As we enter the Christmas period, with cupboards beginning to fill with alcohol and chocolates and tentative plans to navigate British Rail are made, the Premier League table has rarely looked more enticing.
Serial champions Manchester City are in the middle of their annual autumn slump, winless in four matches and finding themselves six points off the pace.
Arsenal lead the way, less sparkling than last season but with steel running through their side like a stick of Blackpool rock. Liverpool, through a combination of muscle memory and a fresh midfield, sit just behind them.
But the real story of the season comes from the team in third. An old, historic club from Birmingham enjoying their best season since the age of the Nintendo Wii. The story of the season so far is Aston Villa.
Since Unai Emery arrived at Villa Park in November 2022, Villa have been irrepressible. A confidence-lacking side under Steven Gerrard, Emery managed to elevate Villa to seventh by the end of the 2022-23 season.
With European football returning to England’s second city for the first time in over a decade and the signings of Pau Torres and Moussa Diaby, expectations were high among the Villa supporters.
But football is often a fickle b*stard. Their first game of the campaign, an away match against a Newcastle side they’d pulverised in April, Villa fell to a shoddy 5-1 defeat.
Sandro Tonali (remember him?) ran the show for a buoyant Newcastle. Captain Tyrone Mings suffered a season-ending injury and Villa’s defence fell apart like wet toilet paper in his absence.
Were Emery’s side over-hyped? Were they about to become the Premier League’s equivalent of Turkey, the perenially-disappointing dark horses? Not according to Sir Alex Ferguson.
Two days after, before Manchester United’s match against Wolves, Ferguson was interviewed by NBC Sports on the Old Trafford pitch and was asked to name the side that had impressed him the most during the Premier League’s opening weekend.
“To be honest with you, I watched Aston Villa and I can’t believe the scoreline,” said the manager who won 38 trophies during his glittering managerial career. “Honestly Aston Villa played fantastic football and just lost to bad goals.
“Newcastle are going to be very difficult to beat, in their own ground in particular, and their manager has done a great job there.
“It’s a surprising game, football. You can play teams off the pitch and not score – that’s what Aston Villa did.”
— Aston Villa Statto (@AVFCStatto) December 7, 2023
Some football fans mocked Ferguson on social media for his eyebrow-raising comments, evidently believing that their diet of Football Manager and Super Sunday out-stripped the knowledge of one of football’s all-time greats.
But, as with a lot of things, Ferguson has been proven right. Villa have been a force this season, currently on a 14-game winning streak at Villa Park and thrashed Manchester City 1-0 in their last outing.
Emery has constructed a prototype side for Our League, packed with pace, power and more trickery than an entire Dynamo performance. They go into Saturday’s match against Arsenal with every chance of winning.
Not many people would’ve tipped Villa for a title challenge after their opening-day horror show on Tyneside. Then again, Ferguson did always know a thing or two about football…
By Michael Lee