Unai Emery returned to the Premier League with a point to prove and with seven games left, has a chance to do so.
The Aston Villa manager has led his team to seven wins in their last eight games. As a result, Unai Emery could do what he’s done his whole career – qualify for Europe with an underdog team.
The first manager to replace Arsene Wenger at Arsenal in 2018 was doomed to fail. Unai Emery was that guy, and did fail, but only just. The weariness, cynicism and dysfunction surrounding Arsenal at the time served to disproportionately dent his reputation once he was sacked.
He returned to Spain where he, unbeknownst to most Premier League fans, is revered. Villareal’s Europa League win and subsequent Champions League run proved that PSG and Arsenal hadn’t killed him.
In spite of the differences between Arsenal and Villa, there are parallels between them where Emery is concerned. Arsenal went 19 games unbeaten to start his first season there, but the underlying numbers showed that wasn’t sustainable, and so it proved.
Aston Villa are similarly overperforming, significantly so since Emery took over. In that time, they’ve scored 30 goals from 22.9 expected goals. They’ve conceded 20 goals from an expected 25.9 and garnered 35 points from an expected 22.8.
This is unsustainable, but they only need to sustain it for long enough to qualify for the Europa League.
While he was criticized at Arsenal for flattering to deceive, he may not have that problem at Villa Park. This is why a mid table team appoints Emery – to be greater than the sum of its parts, to overachieve. If Aston Villa find themselves competing in European competition next season, nobody is going to complain that they overperformed their xG to get there.
They have momentum at the moment, but a fragile momentum. If Ollie Watkins’ brilliant form drops off, for example, they may regress. However, with Saturday’s impressive 3 – 0 win over Newcastle in their back pocket, they don’t look like regressing anytime soon.