Aston Villa finished as runners-up of the inaugural Premier League season back in 1993, but nearly three decades on, the Birmingham outfit face dropping into the wilderness of the Football League for the second time in five years.
Villa in 2019/20 – the Story so Far
After two defeats from the opening brace of fixtures, Villa’s first win of the season was an accomplished one, to the tune of 2-0 over an Everton side that travelled as clear favourites on the night. Villa also showed great spirit in moving past a VAR-enacted daylight robbery at Selhurst Park with a run of eight points from the following 15.
Alas, Villa would take just four points from the following 27 available, hitting a nadir with a pathetic capitulation at home to a Southampton side they simply had to beat. Three further wins since have kept Villa above the dotted line, but the statistics remain troublesome.
Amongst the most alarming of Villa’s traits is the inability to consistently recover after conceding first. Significantly, while Villa’s high rate of games with both teams scoring betrays an admirable lack of fear in the face of any opponent, the fact remains that they have lost on 11 of 14 occasions to date where they have conceded the first goal. Furthermore, Villa has recovered just seven points from a possible 42 after doing so.
The squad’s collective lack of Premier League experience is also reflected in their tendency to fade during road trips. Notably, Villa have outscored opponents 8-7 in the first half of play during away games, but have been outscored themselves 19-8 after the break. Ahead of their defeat at Bournemouth on 1 February, Villa had also conceded the joint-highest number of goals in the league beyond the 75th minute.
Can January signings boost Villa’s cause?
As a result of Villa’s defensive shortcomings, current Premier League Predictions reflect a general lack of faith in their ability to survive. However, Villa are only slightly odds-on to drop, and unlike fellow promoted side Norwich, it could take as little as four more wins from here for Villa to secure bare safety.
Of the new arrivals, two names stick out as significant in the context of Villa’s survival fight – that of Chelsea loanee Danny Drinkwater, and the £8.5m Mbwana Samatta from Genk.
Drinkwater had a debut to forget, and the rust from years of being a peripheral figure at Chelsea showed badly in the 6-1 home defeat to Manchester City on 12 January. Despite making such a dismal start to life as a Villan, Drinkwater still has the hunger that could give Villa more of a combative edge, especially during those troublesome latter stages of away games. He was, after all, part of the Leicester team of 2014/15 which survived from a much bleaker situation than the one currently occupied by Villa, and knows well the rigours of a relegation dogfight.
Samatta strike an encouraging twist
As the marquee January signing, fellow newcomer Samatta has been forced to adapt quickly to the pace of the Premier League.
Signing from a far-inferior Belgian league, Samatta is by no means the complete package yet, but an early maiden strike has bought him some vital time under difficult circumstances. By all accounts, he has shown ample desire to impress during training sessions, and his hard work has yielded a quickfire start to life in England.
As has been witnessed in the past, Samatta could still easily become a victim of his own success. His actions against Bournemouth will not have gone unnoticed by the remainder of the league, and there is no guarantee that he will enjoy such life-affirming moments against better defensive backlines.
Nonetheless, the header he scored in the defeat at Bournemouth showed the sort of aerial prowess and athleticism that has been lacking in Villa’s frontline of late. Samatta’s jumping ability more than compensates for his sub-6’0 height and the fact that it was Villa’s first headed goal of the season speaks volumes about their previous problems in the air.
Villa fans can but hope that with a new menace from flighted set-pieces, one point may turn into three on occasion, and make all the difference come the season’s finale.
Grealish exit rumours may be a distracting factor
Of course, there is only one man on the name of Villa lips in the long term, and Jack Grealish’s form will make all the difference between triumph and despair. As of the Premier League’s winter break, he is still the club’s top league scorer, and will likely finish up as such unless Samatta goes into overdrive. He also tops the squad’s assists charts, with only Anwar El Ghazi anywhere near him.
A scorer in each of Aston Villa’s last four away wins in all competitions this season, boyhood Villa fan Grealish grew immensely as a player and a person during the years of Villa’s lower-league exile. Such character-building experience has equipped Grealish psychologically for the survival battle ahead, with that mental resilience working to great effect alongside his natural talents.
In turn, it comes as no surprise to see the stronger forces of the top-flight courting him, with Manchester United linked to a bank-busting swoop in the summer. The man himself has shown no open desire to leave Villa, but should Grealish feel put upon to excess, even Villa’s survival may not be enough to keep him in his native parish.
Whether or not Manchester United make good on their desire to sign Grealish may well depend on the form of their own midfield MVP Bruno Fernandes. Furthermore, United may well be in a position to try and reduce the wage bill in the summer, but this still leaves Grealish open to alternate destinations.
Beyond favourites Manchester United, Tottenham are currently deemed the next-likeliest side to pursue Grealish. With the London outfit recently losing Christian Eriksen to Inter Milan, they have a considerable war chest in addition to a gaping hole in midfield.
Additionally, with Jose Mourinho bringing out the best in other number tens (Dele Alli and Son Heung-Min) this year, Grealish may yet be taken in.
Ultimately, the form of Samatta and Grealish will be key to survival. However, it is on the other men who negotiated Villa’s 49-game slog to promotion in 2018/19 to make that a positive element, rather than a grievous flaw within the current setup.