Olof Mellberg had only been with Aston Villa for three months when, towards the end of October 2001, they climbed to the top of the Premiership.

If the Sweden international defender might have been forgiven for thinking it was like that all the time, he was soon to find that reality was rather different. Villa were knocked off top spot the week after and have not been there since.

And yet, five years on, there seems to be a more authentic feel about Villa's optimism then there ever was during that crazy autumn of 2001.

They are in sixth position, possess the only undefeated record in the Premiership this season, and are growing in confidence.

Under Martin O'Neill, they are drawing matches that they would have lost under David O'Leary, and winning matches they would have drawn.

The 1-1 draw at home to Tottenham Hotspur last Saturday is a case in point, for Villa were poor in the first half and should have been buried out of sight. But they stuck to their task, improved, made light of their misfortune, and secured a point.

The contrast between this season and last is striking, especially when one considers that the only significant addition to the squad is that of Stiliyan Petrov, the former Bulgaria international midfield player, who is complementing Gavin McCann in the centre of the pitch.

Villa are no longer the underachievers of 2005-06. True, they could easily have lost four matches this season - to Arsenal, Chelsea, Reading and Tottenham - but it says much about their assurance that they remain unbeaten.

It is, essentially, the same Villa team but it feels so different, especially to an experienced player such as Mellberg.

"The big problem last season was that we seemed to concede goals as soon as we had a bad spell in games," Mellberg said. "Now we look more solid even when we are not playing well.

"It is only a good thing when you are doing well and the confidence is high. I cannot see it being a negative thing. It has been a great start and it only helps us in the games having the fans behind us and a full stadium is also a good thing.

"It was a poor first half and a good second-half performance. We struggled in possession and kept losing the ball and they [Tottenham] came at us, got some space in midfield.

"We had a different formation, 4-4-2 [rather than 4-3-2-1], and Tottenham had a bit more space in midfield but we got going in the second half and were a bit more confident on the ball and could have won in the end.

"Tottenham had one or two good chances in the first half but we still felt, overall, they didn't create that much and it is important when you have bad spells not to concede."

Another of the players with Villa when they reached the top of the Premiership in October 2001 was Juan Pablo Angel. He has begun the season well, even if he endured a wretched time against Tottenham three days ago.

Angel missed a penalty in the 74th minute and then, 90 seconds later, scored an own goal - a glancing header at the near post - that would have made him proud if it was at the other end.

The interesting thing is that Angel would not have been defending so deeply last season. Under O'Neill, the Colombia international striker is a more all-round player and he has improved his defensive qualities in a matter of weeks.

"With Juan Pablo Angel, having such a tough couple of minutes, it is just something you have to forget about," Mellberg said.

"It was a really strange thing to have the penalty and a good chance to score and a minute later he scores an own goal. It is just one of those things you have to forget about. Juan is strong so I don't think there will be any problems there."

And so Villa continue to improve, and so the squad continues to grow in terms of quantity and quality. The arrival of Didier Agathe, a utility player who seems to be at his best on the right of midfield, added to the feeling that there is greater strength in depth.

"Didier Agathe did well," Mellberg said. "He used his pace and put a few good crosses in as well. That's what you need sometimes in that position."

As for Gareth Barry, there is probably only one man in England - Steve McClaren - who thinks that the Villa captain should not be playing international football.

Barry's goal, which gave Villa a point against Tottenham, was a timely reminder of his versatility and intelligence. The problem for Barry is that McClaren happens to select the England squad.

"Gareth Barry has done really well," Mellberg said, with typical understatement. "Ashley Cole [England left back] is suspended for the next England game so that might be an opening for Gareth.

"He has done really well and I am sure he will be in there soon."

Martin O'Neill, who was interviewed for the England job and was mysteriously overlooked, was more diplomatic when asked the same question.

Reading between the lines, however, it is likely that, if O'Neill was the England head coach, England would already be making full use of Barry.