In a Premier League season blighted by COVID-19 outbreaks, fixture postponements, and even the looming possibility of a circuit-breaker, it’s been far from business as usual for Aston Villa, especially if previous campaigns are anything to go by.
Even if an FA Cup tie against English champions Liverpool threatened to extend, incredibly, Villa’s longest winless run of the season in all competitions to three games, some Villa youth were thrown together at the last minute to fulfil a ‘once in a lifetime’ fixture. Who’d have thought a 17-year-old with claret and blue coursing through his veins, scoring in a 4-1 defeat would be the release many of us needed, only one week into 2021.
In a bizarre season unlike any other, Aston Villa fans have often taken comfort from some rousing displays in the past three months. From 7-2 drummings to last-minute away day winners, derby-day delights too, Dean Smith’s Villa have offered that all-important respite from the uncertainties and struggles that the COVID-19 pandemic continues to bring.
It could well have been the case that Villa households from across the second city would type in iFollow passcodes rather than viewing Sky Sports’ marathon of weekend action this season, with a swift return to the Championship almost nailed on before lockdown. Two lockdowns later, and Villa are a different entity altogether.
As 2020 drew to an end, Villa became the first Premier League side since the turn of the millennium to have climbed more Premier League places than any other team in a single calendar year, apart from Leicester who ascended from bottom place to second en route to their title parade in 2015.
Though, Villa did become the first team since Claudio Ranieri’s side to have started the calendar year in the relegation zone and end it in a European spot. Sitting pretty in fifth place as New Year’s rolled around, an unfortunate loss to in-form Manchester United followed a well-fought draw at Stamford Bridge, only four days prior to travelling to Manchester.
While Villa did take a point back to Villa Park last time Smith’s side made the trip to Old Trafford, Villa have this season recuperated 15 points from games they failed to win last term – signs of progression are for all to see and Smith will be looking to cash in on Villa’s strong form come May.
Asked whether he was thinking about European football, the Villa boss quipped: “With the pandemic, I am not thinking about Europe at all, as we can’t travel at the moment!
“But no, seriously, we are not thinking of it. We are just thinking of the next game.
“There is a great focus from our team at the moment and there is a willingness to keep progressing as a club and as individual players.
“As long as I have got that whatever will be, will be. We will just keep working hard. I am pleased with the start we have had.
“There was only the Leeds game that we deserved to get beaten this season. We know we can go anywhere and compete.”
Lower possession, no problem: Dean Smith’s effective style
During Aston Villa’s Project Restart slump, for the first time in 25 years, no forward or midfielder had scored a single goal after nine consecutive Premier League games. The writing was on the wall for Smith’s side, but betting against us has so often proved a costly mistake.
Smith’s reward for keeping Villa in the top flight against all the odds was the full backing of owners, Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens, who were particularly impressed with how Smith coached a better defensive shape and ultimately adapted his own philosophy and recognised his wrongs to ensure the club’s survival.
Where Villa have seemingly improved, quite drastically is in their capacity to carry a threat despite fewer passes and touches across the pitch, when compared to most other Premier League teams this term.
Villa have kept, on average, 49.8% of the ball’s possession in their games as we approach the half-way point in the season. By no means is that the lowest figure, but neither is it in the top half of the Premier League’s highest ball-controlling sides.
Villa have recorded the second-fewest touches in the defensive third this term, with only Sean Dyche’s Burnley registering fewer than Villa’s 2,483 touches in their first third. In the middle third of the pitch, Smith’s side have also registered the second-fewest touches in the Premier League this season.
Where Villa have improved this season, is demonstrated with the analysis of how the team have performed in the attacking third and inside the penalty box. Only Liverpool have recorded more touches in the penalty box than Villa this season, as Smith’s dynamic attackers have registered 518 touches inside the opposition’s box.
It can be suggested that Villa are also a more effective and efficient team this season, by virtue that West Ham are the only other Premier League team to have averaged a total shot distance of below 16 metres, as well as Villa this campaign. In fact, Villa have taken more shots per 90 this season, while also recording the highest shots on target per 90 – highlighting the effectiveness of attacking sequences deployed by Smith’s side this season.
This Premier League campaign, Villa are making effective use of not only the absence of home fans but also some impressive individual displays, to put Smith’s plans into practice on the pitch.
In the past five Premier League seasons, there are two players who average more than 0.2 expected goals and expected assists, four take-ons and three fouls won per 90 minutes: Hazard in 2017-18 and 2018-19 and Jack Grealish this season.
Grealish’s performances in 2020, while comparable to some former Premier League greats, has a swagger and unique style that is almost impossible to replicate – he’s tempted Villa fans in daring to believe that this season could reach unexpected heights.
As 2020 drew to a close, Grealish had won more fouls than any other player in the league. Grealish drew 73 fouls in just 15 games, two of which led to penalty kicks. While Villa have experienced varied success from the penalty spot this term, goals from open play haven’t been in short measure as Grealish has seemingly controlled games from a wider role.
Grealish has made 122 touches in the attacking penalty area – a Premier League high that demonstrates his attacking influence in Smith’s side. Grealish’s expected assists of 4.5 is only bettered by Kevin De Bruyne, while Villa’s captain has made the most shot-creating actions in the league. 61 of his 84 shot-creating actions have actually led to an effort on goal – a high proportion when measured against his top-flight counterparts.
His 55 key passes is also a Premier League high and a big improvement from the numbers Grealish was recording towards the end of 2019. Having dribbled past over 45 different Premier League players, Grealish has moved with the ball at his feet over 3,600 yards. Last season, Grealish set a new Premier League record of total progressive distance travelled with the ball after covering 9,108 yards in 38 games.
In total, with Grealish’s major contributions, Villa have created more shot-creating actions per 90 than any other team in the division, while also boasting the best goal-creating actions per 90.
Defending from the front: Ollie Watkins’ indispensable role
Having won just three of their previous 40 Premier League games on the road before starting the 2020-21 campaign, Villa remained unbeaten in six of the eight away trips made this season, until the start of 2021. With Burnley and Newcastle the only two clubs to have recorded fewer passes than Villa’s 6551 this season, it’s no surprise that Villa have become away day specialists with the fifth most passes recorded into the penalty box and indeed the highest ratio of key passes, with 3.9% of them demonstrating Villa’s threat on the break this term.
With the second most key passes completed this season at 191, Villa have made effective use of the ball considering lower relative possession numbers.
Ollie Watkins has been involved in most of Villa’s progressive movements towards goal and while Grealish glides in final-third possession, Smith’s side have clocked at least ten shots in each game so far this term – a feat unmatched by any other team in the division.
Villa’s capabilities to not only become competitive by means of defensive solidity or midfield dynamism but also by threatening in transition is proved with the justification of ball pressing analysis.
On the whole, pressing among Premier League teams is on the decrease, with every team bar Villa experienced a reduction in the intensity of their pressing in the attacking and midfield thirds since last season.
Apart from newly-promoted Leeds, West Brom and Fulham due to their lack of data available to compare to last season, only Villa have increased the intensity of pressing, with particularly Watkins the key instigator.
Smith’s dynamic system has afforded Villa with more opportunities to make use of Grealish’s ball-carrying efficiencies and club-record signing, Watkins’ pace and movement in behind a high defensive line.
This season, Villa have been content in inviting opponents forward before looking to exploit the spaces in transition. In fleeting moments last campaign, Villa would often break away after absorbing pressure, but to little avail. This term, the tenacity of Watkins, and versatile wingers, Anwar El Ghazi, Bertrand Traoré and Trezeguet have allowed Villa to become a significantly better team – defending from the front and packing a punch when on the ball.
It’s safe to say that Dean Smith’s Aston Villa is well and truly taking shape. An identity based on bravery and taking risks, Villa will get their due rewards as the season unfolds.