The rehabilitation of Unai Emery has reached new heights. Emery left Arsenal in November 2019 mocked and humiliated but on Saturday night, his Aston Villa side beat the Gunners 1-0 to register a club-record 15th consecutive Premier League home win and confirm their status as top four challengers.
Those of a more ambitious persuasion in this part of the Midlands may aim even higher given this is a victory that takes them two points off first place. It is only the fifth time Villa have earned 35 points or more after 16 games of a top-flight campaign and on three of the previous four occasions, they ended up champions. Yet, Emery is not about to start talking about a title push even after beating last season's top two in the space of four days.
"I will speak again when we are in game 30-32 and if we are in the same position as now then maybe I can speak about it," said Emery. "At the start, we are not a contender, it is only game 16. We are in [the top four] and must try to keep it. It is difficult, we are not dominating matches like we are here."
Publicly at least, Emery remains respectful of Arsenal despite a chastening experience in succeeding Arsene Wenger. This also wasn't the first time he came back to haunt his former side, having knocked them out of the Europa League semifinals in May 2021 during a period in which his replacement at Arsenal, Mikel Arteta, faced questions over whether he was the right man to take Arsenal forward.
Arteta has unequivocally proved since that he was and after replacing Steven Gerrard at Villa Park in September, Emery has silenced questions over his ability, chiefly shattering the idea his methods would always be incompatible with the English game. He revelled in this. At full-time, Emery shook both fists in celebration, took a brief look at Arsenal's bench, and opted against shaking hands, instead high-fiving supporters in the front row as he walked to the tunnel.
"No [I didn't shake hands] but because Arteta wasn't on the bench," said Emery. "I respect a lot. I gave my hand to some workers inside because they were there when I was there. But only with the people I cross who were working with me. Nothing personal because it wasn't Arteta but I respect a lot Arsenal, I respect a lot Arteta and I respect a lot the workers there. I don't have nothing against them."
There was a sense of history repeating in the manner of this defeat. Arsenal required a late double-salvo to win here in February -- Villa's last home loss -- and before that, Martin Odegaard missed a sitter, William Saliba lacked his usual composure and Villa scored early.
That all happened again on Saturday but this time Arsenal could not find a way back. Villa's goal was a perfect encapsulation of the football Emery has Villa playing these days. A move that began with Villa taking risks playing out from the back released in-form winger Leon Bailey to terrorise Oleksandr Zinchenko and cross for John McGinn, who spun smartly in the box to fire a finish past David Raya after just seven minutes.
The move comprised 12 passes, back to front, and was reminiscent of the style of football that had Arsenal fans singing "We've got our Arsenal back" early on in Emery's reign before things unravelled.
Odegaard wasted two glorious chances, one in each half and both on his left foot with the goal seemingly at his mercy but this was a night when the Arsenal captain, Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli, and Gabriel Jesus were some way short of their best.
Arsenal could have snatched a point at the death when Kai Havertz prodded the ball home from close range following a challenge with Matty Cash but referee Jarred Gillett ruled the Germany international had handled the ball as it fell. Together with an earlier penalty claim for a Douglas Luiz foul on Jesus, the decision prompted a thinly veiled dig from Arteta at the officials.
Asked for his opinion on those incidents, Arteta said "Clear and obvious", seemingly pointing out the phrase used to describe the threshold set for VAR to intervene and overturn decisions. Pushed to clarify if he meant both calls were incorrect, he continued: "No, no. Clear and obvious, that's what I mean." And again asked to explain if he felt either decision reached the threshold to overturn it, Arteta said: "No, no that's my opinion. That's all I can say."
Whenever a manager as active as Arteta is banned for a defeat, the temptation is to assume his team missed that presence on the touchline. Sat next to assistant coach Miguel Molina and with chief executive Vinai Venkatesham behind him, Arteta resembled a caged animal in Villa's directors' box.
Emery certainly had more of an impact here. Arteta has often cited a familiar pattern to Arsenal's matches with opponents sitting deep and trying to defend in numbers but he can have no complaints on that score; Villa played with a high line that initially seemed to flummox the visitors before they found more rhythm, particularly either side of half-time.
Emery's substitutions were undeniably more effective. Villa palpably tired after their exertions against City on Wednesday -- 24 hours after Arsenal beat Luton -- but Emery refreshed his team at half-time, on 56 minutes, on 66 minutes, and 78 minutes with changes that checked Arsenal's momentum. Arteta waited until the 70th minute to act and the alterations did little to aid their rescue effort.
"They are there and with the home record they have they fully deserve to be where they are because when you win as many games at home they deserve the credit," said Arteta. Emery will feel that credit has been a long time coming.