More than nine months have passed since a visiting team travelled to Villa Park in the Premier League and left with three points. Unai Emery’s side have won 14 consecutive home games, including Wednesday’s remarkable mauling of Manchester City, and in doing so they have turned their stadium into the most formidable ground in English football.
The last opponent to win at Aston Villa in the Premier League was Arsenal, all the way back in February. Mikel Arteta’s players triggered the start of Villa’s extraordinary run at home and, as they return to Villa Park this weekend, they do so in the hope of ending it.
Emery, of course, will have other ideas. Against the club that sacked him after just 18 months in charge, the Spaniard will be as motivated as ever. He has already faced and beaten Arsenal since he was dismissed in Nov 2019, but the memories of those difficult days in north London will no doubt remain fresh in his mind.
To be clear, they were difficult days for everyone at Arsenal — not just Emery. By the time of his sacking, the overriding feeling at the Emirates Stadium was misery. Underperforming players, unhappy fans, unwanted results. Something had to change, and Emery had to go.
The question is not, as many observers and pundits have asked in recent months, whether Arsenal should have given Emery more time. Instead it is worth exploring why Emery has been so much more successful at Villa than he was at Arsenal, and what has changed in him since that sorry spell in north London.
The most important shift? Power. Emery neither had it nor wanted it at Arsenal, but he does at Villa. The club’s structure has effectively been rebuilt around the 52-year-old, who has a personal relationship with the owners and key allies in crucial positions.
It was, for example, striking to see recent images of Emery at an NBA game with co-owner Wes Edens. Emery is able to speak directly to both Edens and Nassef Sawiris, to such an extent that the former chief executive, Christian Purslow, was effectively marginalised before leaving earlier this year.
Emery’s position was strengthened further by the appointment of Monchi as Villa’s president of football operations. Monchi and Emery worked alongside each other earlier in their careers, at Sevilla, and are known to be close. When Monchi was considering Villa’s offer, Emery flew out to Spain to convince him to take the job. “The presence of Unai has been almost the decisive reason to come to Birmingham,” Monchi has said.
Even more important to Emery’s success at Villa has been Damian Vidagany. Now the director of football operations, Vidagany is Emery’s right-hand man and the conduit between the first-team and the rest of the club.
At Arsenal, there was no Vidagany. Emery’s brother, Igor, was involved but not to the same extent, and certainly not with the same authority that Vidagany holds. Instead of being surrounded by allies, as he is now, Emery found himself in a storm of changing executives and unhelpful power struggles at the Emirates.
He was appointed to work under Ivan Gazidis, the chief executive, but Gazidis left only a few months later. Emery then worked for Raul Sanllehi, Arsenal’s previous head of football, and alongside Sven Mislintat, the head of recruitment. Mislintat left north London in February 2019, halfway through Emery’s first season. Arsenal then tried and failed to hire Monchi before, later that year, appointing Edu as technical director.
Clearly, such a chaotic environment was not ideal for a man who was still adjusting to the demands of British football and its culture (his struggle with the English language was a constant problem).
Emery did not exactly help himself at Arsenal, though. He arrived as head coach and was focused entirely on that role. There was never any sense that he wanted to widen his remit, or indeed claim any additional power. If anything, he would shy away from it: publicly and privately, he would often defer any non-coaching issues to those above him. He would not, it is safe to say, have regularly talked directly to the club’s owners.
At Villa, where it is all geared towards Emery, he has a huge say in recruitment. Moussa Diaby was his top target, for example, and it was he who pitched to sign Alex Moreno from Real Betis. In January, the club wanted to sign a new forward — and Emery advised them to be patient and wait for the summer window. They listened to him.
At Arsenal, it was different. Emery had a say, of course, but he was just one voice — and not a particularly influential one. After his first season, he told Arsenal’s executives to sign Wilfried Zaha. Instead, they bought Nicolas Pepe. It simply would not happen at Villa.
From an Arsenal perspective, the Emery era must be seen as a necessary bridge between Arsene Wenger and Arteta. Without Emery’s difficulties in his second season, Arteta would never have been empowered to do what he has done at the Emirates. The squad was such a mess, and the mood at the club was so bad, that Arteta was effectively given permission to bulldoze the place and rebuild it from scratch.
Emery exists in a different world now. A world that has been made for him, and an environment that allows him to do his work in the best way he can. At Arsenal, he was just one cog in a chaotic machine. At Villa, the machine is his machine, and it is currently working more efficiently than anyone could have imagined.