Aston Villa host Arsenal on Saturday evening with a chance to assert their credentials as title contenders.
The Villans tore apart reigning champions Manchester City with a dominant display on Wednesday night – the 1-0 scoreline flattered Pep Guardiola’s men to no end.
Heading into the weekend, Arsenal sit top of the Premier League table and have proven that last season was no fluke. They are ready to challenge for silverware year on year again.
A lot of focus heading into Saturday’s showdown has been about the managers. Unai Emery spent just over a year in charge of Arsenal before being sacked and replaced by current Gunners boss Mikel Arteta.
Emery’s incredible success with Aston Villa so far has fooled people into thinking Arsenal were wrong to get rid of him. Some have even suggested if he were in the Emirates Stadium dugout last season, they might’ve held off the advances of Man City to win a first Premier League title in 19 years.
It’s revisionist history and verging on just plain daft.
When Arsenal announced Arsene Wenger was leaving his post in 2018, it was expected his successor would struggle. Manchester United’s immediate woes in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era painted the danger of the first years after a club legend departed – the Red Devils had even won the league in his last year, while the Gunners finished sixth on Wenger’s farewell tour.
It looked as if Arteta – whose only coaching experience at this point was two years spent as an assistant to Guardiola at Man City – was going to be the left-field choice selected by an Arsenal hierarchy hell-bent on leaving the identity of Wenger’s final years behind. They suddenly dropped those plans when Emery blew them away with a detailed presentation at the last stage of the interview process.
Though there were at least promising signs of progress during Emery’s first season – Arsenal took the top-four race to the final day and reached the Europa League final – the move ultimately proved to be a disaster. Paradoxically, it made everyone involved in this Saturday’s clash a winner.
Emery massively lowered the bar for Arteta. In some roundabout way, he took the fall for him in trying to immediately step into Wenger’s shoes. The squad he assembled alongside head of football Raul Sanllehi and head of recruitment Sven Mislintat was a strange assortment of profiles and visions so absurd that Arteta finished eighth in his first two seasons just trying to stop the bleeding.
The product on the pitch was bad enough, but the mood around the club became hellish. Granit Xhaka’s mutiny as captain was the height of disarray, a 96th-minute equaliser at home to Southampton was barely celebrated and Emery’s final match – a 2-1 defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt – was watched by around half of the officially reported 49,000 attendance at the Emirates.
Their spell together allowed both manager and club to do some soul-searching. Emery returned to Spain and led Villarreal to their first ever trophy – eliminating his former side in the process – while Arsenal pivoted to the young coach they always craved with the added bonus of affording him the requisite time and patience to clear up the mess.
Now at Aston Villa, Emery has a team and a club built in his image. The same could be said for Arteta with Arsenal. But all parties needed the past to be disastrous in order to get to their high-point of the here and now.
Arsenal were right to sack Emery. They were right to appoint and back Arteta. Emery was right to head back to Spain and then wait for the Aston Villa vacancy to arrive. Aston Villa were right to hand over the keys to a manager like him. Everything worked out for the best, there’s no need to repaint the past.