When Dean Smith seemed to hit a wall at his beloved Aston Villa after all the success he tasted, eyebrows were raised when England Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard walked through the door for what would be his toughest managerial test.
Success with Rangers is one thing, the Premier League is a different beast, and after a good start the hubcaps quickly fell off, and upon his replacement, 52 year old Unai Emery took charge in late October and took them from 16th place and struggling into European football for the first time in well over a decade. In fact, having taken on the side one point from the relegation places, he took 15 wins from the remaining 25 PL games – 49 points from a possible 75.
That turnaround was not an aberration and although it has been quiet and the Midlands’ club have tried to not draw attention to themselves, as I write they are challenging the Champions League places – no, in fact, they could potentially be challenging their first league title since the 1980/81 campaign.
The media are only now paying attention.
Fresh from victory over off the boil Manchester City, this weekend they took a good victory over Mikel Arteta’s side and propelled themselves into third place, and they are only two points off Jurgen Klopp’s side, Liverpool, who occupy top spot.
The change in fortunes is obvious to everyone in the wider world of football and whilst the encounter against Arsenal was tight and more of a proper battle, the stats they recorded against Pep Guardiola’s side were phenomenal. City conceded the most efforts on target since their gaffer took charge, mustering a paltry two efforts themselves when they finally stopped defending.
It is Villa’s 15th straight win when hosting sides at Villa Park. A new record. It is one of many records that Emery has managed to add to his CV since taking up life at B6, and a second stab at the English top flight.
For the historians amongst us, Villa have to go back to 1980/81 to see them take more points from their opening 16 matches – whilst the Sky big six flummox and fluster this year, it is no surprise at all to wonder a large portion of Birmingham are beginning to relish what may lie in store as we enter the second half of the season and 2024.
Not least, as they are the only remaining PL side to have not dropped a point after taking the advantage and a winning position. Emery has restored a backbone and belief that probably did not exist since their incredible promotion run from the Championship under Smith, or his Covid tweaks that secured their PL survival.
Not bad for a side who were relegation candidates last season.