You only have to venture back a few weeks to find the moment when Aston Villa’s place in the Premier League was at its most precarious. When Watford came from behind to beat Newcastle on 11 July, the Hornets moved seven points above Villa. Watford also boasted a significantly better goal difference, so the pressure was real. When Crystal Palace arrived at Villa Park the following day, Dean Smith’s team had to do something they had not managed in 10 league games, spanning 173 days: win a football match. There were just four games to go and Villa had given very little indication that they could bridge the gap – at least to those looking in from the outside. Four matches and eight points later, however, Villa were safe and Watford were preparing for the Championship.
Every manager in the game thinks their side deserves more from their performances, but Smith was particularly adamant that Villa’s results were not reflecting the improvements they had made after the restart. Before the lockdown, Villa had been a shambles in defence, allowing opponents 5.64 shots on target per game – the most in the division. The way they turned that statistic around after the restart is nothing short of incredible.
In their 10 games post-lockdown, Villa allowed opponents just 2.8 shots on target per game – less than half the number they had been conceding before the break and the fourth lowest in the league behind Wolves, Manchester City and Liverpool. This improvement is especially impressive given that Villa faced six clubs who were gunning for European qualification in that run.
Sorting out their defence has kept Villa in the league and given them the chance to build a better squad. There was a huge overhaul at the club last summer, with 12 new faces arriving to replace outgoing players. Villa do not need another summer of upheaval this time around. Instead, the focus will be on keeping their key players.
The main task will be keeping hold of Jack Grealish. Even if the club lose that battle, which seems likely, their captain would command a huge transfer fee. Grealish is not the only player who would have left if Villa had been relegated. Tyrone Mings, John McGinn and Douglas Luiz would probably have followed him out of the club. Villa fans are now hoping these players stick around and form the spine of the team.
Luiz would perhaps be the biggest loss to the squad if, for instance, Manchester City exercised their buy-back clause in the Brazilian. The defenders deserve credit for their improvements after the restart but so does Luiz, who excelled after the break and seemed to understand his role in the team more clearly. There were also big improvements from Ezri Konsa and Kortney Hause, which will soften the blow if Mings leaves. McGinn also slowly returned to fitness following a long lay-off and now looks likely to stay.
If Villa can retain that spine, which will be improved further by the return of goalkeeper Tom Heaton – whose absence since he injured his knee on New Year’s Day cannot be overstated – they have a big opportunity to move up the table. Bringing in some new players will be crucial too, with pace in attack the key objective.
Wesley, who suffered a season-ending injury in the same game as Heaton, will return before long, but Villa still need a striker. It is a testament to their defensive improvements that Villa climbed out of the relegation zone even though their stand-in striker, Ally Samatta, did not score a single goal after the restart. Samatta, who arrived at the club from Genk in the January transfer window as an enforced replacement for Wesley, scored on his debut but has not found the net since. He started all 10 of Villa’s games after the restart yet did not have a shot on target until the final day of the season. Frankly, he looks out of his depth.
Villa could have made a move for Neal Maupay last summer but decided against paying another significant transfer fee. They will be less cautious this time around. At times this season Villa lacked Premier League experience, so Smith will have his eye on players from the three relegated clubs – although Birmingham City fan Troy Deeney is unlikely to be considered.
As well as signing a striker, Smith also needs more consistent wide players. Both Anwar El Ghazi and Trézéguet – despite his late-season heroics – could be offloaded. The dream signing would probably be Brentford winger Said Benrahma – another player who was on Villa’s radar last summer – but it looks as if they have missed the boat on that one. The Algerian was the top performer in the Championship this season and may prefer to stay with the Bees if they reach the Premier League or move to a club that offers him European football.
The process of identifying alternatives is already underway, with Eberechi Eze – who scored 14 goals and set up eight more for QPR this season in the Championship – surely on Villa’s radar. Former Tottenham youngster Marcus Edwards, who has been outstanding for Vitória de Guimarães in Portugal this season, is also a possibility. Villa co-owner Nassef Sawiris is reportedly preparing to invest in the Primeira Liga club, which may push that move along.
Smith has done little to downplay just how much money Sawiris and Wes Edens have to invest. The manager clearly expects significant financial backing this summer. The strategy will surely be different to last year, however, with a focus on quality rather than a necessity for quantity. In a recent development, Villa have decided to end the contract of former sporting director Suso. The Spaniard’s choice of recruits has clearly been deemed not up to scratch, so there is likely to be an important acquisition at board level before any new players join the squad.
The aim for Villa will be to build on the improvements they have made over the last two months and add an attacking threat that can push them up the league. Earlier in the season the ball was not sticking to their strikers and would return to Villa’s defensive third too quickly. Defence starts with attack, and Villa’s attempt to defend their Premier League status will no doubt follow suit.