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Unai Emery had his lineup ready. He stated, “There are seven teams vying for the top four spots: Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham, Newcastle, and Chelsea.” His Aston Villa team was not included. Emery smiled and said, “We are not in the running.”
This was a thought-provoking statement, considering that Villa currently holds the fourth position.
They are currently ranked second in the standings, trailing behind the top-ranked Arsenal by two points and only one point behind defending champions City. They are tied with Liverpool, who are also vying for the top spot. Despite this, they are ahead of the other four teams on Emery’s list. Recently, Villa achieved a significant victory against one of these teams, staging a comeback to defeat Tottenham and surpass Ange Postecoglou’s squad. With nine wins out of thirteen games, they are currently in fourth place, with a four-point lead over sixth-ranked Manchester United and a five-point lead over seventh-ranked Newcastle, who had scored five goals against them on the opening weekend at St James’ Park. Additionally, Chelsea stands in tenth place, separated from Villa by 12 points and also trailing behind Brighton and West Ham.
However, Emery wanted to refrain from declaring Villa’s victory as a statement and making his own statement. “Winning matches like this one against Tottenham can definitely boost our confidence,” he stated. “But I am still focused on maintaining consistency throughout the 38 matches.”
It is possible that Emery was not fully aware of the significance of the achievement he and Villa had just accomplished. However, it is also possible that he was aware. Regardless, their 2-1 victory on Sunday in north London marked the 38th time that Emery had led Villa in a Premier League match, equivalent to a full season. Emery’s record stands at 24 wins, five draws, and nine defeats, resulting in a total of 77 points. This puts Villa in third place, with only Manchester City and Arsenal having earned more points since Emery’s appointment last October. In theory, if the season had started then, Villa would have secured a spot in the Champions League this weekend.
After Emery took over, Villa’s performance improved significantly. In 2023, only Pep Guardiola’s team, who won three major titles, have won more Premier League games than Villa’s 22 victories. Since the beginning of the year, Villa has surpassed Manchester United and Newcastle, who were both in the top four last season. They have earned 11 more points than Eddie Howe’s team and scored 15 more goals than Erik ten Hag’s team. If Emery values consistency throughout a season, Villa has demonstrated their ability to maintain it over a 38-game period, averaging over two points per game.
Villa’s most recent triumph occurred away from home. Although their away record has not been as strong as their overall performance, with nine victories out of 19 games, their impressive results at home have balanced it out. In fact, Villa Park has seen 13 consecutive home wins in the Premier League, their longest streak since 1983. However, their 2-0 loss to Nottingham Forest was a rare exception, as they were outplayed and deservedly defeated. Emery’s strategy of playing a high defensive line has been their downfall in away games, as seen in their losses to Newcastle and Liverpool. The same was almost true in their match against Tottenham, but Villa was fortunate to escape with a win due to the host’s poor finishing.
It is not an approach that appears best suited to away fixtures, particularly against the big sides and those who Emery considers to be the real contenders for the top four. Yet it is a plan that Emery has refused to compromise on – one that has required Villa to be brave and bold, which in turn helps explain their position. While the win at Tottenham was eye-catching, Villa’s push has until this weekend been built by beating the sides in the bottom half of the table, where Emery’s team can be aggressive, play on the front foot and suffocate their opponents.
Although Sunday’s victory against Tottenham did not exemplify it, Villa has a knack for comfortably winning games. They have managed to score at least three goals in their last six Premier League matches at Villa Park. One of their strengths lies in Ollie Watkins, who stands out from Manchester United and Chelsea due to his ability to score 20 or more goals in a season. Interestingly, Watkins’ winning goal against Tottenham marked his 20th Premier League goal under Emery’s management.
There are signs that Villa can sustain the pace for another 38 games. Certainly, with Tottenham unable to field their starting midfield three or their first-choice centre-back partnership, and Newcastle hit by a similarly severe injury crisis, Villa’s squad also currently looks to be stronger than some of those who have been more vocal in declaring their top-four ambitions.
Currently, Villa is experiencing a successful period in their recent history. This is unexpected because when Steven Gerrard was fired and Emery was hired 13 months ago, the club was barely avoiding relegation based on goal difference. However, after 38 games, it can be argued that Villa has been the third-best team in the country since Emery joined. Even with upcoming matches against Manchester City and Arsenal at Villa Park next week, it seems like a tougher challenge for Guardiola and Mikel Arteta compared to Emery’s team, who is currently in top form. If they continue to perform well, Emery will no longer be able to downplay Villa’s success.