Patience is a virtue: Aston Villa’s project in motion

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Grealish and Smith gave fans hopes of Europe

While the shutters are down and fast-food wrappers flutter violently in Trinity Road gusts, Aston Villa have been busy setting club records, quietly going about their compelling business.

The demolition of Premier League champions Liverpool earlier in the campaign stole Jürgen Klopp’s rock and roll status for one night only, as Villa made their intentions known from the get-go – since Dean Smith’s side have made steady progress.

In a narrative that’s taken Villa from relegation certainties to European chancers, like the 7-2 win over Liverpool, it hasn’t quite sunk in yet. A modern-day Villa team often breaks club records, but not necessarily the ones you want to wake up to on a Sunday morning.

When Villa slumped to their most fragile state during Project Restart, for the first time in 25 years, no midfielder or forward player had registered a goal after nine consecutive Premier League games.

Fast forward five months, and 17-year-old Louie Barry would wheel away in sheer delight after scoring his first goal, with incredibly his first shot for Villa – who’d have thought that a schoolboy 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.

You couldn’t draw a greater contrast from now, and the depths Villa had found themselves in with four games of the 2019/20 Premier League campaign remaining.

A testament to the culture installed by Smith – the manager who holds the proud record of winning more consecutive league games than any other English manager in all top four tiers of English football since 2004 – with those 360 minutes of top-flight football left to play last term, no team in Premier League history has ever made up a greater points deficit than Smith’s side to survive relegation.

“I don’t care what job you are in — football or a factory — these people are all humans with different emotions, sensitivities and lives away from work,’ Smith said about implementing a culture at a workplace. “It’s my job to get the best out of them, so I need to know this stuff. I see the job as the whole spectrum.

“I love coaching, being out there making people better. But it’s the mental side that pushes these lads and if you don’t get a connection with them, players can easily decide they are not going to work for you.”

After the first ten league games this campaign, only last year’s Champions League finalists Bayern Munich and PSG had averaged more goals per game than Villa, in Europe’s top five leagues – the proof is in the pudding, Villa are making some serious strides in fast-tracking their assault on the Premier League’s upper echelons.

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 City 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.

In a congested campaign like no other before it, the League Cup’s starting rounds had come and gone before fans gave the slightest of thought about going one better at Wembley this season, the Premier League fixture list has been certainly busy, if not ridiculously hectic all together, but quite frankly, what’s not to love about that?

It’s the setbacks that will make Aston Villa stronger

The stumble may prevent a fall – much of Villa’s squad hadn’t started walking in the Premier League, let alone competed for 40 points season in, season out. The bulk of Smith’s squad might be used to playing Saturday, Tuesday football, but because of the nature of this Premier League campaign, the games are coming thick and fast.

This season, if nothing else, will test the resilience and mentality amongst Villa’s ranks. Smith has named, on average, the youngest starting line-ups this campaign and so ups and downs will come with the territory. While Villa are yet to concede a goal from an individual mistake this season, a young squad brimming with confidence will have to continue to keep their feet on the ground to manage at least a top-ten finish.

Matty Cash frustrated

After making a record-breaking start to the 2020/21 Premier League season, it’s time to pay attention to the wheels that are in motion at Villa Park. While the chains lock the gates to the Holte End steps, as a golden lion sits proudly, one paw raised, with the beautiful Holte End mosaic in the background, there’s a buzz around these parts again.

In what will be recognised as Villa’s calling card to the rest of the Premier League, for all the glitz of supreme talisman Grealish, the perfect, first-half hat-trick from Smith’s first-choice striker signing, Ollie Watkins and a stunning audition from Ross Barkley, it was only five years ago that Villa found themselves on the wrong end of a familiar battering at Villa Park, after handing out seven goals of their own against Klopp.

Kolo Toure cutting an isolated figure in the middle of Joleon Lescott and Ally Cissokho’s six-yard box isn’t a memory that’s been easy to forget for Villa fans – Toure’s and Liverpool’s sixth goal on that fateful day in February 2016 was the tipping point for Villa’s demise.

Smith was just about getting his feet under the table at Walsall by the time Remi Garde’s Villa were facing a first top-flight relegation since Smith would cycle around Villa Park as a 16-year-old.

Now nobody expected the turmoil that would follow Villa’s relegation with ownership problems, financial crisis, the pain and delight of play-off finals, but neither would you foresee what would proceed in the Premier League.

Smith has been at the forefront of everything that’s good about the club in the past three years and counting and finally, some of the game’s top managers are paying his due credit.

“Villa is my favourite team in the Premier League at the moment,” José Mourinho said on New Year’s Day.

“It’s a team that I enjoy more to watch with lots of very good players, very well-coached. This is what is waiting for us.”

Smith himself has paid tribute to the backing he’s received from club owners, Sawiris and Edens, who have both backed his ambitions.

“We have grown, become Premier League-ready and our acquisitions in the summer have strengthened us,” Smith said.

“Tactically they are proving there is a growing maturity within what is the youngest average-age team in the league. It bodes well for the future, for sure.”

Dean Smith’s effective tactical displays

Where Villa have drastically improved this season, 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 pass 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 fewest touches in the defensive third this term, with 3,183 recorded so far this campaign. In the middle third of the pitch, Smith’s side have registered the second-fewest touches in the Premier League this season, 156 more than Steve Bruce’s Newcastle, who have registered 4114 in total.

Where we can really magnify Villa’s improvements this season is demonstrated with the analysis of how the team have performed in the attacking third and inside the penalty box. Only Liverpool and Manchester City have recorded more touches in the penalty box than Villa this season, as Smith’s dynamic attackers have registered 593 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 than any other team in the division, 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.

Jack Grealish is a big part of the project.

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 150 touches in the attacking penalty area – a Premier League high that demonstrates his attacking influence in Smith’s side. Grealish’s expected assists of 7.2 is only bettered by Bruno Fernandes, while Villa’s captain has made the most shot-creating actions in the league. 91 of his 121 shot-creating actions have actually led to an effort on goal – a high proportion when measured against his top-flight counterparts.

His 66 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 52 different Premier League players, Grealish has moved with the ball at his feet over 6,997 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.

With one of the league’s most creative players… in fact, influential players in world football right now donning the armband, a resolute defence who wear their hearts on the sleeves, and goals in abundance, the Lions are prowling once again.

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