“We’ve seen it all, we’ve won the lot, we’re Man United and we’re never going to stop.” It was a cry that pierced Villa Park, a Mancunian melody accompanying the beat of home supporters trudging furiously down concrete steps.
It has been a testing week for Aston Villa and a familiar theme is appearing with Unai Emery.
Villa lifted themselves to within a short-arm jab of the table’s summit. The latter result was their 15th consecutive home league victory. Villa Park? A fortress, a place that reduced unfortunate visitors to children sat, knees knocking, waiting for the headteacher.
Two months later and Villa have, in similarly short order, faced the other half of what is now ‘retro Big Four’.
First, came Chelsea in the FA Cup. Crisis club Chelsea. Chelsea who had, only days prior, been so poor when humiliated at home by Wolves that Mauricio Pochettino’s credentials were queried. Chelsea outclassed Villa, whose aspirations of Wembley faded and died.
Then, on Sunday, came Manchester United. Whatever the outside noise, the laughter, the off-field headlines, they remain Manchester United. Name alone may not win titles, but it comes with a certain level of nous and know-how.
And true, Andre Onana did well to twice deny Watkins. But what cannot be denied is a high-end centre-forward gets on the scoresheet at least once.
Yes, consistent peak performance is the reserve only of the world class. But the real worry is in the unfolding trend. Emery has history when it comes to a fading star – just ask Arsenal fans.
Back in 2018/19, when the Spaniard first came to England, Arsenal lost just three of their first 19 games under him. But a 5-1 defeat by Liverpool began a half-season-long dip. Seven of their remaining games proved fruitless, a 15 per cent loss rate more than doubling to 36.8 per cent.
In time, Villa’s 19th league match may be viewed as the turning point in their current season. It was the reverse fixture with United, on Boxing Day at Old Trafford. Two up at the break, Villa were thriving. No one gave the prospect of a United comeback more than a cursory chuckle. And yet they did come back. They won.
And Villa – having now succumbed to United again, with a loss to Newcastle sandwiched between – have lost as many Premier League games in their last half-dozen as they did in their opening 18.
Home foundations have shown signs of crumbling. Only an injury-time leveller avoided defeat by Sheffield United here just before Christmas, while a late penalty was required to sneak past Burnley just after it. Indeed, a trip to Bramhall Lane nine days ago is the only other victory Villa have claimed in their last nine matches across all competitions.
Most had assumed Tottenham, what with all their ‘Spursyness’, were primed to dwindle. But it is Villa who seem to have been worked out.
United’s plan in Sunday’s second half was as simply obvious as it was obviously simple. Take Villa’s high line; disperse across it; and look to exploit the space in behind it. Newcastle recently did similar.
And when Villa played from the back — which was often — United attempted to block them man by man. Diogo Dalot became an inverted full-back tailing Jacob Ramsey. Harry Maguire regularly darted from the backline to close John McGinn’s space. High-risk, yes, but it yielded high reward.
Emery, openly at least, did not appear concerned. He likened the performance to the one against City that earned Villa both victory and many plaudits. Other than his side “not being clinical”, he was happy enough.
And perhaps he is right. Perhaps calm should be called for, particularly given the financial shackles of the Premier League’s profit and sustainability rules. With no disrespect meant to recent recruit Morgan Rogers, it seems unlikely that, but for fiscal restrictions, a Champions League chasing outfit would limit their January business to a Championship acquisition.
Unfortunately, though, recent results have not only sapped Villa of their spirits, but provided shot in the arm to a pair of rivals. Neither United – Newcastle or Manchester – have European commitments for the remainder of this season. Instead, they can commit fully to pursuing Villa.
Emery will be less worried by Newcastle, 10 points behind. But what could have been an 11-point gap to Manchester United is now just five. Opportunity lost. Ground conceded. But the race is not run yet.