While Aston Villa’s second season back in the Premier League hasn’t quite hit the heights many expected after making a record-breaking start to the league campaign back in September, the club have benefited from knowing exactly what league they’ll be competing in next year.
That might seem odd considering the chatter of a European football next season, but come the end of this campaign, Villa would have only played 11 top-flight games since the start of the 2010-11 season knowing they were mathematically safe from relegation.
Aston Villa Football Club finds itself in a completely unfamiliar position. On the beach, coasting along, wanting the season to end – call it what you want but Villa Park is never quiet for long and if the past decade has reminded Villa fans about anything, it’s that a divine right gets you nowhere.
Having spent three years toiling in the English game’s second division, whatever proceeded promotion back to the Premier League in 2019 would have been counted as a blessing when trips to QPR, Preston and even Wigan tested the very loyalty of a fanbase eager to see dramatic improvements on and off the pitch.
Only a couple of years ago the club was in dire need of Jack Grealish’s return to galvanize a record-breaking 10 match winning run to secure a Championship play-off place. Finishing mid-table in the Premier League was the dream for supporters back then, and for a pair of owners with loft ambitions too, the club is ahead of plan in the long-term strategy of restoring Villa’s elite status domestically and in Europe.
Dramatic improvements since Villa’s win over Derby under the Wembley arch are obvious, but ever since the end of last season, Villa have made great strides since Smith’s side escaped the trap door on the final day – he’s got credit in the bank for masterminding not only survival but the start Villa managed this season.
After conceding 24 fewer goals this season compared to the last Premier League campaign after 35 top-flight games and demonstrating a clear season on season improvement since Smith took the reins in 2019, the club is in a very healthy place even if the second season back in the big league might have dwindled somewhat.
Though, a league finish, whether that be a top half or bottom half finish this term will not be of consequence to Villa’s transfer plans nor the ambition that Johan Lange will show in identifying and recruiting players in the summer transfer window.
Five new players were signed last summer in another splurge on transfers as Smith looked to increase the level of quality in his squad.
After promotion was confirmed in 2019, Villa had to replace a raft of players who left and sign new talent capable of competing in the top-flight.
Now Villa have a crucial summer ahead, planning for next season knowing the owners’ desire to improve once more.
“We’ve been planning for a long time, the people in the recruitment department and the sporting director have certainly had their finger on the pulse,” Smith said.
“The targets will make me excited, so it should make the supporters excited as well.
“The key is that we strengthened in certain areas (last year). We strengthened the squad and the players from last season got better after their first season in the Premier League. I feel that has been the biggest turning point for us.”
Recruitment and pre-season crucial to Aston Villa’s European charge next campaign
When Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens took control of the club in 2018, they made their ambitions widely known.
Sawiris – who had attended high school at the German International School of Cairo – went on to study at college in the United States and in the year Villa became European Champions, graduated with a degree in economics from the University of Chicago.
Edens has also built an impressive business portfolio and between them both, they boast some serious financial muscle. According to Forbes, their combined wealth comes within the top four of the Premier League owners rich list.
After 58-year-old Edens and private-equity investor Sawiris bought a majority stake in Aston Villa from Tony Xia in 2018, the two immediately pumped £30million into the club, solving a liquidity crisis that had dogged Xia and led to his sale of the club.
Their investment certainly hasn’t ended there, and ambition is. there for all to see. Actions speak louder than words and from significant transfer fees to providing enough funding to ensure all non-football staff wouldn’t be furloughed during lockdown, NSWE have been nothing short of exemplary in the running of the club so far.
“As lifelong football fans, we are excited and privileged to have become part of this great club,” Edens said after taking control of the club. Villa fans are eager to see Edens replicate the well-publicised success he encountered in the NBA with the Milwaukee Bucks.
His analytical-based approach to decision making has allowed Villa to modernise their strategies in the transfer market and also in the resources used to benefit sports science at Bodymoor Heath.
“Our goal is to bring sustainable success to the club, building on its rich history while respecting its loyal fan base and unique culture,” Edens promised after taking control of the club.
“We understand that we are stewards of Aston Villa on behalf of the fans and we take that responsibility seriously.”
In a Q&A in 2019, Edens opined that football as a sport has “got a long way to go in terms of analytics data,” compared to the standards seen in the NBA.
“It’s something we have to make a big investment into,” he said. “If you have great information most of the decisions are pretty darn simple.”
Villa have been proactive in adapting their approach to recruitment and youth academy operations and Edens is the driving force for change. Sporting Director, Lange will help the transition for Villa, who want to become a leading football club in using certain markets and scouting networks to acquire players with the very best numerical and statistical references possible.
While the identification of players suited to effectively assist Villa’s push for European football next season will be crucial, a full pre-season under Smith will also be of huge benefit this coming summer.
After achieving promotion in 2019 through the play-offs, Smith was forced to spend a matter of weeks preparing his squad for the club’s first season back in the top-flight for three years. Having to replace 13 players was one issue, but implementing a philosophy and allowing new arrivals to settle at Villa Park was another.
The following pre-season was clearly disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic which not only prolonged the 2019/2020 season, but also limited the time club’s had to prepare for the following season. With that in mind, Smith remarkably hasn’t had a full pre-season to implement ideas and allow his players to rest since he was appointed as head coach in 2019.
Villa have made great strides in becoming a competitive Premier League team with defence to be envied and an attack to be feared – the club will be looking to continue their assault on the league’s upper echelons in the season to come.