Unai Emery faces old club Arsenal having turned Aston Villa into unlikely title contenders

Spaniard celebrated his 50th match in charge by beating champions Manchester City

Aston Villa manager Unai Emery, right, will take on Mikel Arteta and old club Arsenal this weekend. Reuters
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Quite a way to bring up the half century. Unai Emery’s 50th match in charge of Aston Villa, the club where he arrived as manager less than 14 months ago when they were 17th in the Premier League, ranks as his finest in terms of the prestige of the opponents.

Manchester City, defeated 1-0, may not be in the best of form by their standards, but of all City’s recent setbacks – four matches without a win – Wednesday’s left them with fewest alibis.

The English and European champions have been leapfrogged in the table by a dynamic Villa, whose manager was praised by Pep Guardiola, his City counterpart, listing the qualities of the league’s sharpest risers.

“The organisation from Unai Emery, their physicality, their tempo, their speed, the bench, their high pressing, incredible defenders in the back four, the goalkeeper. That’s the reasons they are up there. We have to accept when a team is better than us.”

All this, said Guardiola, makes Villa contenders for a title City have claimed five times in the last six years.

Emery will park that idea, at least for a day or two, in the full knowledge that if his 51st match as Villa’s great transformer earns a fourth win in five, the question about an unlikely tilt at winning the Premier League will be asked even louder.

Arsenal, the league’s leaders are at Villa Park on Saturday, and that’s a resonant fixture for Emery. If overcoming Guardiola – in 14 meetings Emery had never previously won that managerial duel – was a feather in his cap, victory over his ex-employer would mean even more.

Just over four years ago, Arsenal sacked Emery, his 18-month stay terminated after a run of seven games without a win. The process began to appoint Mikel Arteta, then Guardiola’s assistant, as his successor.

Emery felt the dismissal had been brutal, but still had the courtesy to speak to Arteta, who comes from the same part of Spain’s Basque Country as he does, about the job the younger man was coming into, offering guidance and advice.

Some of it, certainly the parts about Arsenal’s potential, was wise. Since the beginning of last season, Arteta’s Arsenal have led the Premier League table for longer than any other club, reeled in by City only in the last month of 2022-23.

But there were some uncertain times in the first two years of Arteta’s tenure. In terms of rapid impact, Arteta can only look at Emery at Villa with envy. Arteta’s 148 Premier League matches in charge of Arsenal have yielded an average of 1.91 points. Emery’s 40 league games since replacing Steven Gerrard at Villa trump that: 2.03 points.

There have been seasons in which that sort of form would have been enough to win the league, but not so much in recent memory. When Arteta told his players that to still be top of the table in May the target must be set at a minimum of 96 points, he was pitching high, but within the kind of ball park that City have normalised during their period of supremacy.

Yet this season has an unusual feel, hinting at the possibility an outsider could disrupt the traditional hierarchy. In the last two weeks, the Premier League has turned wild: Not only that City are on their leanest sequence since Guardiola began to shape them into the most well-ordered team in Europe, but that everyone in the upper reaches of the table is liable to sudden ambush.

Arsenal only escaped dropping points at lowly Luton Town on Tuesday thanks to a stoppage time winner from Declan Rice, the seventh goal of the evening. Second-placed Liverpool had two days earlier scraped a 4-3 win having trailed Fulham at Anfield until the 87th minute.

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Villa are not immune to these sorts of slip-up. Last weekend, they twice had to come from behind to take a point from Bournemouth – 15th in the table but rising – and last month lost at Nottingham Forest – 16th and falling – but what emboldens them is a terrific confidence at home.

It is explicit in the high line they dare to operate across a defence arranged well ahead of the ebulliently daring Emi Martinez in goal, in the proactive drive of John McGinn in midfield and, against City, in the focus of Leon Bailey, whose deflected shot gave Villa their three points.

It is heard in the roar of an atmospheric arena where five years ago supporters were watching a third successive season of Championship football. It is spelled out in the impeccable 21 points Villa have taken from their home games so far. Arsenal may have the best away record in the Premier League this season, but they are heading to the hardest place there is to maintain it.

Lose there and Arteta will see Emery looming right up behind him, the gap between Villa and Arsenal closed to a single point.

Title contenders? “There are seven teams who are better contenders than us,” insists Emery. Fact is, he is now looking down the table at five of them.

Updated: December 08, 2023, 4:10 AM