Some players are better than others. Some managers are better than others. But a lot of the time, success is a matter of contingency, of being the right person for the right job at the right time. It was four years ago last Wednesday that Unai Emery was sacked by Arsenal. As he returned to Spain, there was a widespread feeling that his methods didn’t travel and he was probably best off staying there.
It wasn’t at all an absurd thing to think. He had been sacked by Spartak Moscow in 2012 after a 5-1 home defeat to Dinamo that left them seventh. His time at Paris Saint-Germain had seemed unremarkable, most notable for him being asked to cut the cake two days into Neymar’s extended birthday party – which seemed a clear indication that the egos in the squad still ruled, a situation that culminated in his departure in 2018.
His last league game before Arsenal dismissed him in 2019 was a 2-2 home draw to Southampton with them eighth, with four wins from their opening 13 games. Given his success with Valencia and Sevilla – and Lorca Deportivo and Almería – and the bewildering nature of his press conferences, it seemed fair to surmise that outside Spain he struggled to get his message across.
But then you look at the detail. Spartak were a political nightmare, with the director general, Valery Karpin, only too keen to sack a manager to appoint himself. PSG were a vipers’ nest and a haul of seven trophies across two years stacks up pretty well in comparison with those who have come since.
Succeeding Arsène Wenger at Arsenal, meanwhile, looks in retrospect an almost impossible task. Whatever Wenger’s flaws by the end, it is the nature for such dominant figures that the turmoil of their removal chews up those who follow. Emery at Arsenal simply went the way of Galba, Robespierre and David Moyes. It feels significant that Ivan Gazidis, Sven Mislintat and Raúl Sanllehi, who were all in their various roles supposed to ease the transition to a post-Wenger world, also soon left.
Emery’s reign was no disaster: that he had the highest win percentage of any Arsenal manager other than Mikel Arteta and Wenger – better than Herbert Chapman or George Graham – perhaps says more about the financial stratification of modern football than anything else, but they did reach a Europa League final and finish fifth in the Premier League, two points off third, in his first season.
Emery was reportedly stunned to be sacked, a detail that suggests he was not a sufficiently political animal to survive in the turmoil of the post-Wenger vacuum, when everybody was pushing to see just how far their roles could be extended. Had he been afforded more time, perhaps he could have created a side of similar quality to Arteta’s, although the truth is that by the time he was sacked, Arsenal were in a slough. Poor spells of form have followed and there has perhaps been more patience with Arteta precisely because of the relative impatience with Emery. In that sense, Emery appears almost as a necessary phase to be gone through, a sacrifice by which Arsenal could reset. For him, in other words, as it would have been for pretty much anybody, it was the wrong time.
At Aston Villa, the circumstances could hardly have been more different. Between summer 2018 and Emery’s arrival, Villa had spent £250m net on transfers. Dean Smith, having led them to promotion, took them to an 11th-place finish before being sacked in November 2021 with Villa fifth bottom. Under Steven Gerrard, they finished the season two places better off, but they were fourth bottom when Gerrard was sacked after a 3-0 defeat at Fulham in October last year.
These were ideal conditions for Emery. He had a squad that looked – and turned out to be – far better than the league position suggested and, rather than replacing a legend as he had at Arsenal, he succeeded a manager who had never really seemed a good fit, who, perhaps unfairly, was regarded by many as using the job as a path to his ultimate ambition of managing Liverpool.
The sense was of a bounce waiting to happen – the caretaker, Aaron Danks, won his first game 4-0 – but what has happened under Emery is more substantial than just the fillip of a new face. Going into this weekend, only Manchester City had won more Premier League points than Aston Villa in 2023, while only Bayern Munich in Europe’s top five leagues had scored more goals at home (although no side in the top half of the Premier League has scored fewer away). And that despite injuries that have robbed them of Tyrone Mings, Emi Buendía, Jacob Ramsey and Álex Moreno (who returned against Legia Warsaw on Thursday).
The most remarkable aspect of Villa under Emery has been their offside trap. Since he arrived, Villa have caught opponents offside 75% more than the team second in that metric, Liverpool. That may imply a high line, pushing up recklessly – and the 5-1 defeat at Newcastle on the opening day showed the risk if the plan is not executed well – yet the average depth of Villa’s line is the seventh lowest in the league. That means that, when necessary, they can sit deep and absorb pressure, but that they are extremely good at judging when to let runners go and spring the trap.
Although Villa went into the weekend fourth, precedent suggests they aren’t really in a title race, but they were just two points off the top with a third of the season gone After visiting Bournemouth on Sunday, Manchester City on Wednesday and Arsenal next Saturday will test their 100% home record, but if they could get results in those games, that perception could quickly change. Champions League qualification, at least, would seem possible.
But even if Villa cannot maintain that pace, even if there is a slide back to qualification for the Europa League, which has so long felt Emery’s natural home, there is a sense that his reputation in England has been rehabilitated, that he has proved just what a gifted manager, when the environment is right, he can be.