Have to be careful with new-manager bounces. They can be hugely beguiling and concoct an easy narrative while actually being entirely illusory. There’s a reason their name has become a cliche, and the implication of a bounce is itself inherent. A short-lived gravity-defying lift that must soon be brought back to reality and the accepted order of things.
But balls to all that, because the Unai Emery new manager bounce at Aston Villa is already such a compelling one. Victory over Manchester United caught the eye, but the character and quality of football in evidence in victory from behind at Brighton says even more. It’s easy, unprovable and yet utterly 100 per cent undeniably true that Villa simply wouldn’t have won this game a couple of weeks ago.
Brighton had lost only once at home this season, narrowly and unfortunately to Spurs, and Villa were without an away win all season until today.
What’s also key to this is that Brighton played well too. This was a fine game of football between a Brighton side that has long been among the more watchable among the great mid-table morass of Barclays and a Villa side that at the very, very least is now going to join Brighton in that group.
Villa can be rightly pleased with a hard-earned win at a difficult ground and on a weekend unlike any other in Premier League history, where everyone knows that the outcome of this specific game is going to impact the mood around the club for the next month and a half. But Brighton shouldn’t let doom and gloom descend after this either.
It was a keenly contested game so even that even the key moments existed as mirror images of each other. Both teams are still learning on the job with their relatively new managers’ desire to play out from the back and both teams were duly instructed to press the other high up the field. It gave the whole game an intoxicating high-wire element that meant nothing ever felt entirely certain.
That Brighton’s first-minute opener came from Alexis Mac Allister pressing and robbing Douglas Luiz and Villa’s second-half winner came from Douglas Luiz pressing and robbing Alexis Mac Allister felt apt. Throw in the fact that Villa’s other goal was a penalty and Brighton were bizarrely denied one of their own when a dawdling Lucas Digne attempted to kick the ball but managed instead to only plant his boot hard into Solly March’s calf, and the closeness of the game is brought into ever sharper focus.
But Villa closed the game out pretty well after taking the lead thanks to Danny Ings’ second goal of the game and as the music stops on the first act find themselves in a season-high position of 12th and with back-to-back wins for the first time. With Emery now getting the chance to devote a mini pre-season to the majority of this squad, Villa fans have plenty of reason to expect more upward mobility when Our League resumes.
There may now be a Big Seven, but Villa have no reason to believe they can’t at the very least target being best of the rest this season. In Emery, they have secured one of the finest coaches in the league operating outside the elite.
We’re pleased for him, to be fair. His was always a doomed reign at Arsenal, charged with the impossible of following a legend who had dominated the club for 20 years. There is almost no precedent for a new manager coming in under those conditions and succeeding. Just ask David Moyes.
But Emery is an elite coach whose record – notably in continental competition – demands respect. This already looks like a good match, with Villa boasting a squad that operated in a strange hinterland. Villa would not have had such a good squad without the draw and contacts of Steven Gerrard, but they were never going to get the best out of that squad once Gerrard’s limitations were exposed amid further confirmation that the Premier League is rather different to the Scottish League.
Now, though, Villa have a squad and manager that look in better alignment. There will be problems along the way – although less so than their might have been now there is so much time off – as we saw in the opening moments of this game, but it does look like a combination that can work.
The pressing for the winner and the central run from John McGinn that won the penalty via, it must be said, an absurd challenge from Lewis Dunk who slid, fouled and challenged the referee on the decision in the space of one smooth yet disastrous motion, were very Emery. Already his fingerprints are visible all over this side, and that can only be good news for Villa.