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As this series comes to a close, there are still two uncovered teams in Europe that have defied the odds throughout the season, making a name for themselves on the biggest stage. These underdogs are none other than England’s Aston Villa and Italy’s Bologna, who have both offered their fans a season to remember.

While Aston Villa gradually climbed the ranks of the Premier League to assert themselves as a tough side to beat, Bologna surprised everyone by fighting in a very competitive Serie A this season.

A fortunate mistake

Aston Villa was promoted back to the Premier League in 2019 and struggled during their first season. Ultimately, they managed to avoid relegation, after much controversy.

During the 2019/2020 season, football was paused across Europe due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Before the pause, Villa was in a tough position. When the league resumed, they played the first Premier League match against a strong Sheffield United side. A loss at that time would have made it tough to stay in the Premier League.

Aston Villa snatched a goalless draw, sharing the points with their opponents. However, Sheffield scored an obvious goal that was saved by Villa’s goalkeeper after it had completely crossed the line. The goal was ultimately not awarded.

This mistake was due to an error in the goal line technology. This system is composed of 7 cameras above the pitch that decide if the ball completely crossed the line, immediately alerting the referee if a goal should be awarded. At that time, the cameras could not view the ball, as it was hidden by either a post or a player.

This mistake would prove to be decisive for Aston Villa, as they went on to stay in the Premier League, by only one point ahead of Bournemouth. From this moment onwards, the Birmingham side would become better and better each year.

Coach, leader, mentor

After the sacking of Dean Smith, Rangers coach Steven Gerrard was appointed as Villa manager. His stay would prove rather unsuccessful, and the team would go on to hire ex-Arsenal manager Unai Emery in October of 2022.

This time, the Spaniard brought some changes to Villa Park. Having previously won the Europa League four times with Sevilla and Villareal, Emery proved to be an excellent fit for Aston Villa, thanks to his recruitment and tactics. In the 2022/2023 season, Emery would guide Villa to an impressive 7th place finish.

A part of Aston Villa’s success can be attributed to their transfer windows, as they benefited from the sale of Jack Grealish to Man City for £100 million, among many other players. On the other hand, the English club bolstered their squad with the arrival of Jhon Duran, Moussa Diaby, Youri Tielemans and Pau Torres.

It was also reported that Emery advised each player on what to do, taking his time to help them improve. For example, Aston Villa’s now best player, Ollie Watkins, only scored 2 goals in his first season. This season, he scored 19 goals in the league, while also being named the top playmaker with 13 assists. The team’s play style was also very clear throughout this season, as they would usually sit behind and bait their opponents, in order to transition on the counter attack, using their pacy wingers.

Even though Aston Villa began their season with a 5-1 loss to Newcastle, Sir Alex Ferguson expressed surprise at the team’s performance, declaring Villa this year’s dark horse. The team eventually ended their season with a fourth place finish, securing a Champions League spot.

Redefining possession

Bologna’s rise to the top of Italian football is a story to be forever remembered. While Aston Villa’s rise to success was brought by great recruitment and a bit of luck, the Italian side worked their way through with some revolutionary tactics and approaches.

Bologna’s revolution is without a doubt crafted by the great tactical mind of former Paris Saint-Germain player Thiago Motta. For the past two years, Motta has been quietly building a team in Bologna, all while developing a special system to make this squad efficient on the pitch.

Indeed, as there were no notable changes in Bologna’s administration, the team’s success was due to their performance on the pitch. The coach organized a different kind of movement on field, which can appear confusing at first sight, especially for opposing teams.

Similarly to Leverkusen, Bologna’s fascinating style of play seems to change depending on the phase of the game. While in possession, Motta adopts a 2-7-2 form, with the goalkeeper playing as a defender. The original center-back would go further in midfield, similarly to Girona. In this context, the team would build up from the back using that extra man, as if the opposing team were missing someone in midfield.

Thiago Motta’s Bologna relies on a unique role-based movement. The players, when in sync, recognize the different runs of their teammates, regardless of their initial position. This unorthodox style resembles the one we see in futsal, where players can pivot around, covering for the player making a run.

Although stats suggest that Bologna could be even more effective on the offensive end, their rise has been nothing short of spectacular: this year, the team achieved a third-place finish in Serie A. Thiago Motta’s tactics will inevitably be studied for years to come, which underlines the impressive vision he has.

With this in mind, Europe has seen an extremely entertaining season, with small teams defying the odds and competing against the best. As we can clearly see, each squad has behind them a mastermind that made their respective team achieve these results: Xabi Alonso, Míchel, Unai Emery and Thiago Motta.

This year, Leverkusen, Girona, Aston Villa and Bologna all secured a top 4 finish, meaning they qualified for next year’s Champions League. However, these clubs remain at risk, as the big teams could be looking to buy their managers or players, thus threatening their rise to success.