Restoring Aston Villa’s Premier League status, setting a new club-record winning run and leading the club to a League Cup final was all in a whirlwind year and a half for Dean Smith.
Though after falling to a 3-0 defeat to Manchester United six games into the Premier League’s Project Restart, the writing was on the wall for Smith’s Villa side who plunged deeper into relegation trouble.
It was fast becoming a returning top-flight season to forget as the relegation picture became clearer, though what seemed a certainty in June, is perhaps the catalyst for Villa’s Premier League resurgence. Smith is a man well versed in the fickle nature of football – never let the highs get too high, or the lows get too low.
It was an opportunity to produce a truly great escape as Smith remained the eternal optimist – he never backed down nor shirked responsibility, even if only the most confident of Villa fans were left dreaming of top-flight survival.
Villa were setting new records for all the wrong reasons as Project Restart became mission impossible. Not one forward or midfielder at the club had scored a goal for nine games, the worst goal drought in any Villa side in 25 years, set after Smith’s side acquitted themselves well in a 2-0 loss at Anfield.
You don’t get any bonus points for putting up a good fight in the Premier League… but you try and tell that to an unrecognisable Villa side now after putting up threes and fours in the Premier League this season, even seven against the champions-elect.
Seven was a familiar number for Smith’s side, who had to scale that number of points deficit to cross the dotted line come late July. With only four games left to play, a crucial win over Crystal Palace might well have altogether altered the fortunes of this proud club, slowly realising its potential once more.
‘The fallen giants’ had ambled back to their feet under the Wembley arch 12 months before the club found itself backed against the wall in a relegation fight – optimism has rarely been traded in these parts over the past decade.
A vital win over Arsenal followed a late blow at Goodison Park before Jack Grealish chose the perfect time to notch his first goal in 14 Premier League games at the London Stadium to seal Villa’s top-flight status on a dramatic final day.
And so it seems, Smith’s tricky Villans never looked back.
Only Champions League finalists Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain had averaged more goals per game than Aston Villa in Europe’s top five leagues as the November international break brought league proceedings to a halt this season.
It’s been a frenetic opening to the 2019-2020 top-flight campaign for Villa, with records broken left, right and centre – there’s little left for Smith to surprise not only Villa fans, but suddenly the eyes of a nation captivated by 7-2 wins, 0-3 pastings over the Arsenal, and an away record envied by most.
Eyes are finally fixed on Jack Grealish, the club talisman whose performances seem to get even better with every passing week. Though, this is no one-man show, back to front, Villa’s fluid attack is hard to mitigate and so far, the away set-up so hard to breach, Smith has built a proper Villa side, even if Grealish is pulling the strings to a tether.
Villa even became the final team to have kept clean sheets in every one of their trips on the road this season in Europe’s top five leagues, and in some style too, winning comfortably at Fulham, Leicester and Arsenal.
Dean Smith’s Villa built on solid foundations
Villa failed to keep a clean sheet away from Villa Park in the league last season, the only side in the division to do so. But after keeping all three of their hosts at bay before the November international break this season, Smith’s side haven’t only new arrivals to thank, but also some effective tactical tweaks.
A £20 million fee for Emiliano Martinez wasn’t accounted for before Project Restart began but when Bernd Leno left the Amex Stadium on a stretcher during Arsenal’s return to league action in the summer, all hopes of Mikel Arteta side’s ending the Premier League campaign with a bang were seemingly over as their number one left the field in agony.
Martínez – who hadn’t made a Premier League appearance since 2014 – was drafted in to replace Leno. The Argentine was trusted by Arteta and formerly Unai Emery to play in cup competitions, but when Arsenal went 2-1 down to Brighton in June, the thought of counting on superb goalkeeping performances to win FA Cups and Community Shields would’ve been an unlikely eventuality.
Martínez had been banking on his chance for almost ten years, waiting in the wings to take the chance promised to him for almost a decade. His story, however, starts well before a debut on the south coast.
Martínez’s overdue audition for the number one jersey was a timely coincidence for the 6’2″ ‘keeper who’d used a full-size goal in his back garden to keep on his toes during the lockdown period.
It was more a mental, psychological game than anything else for Martínez having spent the duration of his Arsenal career second or even third choice – but he wasn’t going to let this opportunity pass.
He took it with both hands, and not only would he hold onto the gloves, but he’d also be raising aloft the FA Cup and Community Shield come the end of the 2019-20 season after some sublime performances against Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool.
Impressive displays and a natural ending to his ten-year spell at Arsenal spelt business for Villa’s chefs, keen to make the most of an opportunity to lure – at least in a statistical light – one of the best goalkeepers in the league.
As a youngster, Martínez set out to become an outfield player, and so it might not come as a surprise that during Project Restart, he recorded a 100% success rate with short goal kicks, open play passes under 20 metres and all thrown passes.
Martínez is more than capable of structuring attacks from the back, his quick distribution at the Emirates to allow Grealish to run the length of the field and assist Ollie Watkins to apply a third for Villa is evidence of how crucial he will be for Villa in this respect.
As a student of Pep Guardiola, Arteta demanded that his goalkeepers played out from the back, meaning Martínez had to be good with his feet if he was to impress in his late-season audition. His distribution came as an added bonus for Arsenal last year, but where he really impressed was simply his ability to keep the ball out the back of the net.
Martínez proved himself to be equally adept at making the most important of saves. His 96th minute stop against Liverpool was a genuine contender for save of the season, and his final day stop from Danny Welbeck was far behind either – a save that arguably kept Villa in the league last year.
On his debut, the Argentine became the first Villa goalkeeper to save a penalty and keep a clean sheet at Villa Park in Premier League history when he batted away John Lundstram’s spot-kick on the opening day of the season against Sheffield United.
After making ten Premier League appearances for Arsenal at the back end of last season, Martínez ranked amongst the very best of goalkeepers to make at least the same amount of appearances as he did during the restart. It comes somewhat unsurprisingly that the Argentine recorded the league’s second-best ‘total save %’, with only Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris bettering his score of 78.6%.
Martínez also ranked second best for ‘saves per 90’ and ‘catches per 90’ behind Nick Pope, whose campaign last year was lauded by many. Statistics also show that no other goalkeeper made a higher percentage of saves from ‘shots inside the penalty area’, and according to Opta’s expected Goals on Target stats (xGoT), Martinez prevented an extra 2.9 goals from being scored in his nine outings.
His ‘post-shot expected goals – goals allowed’ figure also ranked the best in the Premier League at +0.48. This variable measures, in layman’s terms, how good a goalkeeper is at saving shots that should have gone in. Martinez also ranked highly for ‘ball recoveries per 90’. On average, he recovers 3.39 balls per 90, which would suggest he is quick and alert off his line, to prevent direct balls in behind a defensive line.
For every fingertip save, commanding catch or pin-point pass, Martínez’s attitude and mentality to prove the critics wrong will remain his outstanding quality in a story that has taken him from Mar Del Plata to Villa Park – he’s eager to make his next chapter with Villa a memorable one.
Pragmatic and effective on the road
This season, Villa boasts the fourth lowest expected goals (xG) against per shot average. What this means is that although they have conceded a decent amount of shots, these shots aren’t of great quality which suggests the defensive structure employed by Smith and executed by his players is working well.
In fact, Smith is happy to absorb pressure and allow the opposition to take shots at goal. Judging by Martínez’s impressive numbers this season and last, Villa’s system is likely to remain throughout the manager’s tenure. Tyrone Mings last term blocked more shots than any other Premier League player, while no defender was beaten by fewer players than Villa’s centre-half, which demonstrated Mings’ capability to fit into Smith’s defensive block and too, Mings’ defensive qualities.
While Villa still had the second-worst defensive record and the worst combined xGA total in the league last season – despite every improvement during Project Restart – Smith knew he had to supplement his squad with some added quality.
A £36 million outlay for Martínez and Matty Cash is the sort of money that wasn’t going to altogether transform Villa’s defensive woes, but up until the November International break, Villa looked a more athletic, secure back-line.
In his first four games to the new campaign that saw Villa pick up 12 points from 12, three clean sheets and a 7-2 win over Liverpool, Matty Cash has not only been a mainstay in Dean Smith’s side but also a stand out from his seemingly reserved full-back role.
As Cash took to the pristine field at the Emirates to make his seventh start of the league season, he faced the daunting task of keeping current Premier League golden boot winner, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at bay.
For the first time, Aubameyang played 90 minutes in a Premier League home game without attempting a shot against Villa – indeed, Aubameyang was one of only three outfield players who didn’t record an attempt for Arsenal in the game, testament to Cash and Villa’s organised display.
Cash holds all the attributes to be a success, and with the opportunities, Smith will hand him, he’ll more than likely take them too having earned the chance of making it in the Premier League. Martínez, Cash, Mings, Konsa and Matt Targett have all played a crucial role in Villa’s early season form.
Villa had conceded the joint fewest number of goals in the division – nine, before the November internationals, and while Smith’s side have conceded the seventh-highest number of shots this term, Douglas Luiz’s vastly improving game has proved to be the foil Mings and Ezri Konsa were crying out for before the Premier League was suspended last season.
The most startling statistic that demonstrated Luiz’s impact on Smith’s side during Project Restart was the number of xG against Villa. Before lockdown came, Villa conceded an xG of 2.35 per 90. This was by far one of the worst in the league. However, after the restart, that value dropped to 1.17 per 90 – an improvement largely down to Luiz’s performances.
Before the league’s restart, the Brazilian had one of the lowest defensive duels won % with 49.18%. This was a low ratio for a defensive midfielder, as he engaged in a relatively low number of defensive duels, only attempting 6.10 per 90. The average for the Premier League was 7.32 per 90, so Luiz wasn’t the holding midfielder Villa required at times last term.
Interestingly though, after the restart, the 22-year old had the highest defensive duels won %, with a staggering 67.85%. Luiz won almost 20% more defensive duels, which is surprising as Villa lost more. This success % is by far the highest in the league for defensive midfielders, only challenged by Chelsea’s Mateo Kovačić with 63.92%. Furthermore, this success was far greater than the league average of 57.44%.
Luiz has taken the form he exhibited at the back end of last season to play an instrumental role in Villa’s impressive performances at the start of the campaign. Not only are the plaudits coming from Birmingham though, Brazil manager Tite is a big fan of the midfielder. So much so that Luiz has started all four of Brazil’s recent CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers.
Defending from the front: Watkins and Trezeguet’s grit, Grealish’s guile
Smith’s dynamic system has afforded Villa with more opportunities to make use of Jack Grealish’s ball-carrying efficiencies and club-record signing, Ollie 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 the ever-improving Trezeguet has allowed Villa to become a significantly better team – defending from the front and packing a punch in attack.
Watkins only took to the striker’s birth at Brentford last season, as boss Thomas Frank created a formidable front-three with Said Benrahma, Bryan Mbeumo and Villa’s record signing who headed the highest-scoring Championship attack of the season.
“I normally call him the beast,” Frank told Sky Sports. “He’s a remarkable player and person. He’s so dedicated.
“He’s so dedicated to improving every single day, so he’s a coach’s dream because of course, we want to focus on little details. We’ve been working very hard on his positions and how to run in the box and the link-up play.
“Overall he’s just improved massively as a player and also as part of the leading group. He’s driving the team. Look out there how hard he works – it’s a joy to have a striker like that.
“He’s one of the hardest, if not the hardest working offensive players in the league, and he’s also the top scorer. That’s not a bad combination.”
After his first months in a Villa shirt, Watkins measures well against forwards in the league for his tireless contributions so far. The striker has completed the second most pressures in the attacking third, meaning that Watkins has hassled and disrupted more defenders in their own half than another striker in the division. Only Mohammed Salah has recorded more pressures in the final third than Watkins’s 73.
Callum Wilson and Watkins are separated by ten pressures – the biggest interval listed in the rankings. Completing 132 pressures around the pitch overall, we can determine that Watkins is capable of working off the ball in any zone across the pitch, despite being in a positional sense, Villa’s frontman. In fact, Watkins’ 51 total successful pressures are only eight fewer than the Premier League’s most, with N’Golo Kanté and Allan topping the charts from holding midfield roles.
Either side of Watkins, you’ll find the elegance of Grealish and industry of Trezeguet – a player who simply won’t give up his starting place since sparking Villa’s Project Restart revival against Palace, before scoring a vital winner against Arsenal last season.
From the right flank, Trezeguet has contested the second most dribbles of all wingers this season at 52. Falling short to only Andros Townsend in both measures, Trezeguet has also recorded the second-most pressures among players of his position this term at 150.
An intensity matched by few other sides in the league is an impressive feat for Villa, who struggled to adapt to the division last season with fitness levels, there’s usually a reward for the squad’s hard work.
In the box this season, only Salah has made more touches in the opposition’s box than Jack Grealish. 75 touches in the box for Villa’s creative man might not come as a surprise with the amount of progressive running he gets through with the ball, but given Villa’s pragmatic low block on the road, there’s evidence that Villa are efficient through defensive and attacking transitions.
Ross Barkley, Watkins and Trezeguet also feature in the league’s top 25 players to have made the most touches in the box.
Away from goal, Jack Grealish has carried the ball over 2,899 yards – surprisingly the second most in the Premier League this term. This will no doubt change as the year season develops considering his total progressive distance of 1,968 yards – by a long way the furthest distance in the top-flight.
Grealish has been effective with his running with the ball, completing 23 dribbles this season equates to an 81.2% success rate. With Barkley also registering an above 80% success, Villa’s two ball carriers are statically the most efficient with the ball out of Premier League players to have completed more than 13 dribbles this season.
Effective and efficient in the final third
For all the hard yards put in at the top end of the pitch so far this season, surprisingly, Watkins is averaging a small number of shots per 90 – just 2.57. He’s efficient with chances, which is something Harry Kane and Salah haven’t got to worry about, with chance creation higher for strikers in topsides, playing in more expansive systems.
Regularly averaging between three and four shots per 90 in order to secure their standout goal tallies, Watkins is making the most of his chances in front of goal. Before the November international break, Watkins managed six goals in seven league games, including a first-half hat-trick over Liverpool and a brace against Arsenal.
He’s proving to be a big game player, in games he’s making a great effect on despite limited chance creation and difficult, long balls to deal with. Smith’s side have also exhibited improvements in attacking set-pieces.
Villa won 525 fouls last term, 47 more than any other side, and so offensive set-plays should’ve been a serious threat with the delivery of Conor Hourihane, Grealish and John McGinn, all capable of registering assists close to or exceeding their expected assists per game.
It took 26 game weeks for Villa to score directly from a set-play last campaign, through Bjorn Engels against Tottenham Hotspur in what became Villa’s final game at home before the Coronavirus lockdown suspended the Premier League season.
This season, it took Villa only an hour to score their first goal from a set-piece, as Konsa rose highest in a crowded Sheffield United box. That solitary goal seemed like a decisive win for Villa on the opening day, with three points ground out before exacting big wins over Liverpool, Leicester and Arsenal.
Open-play chance creation was, however, promising last term. Only Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City crossed more balls into the box than Villa’s 95 total. But after relatively poor conversion rates, Smith has managed to replicate some late-season goal-scoring know-how as the new season develops.
During last season’s Project Restart, five of Villa’s seven total goals were scored within the same attacking phase that proceeded either a free kick or corner, highlighting how well Smith coached certain tactics to his players without completely working on routines at Bodymoor Heath, but over Skype and Zoom calls instead.
The league’s indefinite suspension through March to June allowed Smith to take a step back and devise plans to improve defensive frailties and set-piece flaws, both in attacking and defensive situations. Grealish had won more fouls than any other player last season and in any other Premier League campaign before it, yet Villa’s goal count from set-plays was considerably low.
There is no simple answer to make sense of Villa’s impressive and at times bizarre start to the new Premier League campaign, but Smith knows consistency will be the key to make use of a promising start.