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How Aston Villa’s John McGinn was reborn under mastermind Emery

Posted on November 30, 2023

Perhaps no player exemplifies the Unai Emery effect at Aston Villa better than (Super) John McGinn.

A year is a very, very long time in football, but it’s odd to think back to last autumn, to the final days of Steven Gerrard’s reign in B6, and recall that McGinn was in a rough place. That’s not to single him out - much of Villa’s squad looked worse for wear at this point - but for a player and a character as robust as McGinn to sag so visibly felt very strange indeed.

The last time it had happened had been due to injury, a fractured ankle that knocked him out for several months. That sort of dip is understandable, but there was no injury in late 2022; what happened to him (and others) under Gerrard bewildered just about everyone watching.

Fast-forward to today and the picture could not be more different. McGinn is fourth in the WhoScored? form rankings, measured over the past six games, with a score of 7.51, rubbing shoulders with some of the division’s very best.

In that span of games, he’s assisted against West Ham, scored against Luton Town and Fulham, and proved a right nuisance against Wolves and Tottenham Hotspur too.

Even more impressive is the sheer versatility to his game this season; he’s played just about everywhere, all the way across midfield, in a more attacking midfield role and even at left-back when required. Emery is no doubt immensely grateful to have a dependable player who he can stick just about anywhere and know he’ll perform.

Seemingly every week shows us a slightly different shade of him: There are times when he takes control of the central zones, recently overpowering Joao Palhinha in Villa’s win over Fulham (something few can manage); there are times he offers absolutely vital protection to his full-back and mucks in defensively to help track and tackle; and, of course, there are times when he takes matters into his own hands, strides forward and plants one into the back of the net.

Off the back of an international break in which he sustained a dead leg, Sunday’s bout with Tottenham proved a stern test for him. Uncharacteristically, he lost a few duels in the first half as Villa were out-fought. He regained his composure at half-time, though, found his typical bustling rhythm and played some exceptional cross-field passes to unleash waves of Villa counter-attacks.

In one capacity or another, McGinn always steps up to the plate. He played left-back because Lucas Digne needed a rest; he played spoiler at corners to prevent Craig Dawson dominating in the Wolves clash; and he scored a 95th-minute winner against Zrinjski Mostar to give Villa’s Europa Conference League campaign lift off.

He is by no means your archetypal captain figure - he’s seemingly more likely to come to work dressed as an inflatable banana than to rollock an under-performing teammate - but his consistency, versatility and workrate make him the sort of ‘lead by example’ figure others gravitate to.

No matter how Emery shifts and reshapes this Villa team, McGinn is always central to it.

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