Aston Villa's head coach Unai Emery follows the game of...

Aston Villa's head coach Unai Emery follows the game of the English Premier League soccer match between Aston Villa and Manchester City at Villa Park in Birmingham, England, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. Credit: AP/Rui Vieira

MANCHESTER, England — Sitting atop the Premier League, Arsenal can rightly be happy with its direction of travel under manager Mikel Arteta.

But it is fair to ask whether the London club acted too quickly when it fired his predecessor Unai Emery in 2019 after 18 months in charge.

Emery has made Aston Villa the surprise package of the season — leading it to third place ahead of Saturday's showdown in Birmingham against his former club. Villa trails Arsenal by four points.

“We have to be excited but we need to keep the balance,” Emery said after beating defending champions Manchester City 1-0 on Wednesday. “For now we have to be focused on Arsenal on Saturday. I want us to be a team with a winning mentality and be balanced.”

Villa's rise comes after it was under threat of relegation before hiring Emery in October 2022 to replace Steven Gerrard.

The turnaround is in keeping with the Spaniard's record at many of the clubs he has coached, with Arsenal being a notable exception.

Victory against last season's treble winners was the latest evidence of Emery's impressive work. He led Villa into Europe last term and now has the team bidding for a Champions League spot — possibly more.

Arsenal's manager Mikel Arteta looks on before the English Premier...

Arsenal's manager Mikel Arteta looks on before the English Premier League soccer match between Luton and Arsenal at Kenilworth Road, Luton, England, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2023. Credit: AP/Ian Walton

Villa was a worthy winner against Pep Guardiola's City, having dominated the chances and equaled a club record 14-straight victories at home.

“We are aware of where we are in the table. But behind us is Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham and it is going to be very difficult," Emery said.

Emery had succeeded longtime manager Arsene Wenger at Arsenal but was fired after a seven-game winless run left it eighth in the standings. Arsenal had also finished runner-up in the Europa League.

Arsenal said at the time that its decision to part ways with Emery was “due to results and performances not being at the level required.”

Tottenham's Dejan Kulusevski fails to score past Aston Villa's goalkeeper...

Tottenham's Dejan Kulusevski fails to score past Aston Villa's goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez during the English Premier League soccer match between Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa at the Tottenham Hotspur stadium in London, Sunday, Nov. 26, 2023. Credit: AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth

It will never be known if he could have turned the club's fortunes around had he been given more time to implement his plans.

He had, after all, led Paris Saint-Germain to the French title in his previous role and won the Europa League on three occasions with Sevilla.

After leaving Arsenal he lifted the Europa League again with Villarreal to add to his reputation as a serial winner.

While Arsenal ran City close in the race for the title last season and is leading the way this year, Arteta was given time and support during difficult periods after succeeding Emery.

Emery's achievements before and after Arsenal suggest he might have been able to get it right at the London club as well.

Not that his troubles were limited to the disappointing performances on the field, which failed to live up to the attractive and attacking style that was Wenger's hallmark. Reports at the time said there were also concerns over his ability to communicate with players because of his command of the English language.

Filling Wenger's boots, meanwhile, was always going to be a tall order for whoever came after the Frenchman, who won three league titles and seven FA Cups in a 22-year reign.

Another consideration is the pressure that comes with managing one of the most storied clubs in European soccer.

Emery's success has generally been with teams from outside of the elite, which is why he has so often been in a position to win the Europa League — European club soccer's second-tier competition.

Sevilla and Villarreal are traditionally overshadowed by Spain's glamor clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Qatari-backed PSG may be the most powerful team in France, but Emery failed to win the title in his first year at the club and also fell short in the Champions League.

At Arsenal, he was expected to get the club challenging at the top of the Premier League again after a period of decline toward the end of Wenger's reign.

Emery appears to be more at home with an underdog.

He quickly rebuilt his reputation at Villarreal — beating Manchester United in the final to win the Europa League and then leading the team to the semifinals of the Champions League.

Villa seems to be a perfect fit, with Emery in his element as he exceeds expectations for a club that was playing in English soccer's second tier as recently as 2019.

His European record is still going strong with Villa at the top of its Europa Conference League group with one game left, but it is in the Premier League where he is producing his best work.

At Villa Park on Saturday, he can show his former club exactly what it is missing.

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James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson

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