Three wins from four Premier League games since the turn of the year reflects the impact of Unai Emery at Aston Villa but the club’s improved form has also been aided by the return to full fitness of Boubacar Kamara. He is one of the signings of the season.
A free transfer arrival from Marseille in the summer, the 23-year-old midfielder has already become a popular figure at Villa Park thanks to his determined defensive work in the centre of the pitch and his astute use of the ball. He brings quality and control.
Speaking to Emery at the club’s training ground, the always animated head coach is particularly enthusiastic when the name of Kamara comes up. It is apparent that the France international is going to be central to his plans for the future of the club.
“He has big potential,” Emery tells Sky Sports.
“Very big potential. He is playing well and is so focused on improving his game, improving his capacity with and without the ball. He has been developing, in France and here. Now it is my responsibility to develop him even more than he has done so far.”
Emery is a renowned student of the game whose knowledge has been described as encyclopedic but he admits that he had to do some additional work to find out more about Kamara’s game. “I had to increase my information about him,” he explains.
“I have information from different people who have worked with him before when he was at Marseille. I spoke with [former Marseille sporting director] Andoni Zubizarreta. I read [former coach] Jorge Sampaoli speaking about him. Now we know him here as well.”
Emery did his own research but behind the scenes at Villa, that work had long been done. Inside the club, the signing is regarded as an example of how a successful and aligned recruitment process goes. Good planning allowed them to get the jump on other clubs.
Atletico Madrid were interested but Villa had the deal agreed by May. The previous month, then head coach Steven Gerrard, sporting director Johan Lange and chief executive Christian Purslow had flown out to watch him together in Marseille’s win over Nantes.
The process began as long ago as the summer of 2021 when Dean Smith was still in charge. Villa had just finished 11th in the Premier League but there was a feeling that the absence of an elite-level holding midfield within the squad was a potential issue.
When Gerrard arrived later that year, he soon reached the same conclusion about the squad and the position was marked as a priority. Rodrigo Bentancur is believed to have been considered only for the Uruguayan to sign for Tottenham in January 2022.
The shortlist had also included Kalvin Phillips at one stage but it was Kamara who quickly became the preferred option. Villa were swayed by the fact that he was younger than the alternatives – and cheaper too with his contract expiring.
Head of recruitment Rob Mackenzie and his team had identified Kamara’s stand-out profile within the European market, ensuring that they were regular attendees at the Stade Velodrome in the months prior to recommending him.
Lange was convinced and brought him to the attention of Gerrard, who also became active in the pursuit. Additional factors included the number of games clocked up by a then 22-year-old player, 162 of them for Marseille. He even had a leadership role in the group.
But what is really unusual about Kamara is his blend of traits.
His ball-winning abilities put him in a bracket with a certain type of midfielder – the tough tacklers and the interceptors, those able to break up play for their team. Precisely the sort of qualities that Villa knew that they needed to add to their squad.
But the case for Kamara was bolstered by the fact that he has more to his game than that. Analysis of his ball-retention statistics showed that there were also similarities with a very different type of midfielder, those who could not match his combative qualities.
At Marseille last season, he ranked among the top players in France for 50-50 duels won and possessions won in the middle third, but he was also up there for passes completed in the opposition half and even through-balls. Nobody was better than him at both.
Now Villa supporters are seeing that too.
There was a moment in first-half stoppage-time of Villa’s most recent home game against Leeds when the crowd yelled to warn Kamara about the opponent hurtling towards him on his blind side as he prepared to collect the ball on the edge of his own penalty box.
They need not have worried.
With a drop of the shoulder, he glided away.
That ability to take the ball in tight areas and play through the thirds makes Kamara unusually complete and means he is comfortable in a two-man midfield. Indeed, his presence has allowed Douglas Luiz greater freedom and he is benefiting as a result.
For Emery, their all-round talent gives him tactical flexibility. “We have two very good midfielders. They are players who can play at different heights. So we can maintain these two midfielders in the centre but we can maybe defend higher or deeper.”
Villa have been beaten only twice in the Premier League when the two men have started together – and one of those was lost after the partnership was broken up by a late substitution. The run of results that saw Gerrard sacked came with Kamara injured.
The player has returned from that knee problem even stronger, using the time out to add even more physicality to his game, readying himself for the challenge of the Premier League. It has allowed him to take another step forward in his game under Emery.
He has been pivotal of late, perhaps the outstanding player on the pitch against Leeds. There was defensive work to do in that game but Kamara also provided the assist for Leon Bailey’s opening goal with a driving run as Villa capitalised on the counter-attack.
Against Southampton, it was his forward pass that helped to set up the double chance for Bailey and Jacob Ramsey in the first half. He also won the free-kick from which Douglas Luiz crossed for Ollie Watkins to win the game late on. Another impressive performance.
And Kamara is just getting started. It is telling that scouts from rival clubs are already following his progress closely but Aston Villa have no need to sell. The hope is that Emery can now build around the brilliant Boubacar Kamara, one of the signings of the season.