There have not been many weeks like this in the modern history of Aston Villa, one of English football’s great institutions, and at full-time the feeling in the air at Villa Park was that there could still be so much more to come.
Unai Emery has never been the sort of manager to luxuriate in his success, even if he would be entitled to do so after back-to-back wins over Manchester City and Arsenal. The Spaniard pumped his fists and slapped the hands of the Villa supporters at the end but, as soon as he got inside, you can be sure he started to consider what comes next. “We have to enjoy it and be proud of ourselves,” he said. “But still be demanding.”
What does come next for Villa? Well, after 16 matches they are only two points behind the league leaders. The title race is beginning to unfold and Villa are now unquestionably in it, after four days in which they demonstrated their bravery, strength and considerable collective ability.
Unlike so many other teams in this division, Villa did not mould their game in the face of City and Arsenal’s creative class. Villa played their football, their way, with courage and an unshakeable faith in the high-stakes system that Emery has imposed.
Perhaps it is still too early to say that Villa can win the Premier League. Perhaps those Thursday nights in Europe will eventually catch up with them. Perhaps a couple of injuries will undermine their cause.
But, as the relentless John McGinn whirled his arms towards the home fans at the final whistle, it was fair for 40,000 Villa supporters to ask: why not? Why not us, and why not this year?
To look at Emery’s preferred lineup is to see a spine of impressive strength. In Emiliano Martinez, they have one of the world’s most imposing goalkeepers. In Ollie Watkins, they have one of the league’s deadliest forwards. In between, they have players of physical power and technical quality.
And in the dugout, Villa have a manager who can perfectly read the flows and rhythms of a football match. His substitutions here were early and decisive, and they provided fresh energy at the precise point it was needed. Leander Dendoncker added steel in midfield, while Matty Cash shut down Arsenal’s dangerous left side.
Villa’s winner came from the sort of move that Pep Guardiola and Mikel Arteta would draw on a tactics board. The ball was worked from back to front with precision, and the finish was emphatic.
On this occasion, Villa also had another precious quality that every ambitious side requires: luck. It was nervy at times, and they relied on the wastefulness of Arsenal’s forwards. It was far from being as dominant a performance as they produced against City in midweek, but that did not matter.
Perhaps the greatest weapon at Emery’s disposal is Villa Park, which heaved and rocked throughout the evening. On nights like these there is an aggression and intensity to this stadium which is matched by the players on the pitch. Or maybe it is the players on the pitch who create that atmosphere in the stands. Whichever way round it is, the end result is intoxicating.
Asked about a title challenge, McGinn said he is “banning the T-word”. He might be able to do so within the first-team squad, but he will not stop the rest of the world from considering Villa’s chances. And he certainly will not stop the Villa fans from dreaming of something that, after four glorious days, feels more achievable than anyone could have previously imagined.