Weghorst. Martínez has been superb since signing from Arsenal in 2020 but his crass celebrations after the final against France, when he placed the Golden Glove award on his crotch, made unwanted headlines. “It’s something that I’m not proud of,” he said.

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One to watch

Emery invited Kadan Young to dip his toes into the first team last season and the 17-year-old has looked bright this pre-season, his blistering pace his primary weapon. The England Under-17 international was part of the Villa squad that travelled to the US this summer but first caught Emery’s eye during a training camp in Dubai last winter and subsequently featured on the bench in the league. At home playing as a winger in Emery’s favoured 4-3-3 system, Young is highly regarded and could be given the chance to make his debut. While one Young has left this summer, another is only just getting started in claret and blue.

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