It’s somewhat remarkable that Aston Villa actually find themselves a Premier League side again given the questionable management at board and pitch level that led not only to their relegation in 2015-16 but also prevented them from achieving promotion back to the top tier before now. Former Chairman Dr. Tony Xia was clearly eager to please the fanbase upon taking control of the club in 2016 but the strategy was rather boom or bust and a bottom-half finish in their return to the second tier was a stuttering start to say the least. That was followed by a play-off charge under the guidance of seemingly-always-in-a-job Steve Bruce, but any hopes among the fanbase of going one further in the following campaign were soon replaced by alarm as a missed tax payment and alleged cash flow issues lead to the club requiring investment, ultimately leading to Xia selling his majority stake in the club in the summer of 2018. These are hardly the foundations upon which promotion campaigns are typically built and so it first appeared when Bruce was struggling to get a tune out of an increasingly rickety-looking team, infamously nearly taking a cabbage to the face as a consequence (“Steve Bruce cabbage” is still the third most popular result under his name in Google). With an expensive squad performing more like a bog-standard average Championship side, a run of one win in nine games led to his October departure with Villa in 12th. And so along came Dean Smith. Poached from Brentford, many a neutral’s second team for their attacking football and youthful makeup, Smith found the call from his boyhood supported club too good to turn down. We all know how it ended now of course, but it took Smith a little while to get things right – a run of three wins in sixteen games from the New Year left Villa in 11th place, eight points behind the play off places and with just twelve games to go. But boy did he then get it right. The upturn experienced in their metrics is clearly visible and led to an unlikely club record ten game winning run to propel them into fifth place, a run which perhaps more crucially gave them that all-important MOMENTUM heading into the play off campaign which, of course, they won by defeating the team formerly known as Frank Lampard’s Derby County.
Naturally Smith made changes to Villa’s general approach to games, the most notable being that the team would start to attack with more numbers rather than the risk-averse approach preferred by Bruce which saw few bodies get forward and attack the penalty area. Smith came with a reputation for playing attacking, passing football and he also implemented that at Villa Park in a 4-1-4-1 shape spearheaded by Tammy Abraham and patrolled centrally by John McGinn and Jack Grealish, but a key difference was that their approach in the final third largely looked to move the ball out wide to play crosses into the box – a strategy which goes against Smith’s reputation somewhat. Their Box Cross % – the percentage of box entries that came via a cross as opposed to a pass or dribble – was the highest in the Championship under Smith. When looking for individuals who helped the team become successful you don’t have to look any further than player of the year John McGinn. Fizzing around the midfield like a tartan firework, McGinn was the only player to breach the 4000’ minutes threshold and was key on both sides of the ball. In the defensive phase he was Villa’s most aggressive presser, leading his teammates in pressures and pressure regains as well as good old-fashioned tackles, but he was also key in driving his team up the pitch and into the final third. A summer rumour that was quickly filed under ‘pretty amusing that actually made it to print’ was of Manchester United’s apparent interest in bringing McGinn to Old Trafford for £50million. However, none other than Sir Alex Ferguson is apparently a big admirer of the Scotland midfielder so maybe we should readjust our estimations a level down from ‘pretty amusing that actually made it to print’ to ‘quite ridiculous’. Besides McGinn, Tammy Abraham was crucial to Villa’s success and once again displayed – as if more proof was needed – that he is too good for the Championship. Villa were pretty reliant on the striker’s 26 goals to put them into promotion contention and replacing his output will be a tough ask, as you can see from the breakdown of Villa’s xG amongst last season’s squad.
It’s only right we save a large portion of this preview for Villa’s transfer activity though, having attracted many headlines, comparisons and judgements in recent weeks (listeners of the StatsBomb podcast over the summer will know that James Yorke and Ted Knutson have been… let’s go with unenthused). Regardless of the opinion on whether the deals have been good value or not, there’s no denying that what Villa have attempted is pretty interesting in that they’ve clearly been looking in several markets in their attempts to extract value. Making loan spells permanent to stay at the club were centre backs Tyrone Mings and Kourtney Hause, as well as winger Anwar El Ghazi. Domestically, Villa convinced creator Jota to move from neighbours Birmingham City, promising centre back Ezri Konsa showed enough at Brentford to be picked up, whilst Matt Targett joined from Southampton to defend the left flank at Villa Park. Tom Heaton graduates from the Burnley superschool of goalkeeping to keep goal in what looks a shrewd purchase if he can replicate the form that earned him an England recall. It’s their business on the continent that’s drawn the most interest though. Now, last time Villa brought in a curious raft of players from European leagues, Tim Sherwood was in charge. It’s fair to assume that, having worked successfully under a similar model at Brentford, Dean Smith might be more enthusiastic about working with these types of purchase than Sherwood was so they should already have more chance of succeeding than they did then. Let’s start with Wesley Moraes, a £22million capture from Club Brugge. Straight off the bat, the Wesley transfer has more than a few hints of “find a Tammy Abraham that is attainable and won’t cost £40 million (if not more)”. All 6’4 of Wesley will go straight into the vacated lone striker role, tasked with being the centrepiece around which Villa’s attack is built. He does like to come deep and bring play together so in order to succeed in Villa’s system he may have to be coached into making sure he’s regularly between the width of the posts 6-10 yards out to capitalise on the regular supply line of crosses. Interestingly, Ted was pretty interested in Wesley a couple of summers back after he put up some interesting numbers aged 20 in the Belgian top tier but a couple of years on, the take is less warm largely because that output hasn’t sustained. https://twitter.com/StatsBomb/status/1141758517411483648 So that’s the void of Tammy Abraham filled. With the experienced Glenn Whelan departing and set-piece specialist Conor Hourihane better suited to competing with McGinn and Grealish in the box-to-box role, Villa were in need of a defensive shield to sit in front of their back four. Initially linked with Leeds’ Kalvin Phillips, the £30million price tag was deemed too steep so acquiring Douglas Luiz (from Man City) and Wesley’s former teammate Marvelous Nakamba (Club Brugge) for a combined package of less than the Phillips price tag has obvious logic to it. Douglas in particular looks like he could have potential to be an impressive pickup on the mere basis that he was rated by the expert and far-reaching scouting operation at City Football Group, but neither are without their risks with both suffering injuries in recent seasons. The last one of curiosity is Trezeguet. I’ve seen a lot of people throwing doubt over the success of imports from the top tier of Turkey – these people have seemingly already forgotten the success of Ryan Babel just six months ago. Ok, I jest. There are legitimate questions marks due to the lack of transfers coming in from Turkey that have worked out in recent years. It may be a good league to send your unwanted players due to their ability to cover high wages, but is it a good place to go and pick up a brand-new winger from? Well there are reasons to be sort-of positive. Firstly, the reported £8.75million fee isn’t huge in the context of the riches now available to Premier League clubs, there are players coming out of the Championship that are costing more than twice that after all. With it being towards the lower end of transfer fee we expect from Premier League clubs these days and with Villa’s continued and persistent interest in Brentford’s Saïd Benrahma, it suggests Trezeguet may not be an automatic starter and his penchant for staying high and wide in Kasımpaşa’s system would make him a good candidate to be most effective as a game-chasing sub, even more so with him being a ‘high usage’ type of player, consistently looking to deliver crosses or get shots off when on the ball. Scoring three and five goals from outside the box in his last two seasons in Turkey respectively, as noted by James on the podcast, chipping in with a couple of those and a couple of assists in the minutes he does get would be a welcome contribution to Villa’s survival bid.
Like their fellow promoted sides, avoiding relegation is objective number one and would represent a commendable achievement. Unlike their fellow promoted sides, however, Smith’s tenure at Villa is still in its infancy and as a result they do not yet have the benefit of an established culture and philosophy that Sheffield United and Norwich have instilled. Villa will have to undergo further transition towards their manager’s ideals whilst adapting to the Premier League which arguably marks them as the least equipped of the promoted sides. Quite how Villa go this season does actually depend a lot on how good their new signings turn out to be. Worst case scenario they’re left with a squad that they’ve spent a not-insignificant amount of money on for no discernible improvement and a swift relegation would very likely follow. Best case, a lot of their signings settle straight in and prove to be significant upgrades and more suited to Smith’s football than those they’re replacing, becoming reasonable Premier League level contributors and helping Villa, in this scenario, to a potential-or-even-probable survival. Villa will have to hope they roll big if they’re to be contented in May. Header image courtesy of the Press Association