Nobody seriously thought Aston Villa could win the Premier League at the start of 2023-24, but after their latest impressive win over reigning champions and favourites Manchester City, they must be considered as contenders.
Forgive this for being a mathematically inconsistent statement, but it’s become increasingly unlikely that league titles are won against all the odds. Fairytale cup wins are more common but sustaining title-winning form over a period of 34+ games is an improbable task for teams that aren’t considered among the elite.
Of course, we all witnessed the astonishing Premier League triumph by Leicester City in 2015-16, while Blackburn Rovers were far from favourites for the 1994-95 Premier League crown but sealed the title on the final day ahead of the dominant 90s Manchester United machine.
Across the other big five European leagues, we’ve seen other shocks such as Montpellier’s first Ligue 1 title in 2012, Deportivo La Coruña’s one and only La Liga crown in 2000 and Kaiserslautern’s Bundesliga victory in 1997-98.
Unai Emery’s Aston Villa winning the 2023-24 Premier League title would rank below the shock level of Leicester’s win in 2016, of course, but it would still be up there with the greatest of all time. We’re an incredibly long way from that becoming reality, but their 1-0 victory over Manchester City on Wednesday night has fans dreaming.
The Opta supercomputer isn’t hot on their potential success right now, with Villa winning the title in just 2.2% of current simulations, but there is no doubt that the AI-powered projections are being affected by previous history in the competition compared to their rivals consistently challenging for the top four.
If they beat current league-leaders Arsenal on Saturday, Villa will be within a point of Emery’s former side and potentially a point off the top of the table should Liverpool fail to defeat Crystal Palace in the matchday’s opening game earlier that day.
Any side a point off the top of the league almost halfway through the season arguably must be considered as genuine title contenders, especially following back-to-back wins against the previous season’s top two teams.
But this isn’t just a story of a side’s success over 15 games of this season. Emery’s arrival at the club at the start of November was a shrewd managerial appointment for Villa. Half a year earlier, he’d led Villarreal to the UEFA Champions League semi-finals against all expectation. The season before, he’d won the UEFA Europa League for the fourth time thanks to a penalty shootout win in the final versus Manchester United in May 2021.
It was a significant upgrade on previous boss Steven Gerrard in terms of experience, but in the eyes of many, also quality. That’s proved to be the case since his first game in charge on 6 November 2022 – another win over Man Utd – which has seen Villa accumulate 81 points in 40 matches. That points tally is the fourth most in the Premier League across that timeframe and not far off the leading three teams – Manchester City (90), Arsenal (89) and Liverpool (85) – from one game fewer. It’s also two more than Man Utd’s 79 from 41 games.
That’s a lot closer to the top teams than he managed to get across his opening 40 Premier League games at Arsenal following his appointment on the eve of the 2018-19 campaign. Back then, his Gunners side won 76 points from his first 40 matches as coach – well off the dominant pairing of Liverpool (103) and Man City (102).
Emery’s first season at Arsenal began well but tailed off and eventually led to failure to qualify for the Champions League with a fifth-place finish – 28 points off champions Man City. Ironically, it was the Europa League that was Emery’s undoing that season, with Arsenal’s league form suffering due to the Spanish manager’s will to go full pelt for the UEL trophy. While they were successful in reaching the showpiece occasion in Baku that season, the final was anything but a success with a damning 4-1 defeat to Chelsea.
Emery never recovered, with poor recruitment processes at the club not helping him, but a disengaged squad eventually downing tools and forcing the Arsenal board to remove Emery as boss just 13 league games into the 2019-20 season with just four wins and 18 points, placing them eighth and already 19 points off the top of the league.
Now, 40 league games into his spell at Aston Villa, he’s had no such issues getting his tactical methods across to his side, but early form would have raised some fears. After his opening-game victory over Man Utd, Emery’s Villa lost six of their next 11 competitive games, including an EFL Cup exit to the Red Devils and an embarrassing home defeat in the FA Cup to fourth-tier Stevenage. Villa opened up February with three successive Premier League defeats in which they conceded 10 goals to Leicester, Man City and Arsenal, leaving them eight points above the relegation zone with 15 games of 2022-23 remaining.
Then things clicked. That late 4-2 defeat to Arsenal on 18 February is the last time Villa lost at home in the Premier League. This weekend’s meeting with the Gunners gives Villa the chance to set a new all-time club record of 15 successive home league wins, surpassing 14-win runs in both 1903 and 1931. Across all competitions in that time they have won 18 of their 19 matches at Villa Park, losing only to Everton in an EFL Cup game.
Their latest home win – that 1-0 victory over Man City on Wednesday night – was arguably the best of the lot. Keeping the reigning Premier League and Champions League champions to just two shots all game, with none of those coming following the 11th minute, was an astonishing feat. It was the fewest ever by a Pep Guardiola team in a game within Europe’s big-five leagues, while the 22 shots from Aston Villa was the joint-most faced by a Guardiola side in the same period (in his 535th such game). That 20-shot differential was also the most in favour of an opponent against a Guardiola-led side across his 535-game top-flight league managerial career.
Emery out-thought the master and his Villa side outfought Man City. Never had a team won possession from a Guardiola-led Man City side in the Premier League as often as Villa did on Wednesday night (13). Not always known for their absolute numbers in pressing high up the pitch, Emery gave his Villa a tactical brief to stifle the best club team in the world in possession, and his charges executed it to a tee.
It’s not uncommon to see Villa time their final-third press to perfection across Emery’s reign – only three teams have seen a higher proportion of their high turnovers lead to shots at goal than Villa since the Spaniard’s first game in charge (17.5%) – but they don’t turnover the ball in the final third (7.3 per game) nearly as often as Arsenal (10.3), Liverpool (9.7), Man Utd (9.5), Chelsea (9.3) or Man City (9.1).
The standout figure for Villa across Emery’s spell at the club is their tally of offsides provoked in the Premier League, however.
Their defensive high-line has caught opposition players offside 173 times across Emery’s reign – that’s 78 more occasions than any other team. Sometimes, it’s looked like a kamikaze tactic, like in the 5-1 opening weekend defeat at Newcastle or the 3-0 loss to Liverpool at Anfield in September. But often, opponents have struggled to figure out a way to frequently breach their offside trap.
This season has seen them catch opponents offside on 71 occasions, way more than any other team, and more than Arsenal, Man City and Newcastle combined (68). The average distance of those offsides is 30.2m from their own goal-line, which is behind only Wolves’ 33.5m average, albeit from 54 more offside decisions than their Midlands’ neighbours.
While overall this has worked well, when breached it does mean that Villa give away high-quality chances to their opponents due to the acres of space allowed in behind the defensive line. Since Emery arrived at the club, the non-penalty expected goals (xG) per shot average for Villa’s opponents is a league-high 0.126, while this season alone it’s 0.134 per shot – quite a bit above the next highest by Fulham (0.125).
Overall, during his spell in charge, Emery’s side have allowed opponents a total of 53.5 non-penalty xG across 40 games. In the 40 games prior to his appointment, that total was 46.5 – seven fewer. Underlying numbers wave a slightly reddish flag for defensive performance in the long term, with some excellent goalkeeping from Emiliano Martínez combined with poor opposition finishing seeing them concede 43 non-penalty goals under Emery (from 53.5 xG), when in the 40 games previous they’d conceded more than the expected total (48 from 45.5 xG).
His Villa team are fun to watch because of their apparent “we’ll just score more than you” mentality, but it could be hard to sustain that form over the rest of the season.
Let’s not get too negative here, though. There are historical facts that support the argument that Emery could be about to achieve something great at Villa.
With an extra place up for grabs in the new format of the Champions League next season looking likely to be awarded to England, based on current UEFA coefficient projections, a top-five finish would bring UCL football in 2024-25. No team in a 38-game Premier League season to have won as many as 32 points from their opening 15 games, as Villa have now, have finished outside the top five come the end of that campaign, while 42 of those 45 teams have finished within the top four.
Villa’s current tally of 32 points is not only their best tally at this stage of a Premier League season, but it’s also the same number that Leicester City won at this point of their fairytale 2015-16 title win.
Emery has currently averaged 2.02 points per game across his 40-match spell in charge of Villa. In doing so, he’s just one of 10 managers to have taken charge of at least 35 games and won at least two points per game in a spell at a club. All the previous nine have gone on to win the Premier League title with that team.
Aston Villa have won 10 of their 15 games in the Premier League this season, their most victories at this stage of a league campaign since 1980-81 – the last time they won the title.
The stars are aligning. Maybe it’s time to dream, Villa fans.
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