Unai Emery can celebrate his first anniversary in charge of Aston Villa on Tuesday safe in the knowledge that he has turned his team into contenders to be considered among the best of the rest. Only Manchester City – the champions and leaders – Arsenal and Liverpool have gained more wins over this period and, with Douglas Luiz continuing his unlikely conversion into a prolific goalscoring midfielder, Villa sashayed to within two points of the top.
Only Newcastle have scored more Premier League goals than Villa this autumn as they dismissed West Ham with a stylish display to reach 19 points, their best tally after nine games for 25 years. With five places in the Champions League likely to be available to the Premier League from this season, Villa could stay in the argument, though Emery is keeping a lid on his club’s ambitions.
“One of our dreams is to be with the top seven teams and to do something in Europe,” he said, adding the names of Newcastle, Chelsea and Manchester United to those clubs currently above Villa, while reiterating his desire to win the Champions League one day. “To get European football is very important and that is the work we need to try to do. We need to be consistent in what we are doing.”
It is difficult to avoid being swamped by the sheer torrent of numbers confirming Villa’s renaissance under Emery but somehow he has supplemented a discontented ensemble of decent players and turned his squad into a fluid and entertaining side with a solid backbone. The atmosphere at a sold-out Villa Park was vibrant, passionate and, after some dull times, grateful.
Not since Dwight Yorke scored in eight successive top-flight home games in 1991 have Villa had such a prolific homebird as Douglas Luiz. Not bad for a holding midfielder whom Steven Gerrard was willing to offload last year.
Backed by Boubacar Kamara in the heart of the midfield, Douglas Luiz has been granted more licence to support the attack alongside John McGinn, Moussa Diaby and, recalled here as Villa reverted to a four-man defence, Nicolò Zaniolo. Douglas Luiz was typecast as a defensive midfield pivot in his early days at Villa Park, and was strongly linked with a move to Arsenal when sidelined, but Emery has unshackled the more complete player.
Villa and West Ham head off on European trips on Thursday but it is the Midlands club, winning their 11th successive top-flight game at home, who look far more ready on this evidence to stay competing for European qualification through the Premier League.
For the deserved breakthrough, Zaniolo played a neat ball back inside the penalty area for Ollie Watkins to tee up Douglas Luiz to dispatch a crisp and low right-footed shot.
Zaniolo, withdrawn from the Italy squad to help the investigation into illegal betting activity, contributed tidily. He has let it be known he will contest any claims that he has bet on football.
West Ham appeared reluctant to come out and play until they went 2-0 down. From Lucas Paquetá’s poor pass backwards, five minutes into the second half, Edson Álvarez fouled Ezri Konsa. Douglas Luiz chipped the penalty down the middle.
Emery praised Douglas Luiz before urging him to improve. “It’s credit to him, firstly. I am very happy with him. But I think he can do better. There were some moments after he scored the two goals where we were trying to control the game and I wasn’t happy because he was too relaxed.