Aston Villa will build on an encouraging 2020/21 Premier League season

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Smith is a big part of the Aston Villa project

Aston Villa’s 2020/21 season has been a successful one, full of memorable games and individual performances even if fans weren’t allowed on the stands of Villa Park for almost the whole campaign.

Despite making a record-breaking start to the Premier League season, Villa fell short by one place outside of the top 10 to end the campaign in 11th position. The last time Villa had claimed a top-half finish was back in 2011, though the club was soon about to embark on quite a dramatic descent from the heights scaled on years previously under Martin O’Neill.

The well-publicised fall of a club discarded by former regimes and mismanaged by owners to follow during a decade of turbulence and turmoil, even if chatter of a European football was rife this season, a drab ending to Villa’s second season back in the top-flight can’t be berated about without context.

Perhaps matching Barcelona’s global appeal within five years of Dr Tony Xia walking into Villa Park was unrealistic, but actions speak louder than words and Villa’s current owners, Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens are putting sustainable building blocks in place.

The ownership of Aston Villa Football Club has been passed across four continents in the past 15 years with European tours, top-flight relegations and promotions the price of swapping the keys to Villa Park around the billionaires club all too often.

Regimes past and present have all shared the common goal of restoring Villa’s status as an elite European club, but so often in the past, these goals have failed to wash for Villans tired of false promises.

Winning promotion back to the Premier League through the playoffs a year earlier than expected was the first step achieved for NSWE who had big plans for Villa upon arrival back in the big time. Dean Smith hadn’t been in the job longer than eight months but Villa’s daring owners would put their money where their mouth is and back their head coach to the hill.

In reality, for Villa, they’d have a mountain to climb to survive relegation come the turn of the year with some slack recruitment to blame for under-par performances on the field last season – the first time Premier League football had returned to Villa Park for three years.

Fast-forward 10 months and after surviving on the final day of the 2019/2020 season, Villa used every ounce of the momentum gained from a successful Project Restart period to galvanise a promising start to the new league campaign.

Written off as relegation certs for some, the buys of Ollie Watkins, Matty Cash and Emiliano Martínez clearly weren’t considered quite seriously enough. A double-digit tally for Watkins’ first top-flight campaign and plenty of clean sheets to steer Villa clear of any relegation worries within the first months of the season, Martínez might well have been the best piece of business Villa have sanctioned for some time.

With an enviable summer transfer window built on savvy recruitment and player identification, top performances throughout the season became a welcome feature of Villa’s 2020/21 season.

Summer transfer window key to Aston Villa’s impressive Premier League season

First through the door and one that was kept under wraps until a fourth bid of £16million was enough to force Nottingham Forest’s hand was Matty Cash. The full-back left Forest with all the well-wishes of a player that’s stolen the hearts of a fanbase all too familiar with some of England’s finest players down the years.

Cash cost Villa around £16M

The 23-year-old, who had no shortage of offers from around the Premier League, moved across the Midlands to Villa in a deal worth nearly £20million as Smith sought to strengthen his squad that clinched Premier League survival on the final day of last season.

Villa were determined to land the services of Cash, who adds versatility to the squad, plenty of quality and more importantly, an insatiable appetite to improve and learn under Smith.

In his first season at the club and in the Premier League, just like Watkins, Cash made the step up seamlessly and became a mainstay throughout the 2020/21 campaign by making 28 appearances. Following a few bumps and bruises though, Cash’s season was prematurely stopped following an injury he picked up in a 0-0 home draw to Everton.

Joining the club for nearly double the fee that Villa paid for Cash, Watkins was reunited with Smith after the club paid £28million to land his services, which could rise to £33million with add-ons.

The 25-year-old took his Championship tally to 45 goals in 132 games following his impressive goal haul that propelled Brentford into promotion contention last season. Only Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic found the net more often than the Bees marksman in regular league action.

After embracing a warm welcome from his familiar gaffer at Bodymoor Heath, Watkins began the season with a first-half hat-trick against Liverpool before going on to score another seven before realising any young lad’s boyhood dream.

Having earned his first international cap during England’s March International friendlies, Watkins came off the bench to score against San Marino as Smith lived up to the promise he made to Watkins when he joined the club in September, in getting his striker that England call-up.

Smith was determined to bolster his attacking options after his side clinched Premier League safety on the final day of last season and securing the calibre of a striker capable of scoring the sheer volume of goals Watkins managed in the EFL was a big coup for Villa.

While Jack Grealish would continue to play off the left hand of a three-man attack, Bertrand Traoré was then also signed to complete a dangerous attacking trio.

After playing a crucial role in Lyon’s success over the two seasons following his arrival on the Rhône, it was no coincidence that Traoré’s performances contributed to successive Champions League qualifications for Lyon in Ligue 1.

The winger contributed to 41 goals in 91 appearances in all competitions over the 2016-17 and 2017-18 campaigns, including 29 goals coming in off the right flank. In the 2019/2020 season, however, his performances met a sharp decline following Rudi Garciá’s tactical alterations as Lyon boss.

Bertrand Traore is really starting to impress

Lyon reverted to a wing-back system that, while producing a Champions League semi-final appearance against Bayern Munich, saw the French club finish 7th in Ligue 1 – that to the detriment of Traoré’s performances.

Throughout his three year stay in France, Traoré did however form formidable front-three partnerships with forwards Mariano Díaz, Memphis Depay and more recently Maxwell Cornet and the exciting Rayan Cherki.

Upon his return to the Premier League with Villa, Traoré had a point to prove having left Chelsea for pastures new. Having played over 30 Premier League games for Villa this season, the winger even managed to notch double-digits for goal contributions this term.

While Villa went some way in curing their goalscoring woes of the last campaign, the signing of Martínez was one that many fans already knew was a piece of business that would surely be one to propel Villa up the league.

His departure from Arsenal was met with both well-wishes and bemusement – many Gunners fans and former players believed he earned the right to keep the gloves ahead of the new Premier League season.

After a decade in the shadow of preferred number one’s, Wojciech Szczesny, David Ospina, Petr Cech and more recently Bernd Leno, it wasn’t until Project Restart that the Argentine was handed the opportunity to stake his claim.

Martínez didn’t half make use of the chance and testament to his mentality, he left the club he waited over a 10 years to take the starting spot in search of first-team football. Despite no shortage of offers, it was Villa’s ambition to crack the top five within the coming years that sold it for the Argentine.

Martínez has the mentality to match the club’s ambitions and the goalkeeper made a sensational start to life at Villa when the 2020/21 Premier League campaign got underway.

A record-breaking start to the Premier League season

Martinez became the first Villa goalkeeper to save a penalty and keep a clean sheet in the same game at Villa Park in Premier League history. While a goalless draw against the Blades during Project Restart didn’t do much for either team’s hopes of respective survival and European hopes last season, a 1-0 home win over Wilder’s side would prove significant for Villa and Sheffield United this term.

Ezri Konsa got Villa underway with a header to tuck away Grealish’s delivery from a corner and as Villa’s centre-half continued his fine form from the back-end of last season, he wouldn’t be the last Villa player to draw acclaim for individual performances this season.

While Konsa has been at the club for nearly two years now, it’s the success Villa have found in the transfer market that has vastly improved the squad in what was only Villa’s second season back in the top-flight since suffering relegation in 2016.

Baby steps are required for sustainable growth for now, but being proactive and clinical in a tricky market is a must. Upon securing survival on the final day of last season, Villa’s chiefs set out their transfer plans, and luring Martínez to B6 was a priority.

“I’m in the best shape of my career and when I didn’t have the security of that game time, I wasn’t sure about staying,” Martinez told Sky Sports after leaving Arsenal.

“My goal is to play in Europe because I did not come here (Villa) thinking that we are going to settle for not getting relegated. My ambition is to reach the Europa League & that is my goal, my dream, that’s why I work, that’s why I do everything I do.

“I’m fighting to be Argentina’s number one, that’s my dream. Aston Villa is a massive club, I had no doubts over coming here. Everyone thinks it’s a step down going from Arsenal to Villa, but I actually think it’s a step up in my career.”

For all the heartfelt chapters of Martínez’s journey to where he is now, there’s a top-drawer player behind a sincere professional, worthy of every plaudit he’s drawn in the past year or so.

After making 10 Premier League appearances in the 2019/20 campaign, Martínez ranked amongst the very best of goalkeepers to make at least the same amount of appearances as he did last season. 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%.

Martinez has ambitions

Martínez also ranked second best for ‘saves per 90’ and ‘catches per 90’ behind Nick Pope, whose campaign last year was lauded by many. After joining Villa, he was finally able to prove his quality and influence on a team over the course of a season, unlike what he was able to with Arsenal.

An away trip to London was up next for a Villa side who hadn’t faired well in the capital for some time, but as Scott Parker handed his Fulham side with the opportunity to earn their right to play in the Premier League having helped the club get promoted, Villa, and in particular Grealish ran riot.

Villa oozed class with the industry of Watkins, quality of Grealish, McGinn and Conor Hourihane, but while Smith’s side romped to a 3-0 victory, Ross Barkley would join the club in the following days and be named as a starter against Liverpool at Villa Park.

In what was the heaviest of defeats any side had inflicted on Liverpool since Jurgen Klopp took the reins on Merseyside, Villa hit seven to break a 67-year record in beating an English top-flight champion by seven goals.

For all the glitz of supreme talisman Grealish, the perfect, first-half hat-trick from new boy Watkins and a stunning audition from Barkley, it was only five years ago that Villa found themselves on the wrong end of a familiar battering at Villa Park.

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.

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

Villa’s gaffer, Smith has been heading everything that’s good about the club in the past three years and counting.

Restoring 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 Smith. After claiming a 7-2 victory over the reigning Premier League champions, his effect on the club firmly installs Villa’s head coach in club folklore.

While it was in fact mainly Grealish who sealed the deal for Barkley to join Villa on loan in September, Smith got the very best out of the Chelsea loanee before an injury would later rule him out for the festive calendar. Barkley’s goal in the final stages of a win at Leicester the following week made it 12 points from 12 for Villa as Smith oversaw a record-breaking start to the Premier League season.

Missing the Villa Park crowd but becoming away day specialists

A ‘Cazoo’ title challenge was brewing as Villa and Carlo Ancelotti’s Everton both made scintillating starts to the league campaign, but as Smith’s side hosted back-to-back home ties against Leeds United and Southampton, Villa would soon lose their 100% record.

A disappointing 3-0 loss against Leeds ever so slightly took the gloss of Villa’s superb start to the Premier League season, and a 4-3 loss against Southampton would be one that slipped away as Villa rued plenty of gilt-edged chances after trailing 4-0 at half-time.

However, with last season’s goal-scoring woes clearly behind Villa this season, a trip to the Emirates wasn’t the daunting fixture it might have been with the degree of confidence Villa took into the tie. While McGinn’s early opener was ruled out for offside, Villa wouldn’t feel sorry for themselves, but instead, make absolutely sure the Gunners were put to the claret and blue sword.

In what was Martínez’s first game back at Arsenal, in front of the Argentine, Konsa and Tyrone Mings formed a formidable partnership that had set the tone for some excellent defensive displays. In away wins over Fulham, Leicester and Arsenal, the two stepped up to help earn some crucial points and clean sheets away from Villa Park throughout the season.

Villa only took nine points from away fixtures last term before Project Restart kicked off in June, but after winning three of the five games at the start of this season on the road, Villa were making effective use of not only the absence of home fans but also some impressive individual defensive displays.

While Barkley was pivotal to all that was positive with Villa’s start of the season, a hamstring injury in a home defeat to Brighton wouldn’t quite disrupt the run of form Villa required to keep European hopes alive with the festive fixtures looming, but the midfielder’s place on England’s EURO 2020 plane was all but gone.

Consecutive losses to Brighton and West Ham proved Villa’s inconsistencies and lack of squad depth too. With Morgan Sanson set to join the club in January – despite starting the season with a goal and an assist against Fulham – Hourihane was surplus to requirements after failing to impress in his final two games for Villa, in those losses to Brighton and West Ham.

Since joining the club in 2017 until he departed on loan to Swansea in January, no Villa player had scored more goals than the midfielder, but with goals in no short measure as Villa made an impressive start to their second season back in the top-flight, Smith’s side were finding plenty of different ways to find three points.

In what was becoming a goalless stalemate at Molineux as Villa entered the month of December, McGinn’s burst into the penalty box in the closing minutes of the game demonstrated the newly found intent Villa had discovered this season to turn one point into three.

Anwar El Ghazi stepped up to convert the penalty which was won by McGinn, but with the Dutch international already shouldering huge expectations from a minority of Villa fans through the start of the season, he would step up to take the very definition of a pressure penalty.

El Ghazi was subject to online abuse

El Ghazi was subjected to vile online abuse after Villa were knocked out of the Carabao Cup in October. He was targeted on social media after Stoke City beat Villa 1-0 and in the aftermath of the defeat, El Ghazi suspended his Twitter account alongside fellow teammates Henri Lansbury and Kortney Hause.

Ten weeks later El Ghazi scored his first Premier League of the season to help Villa win only their second game in six as his well-taken spot-kick in the 90th minute at Molineux set Villa up for a fine run of form through the Christmas period.

The morning after Villa’s win at Wolves, mental health advocate and Villa teammate Tyrone Mings took to Twitter to dig out those who previously “berated and hounded” El Ghazi back a few weeks before.

He said: “Good morning villains. I really hope all you who were berating and hounding El Ghazi enough to make him suspend his social media, are in his DM’s today, apologising. A team game utilises a WHOLE squad and we need everyone… may your apology be as loud as the disrespect.”

On El Ghazi and the criticism fired his way, Smith added: “The players will know that better than I do but I think (he deleted Twitter) after the Stoke game where he got some stick on there and he decided to leave which is everybody’s right.

“I’m glad he did, because he looked like a stronger person, coming on to score the penalty against Wolves shows he was strong as he won the game for us.

“It’s an individual thing, some people need to read the critique they get or the praise they get. Some can handle things without that.”

Highs and lows through the festive period

A positive festive period would ironically start with Villa registering a Premier League high shot total in a single game when Grealish, Watkins and Co. struck 27 times at Nick Pope’s goal.

Followed up by consecutive 3-0 wins against West Bromwich Albion and then Crystal Palace, Villa were again forced to demonstrate different ways to win a game. Grealish’s footwork was enough for Jake Livermore to see red at The Hawthorns as Villa took three points and three goals away from the Black Country before a Boxing Day clash against Palace would test Smith’s side in their application in adversity.

Mings’ second yellow card reduced Villa to 10 but despite having to do what West Brom couldn’t a week before, Villa won, and in some style. Even if Wilfried Zaha could’ve opened the scoring within the first minutes of the game, Martinez’s fine stop woke his team into producing a top performance albeit with a numerical deficit.

Grealish stole the show again as El Ghazi scored his fourth goal in as many games. With Kortney Hause stepping up to prove an effective understudy to Mings, he scored in between the Dutchman and Traore’s goals.

As Trezeguet had seemingly made the wide right position his own by offering a balance, opposing Grealish’s guile and elegance from the left side, but following a hamstring problem, the Egyptian was forced to give up his extended run in Smith’s side.

“When Trezeguet got injured, people sniff opportunity,” Smith said.

“They’ve all been training well as a group. Credit to the players who are not playing as much. Their training has been superb – and they’ve used that to go on and put in superb performances in like they have done.”

“It was tough leaving Elmohamady and Nakamba out due to their performances against Burnley, but it was a quick turnaround to two days between the games and I thought it was right to bring in fresh legs. It’s been a good test of the squad depth.”

Smith has praised his squad’s attitude in competing for places, whether it be ahead of a weekend clash against a relegation-threatened side or the reigning champions.

“We have shown progression and we need to keep developing as a team. When we are against a bottom side or competing against Liverpool or Man City, that’s what we need to do. Games in this league are tough. When you’ve got a team that is developing like we are, we look forward to them.”

After Villa dismantled a pair of bottom half clubs, Villa would end the calendar year in a European place after starting the year in the relegation zone – a fete last achieved by Leicester City last in 2015.

The common denominator in both club’s successes is Craig Shakespeare. 15 years of coaching experience has taken Villa’s assistant coach on Champions League nights in Madrid, national team duty in Slovakia and even to the summit of the Premier League with Leicester.

Those 5,000/1 odds resonate with the very stories that shone a light on the magnitude of Leicester’s success in 2016. The likes of Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kanté of whom were all recruited from lower league clubs – Fleetwood Town, Caen and Le Havre respectively – headed the Foxes’ assault on the Premier League title.

Shakespeare – who himself enjoyed spells at Walsall, Grimsby Town, Scunthorpe United and even Telford and Hednesford – in many ways proves the archetypical journeyman, but after a playing and coaching career that spans over 40 years, Shakespeare returned home eager to play his part in one of the more exciting projects in English football.

Smith and Shakespeare have previous. They grew up in the same area of Birmingham before they both played for Walsall in the late ’80s, and since, they’ve followed each others’ career paths closely.

Smith was keen to add some top-flight experience to Villa’s coaching ranks having secured the club’s Premier League safety on the final day of a testing 2019-20 campaign and Shakespeare was the ideal candidate.

“Craig is somebody I wanted to bring in previously,” Smith revealed to Villa TV.

“I just wanted to add to the staff, I thought myself, Richard and JT were doing well but I just felt that I needed one pair of extra hands, and preferably someone who’d coached in the Premier League as well.

“He’s got that experience. I’ve known him an awful long time as has Richard, he played with him, I played with him, he’s just a really good coach, a really good guy and he’ll certainly add to what we’ve got in our coaching ranks.”

Treading water with European football slipping away

With European football a real possibility for Villa, a defeat to Manchester United and a draw at Stamford Bridge a couple of days apart wouldn’t have completely derailed Villa if it wasn’t for a serious coronavirus outbreak at Bodymoor Heath at the beginning of January impacting the league season.

Though, as the club’s resources were stretched so far to play out an FA Cup fixture, the attendance of a few schoolboys was required to take on last season’s best in class. Villa’s academy is breeding a new generation of not only Villa talent but England talent, and that was for all to see as some Villa youth went toe-to-toe with Klopp’s full-strength Liverpool.

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 from then, 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. But while chatter of finishing in a European place come May was genuine, Villa would go through a sticky spell of form through to the league camping’s ending.

After cruising to a 2-0 win over Newcastle United in Villa’s second game in a week following the coronavirus outbreak in January, disappointing losses to Burnley and West Ham would come in-between equally as inspiring victories over Southampton and Arsenal.

While six points out of a possible 12 is a whole lot better than stalemates and draws, it was positive to see Smith’s side earn victories and play some expansive football, but as Villa travelled to the south coast to play Brighton in February, they’d be returning with a few injuries… some more significant than others.

With rumours of a Grealish’s knock that he picked up at the Amex being more severe than first thought surfaced across social media, Villa fans were fearing the worst, knowing what devastation had been left previously when their talisman was sidelined.

Grealish’s battles with injuries have been both freakish and in part due to the nature of his unique game. Having won more fouls than any other Premier League player in a single season last year, which followed being fouled 149 times during his final Championship campaign the season before, it’s a miracle his absence isn’t more common.

Grealish was missing longer than expected

Though, after missing 13 Championship games through the months of December to February, Grealish has a history of missing more than just the odd few games. After sustaining a freak kidney injury on the eve of the 2017/18 Championship season, Grealish also missed the first four months of his second Championship campaign.

The only crumb of comfort Villa fans took from the injury blow to their talismanic skipper was that, unlike previous years when dwelling in the Championship, Smith has built a competitive top-flight team – even if Grealish had played such a vital role in much of Villa’s successes this term.

Back to front, from Martínez to Watkins and Traoré, Villa have recruited extremely well over the past two transfer windows. Even last season’s much scapegoated purchases, Matt Targett and Douglas Luiz continue to improve with every passing month.

Though, simply put, there are very few club’s in world football that wouldn’t miss the quality of one of the most creative footballers in Europe let alone the Premier League. Three wins in 14 followed that goalless draw at Brighton and Grealish’s absence was obviously a significant factor.

That run of form is hardly the run of form Villa have required to mount a serious bid for European football either, but even after a drab few weeks, there’s a project underway at Villa Park.

“Our job now is to try to benefit from the owners’ vision of the club, which is to go and compete for the highest honours,” Smith said at the start of Villa’s 2020/21 campaign.

“We want to try and mirror what Leicester City did in winning the title and Wolves getting into Europe. Those are our ambitions and our aims.”

Lofty goals perhaps, or simply the correct attitude of a boyhood Villa fan determined to steer his club back to the glory days of yesteryear. Whichever way you choose to look at it, Villa are heading in the right direction.

Smith’s Villa have this season been lauded for an attacking brand of football, a watertight defence and indeed effective player recruitment – with every passing week we learn more about his intriguing side.

Little more needs to be said about Villa’s miraculous turnaround, from relegation certs to European hopefuls within the space of six months speaks volumes in itself. The finer details behind the club’s revival – and there’s no shortage of them – are revealing if not enthralling too.

Yet, in the same season that Villa demolished the league champions 7-2, a loss to ten-man Sheffield United – who nearly finished the Premier League season with fewer points than that of Villa’s relegation side of 2016 – has proved that in these bizarre times, Villa can leave you picking your jaw up off the floor one night, and ruin your weekend before it even begins the next.

Villa’s final away day of the season at Tottenham pushed the club over the 50 point mark after winning for only the fourth time since the end of February, and after wins against Leeds United, Fulham and Everton during that time.

Before ending the campaign against Chelsea at Villa Park, fans were welcomed back to the home they hadn’t visited in over 13 months and with Villa comfortably occupying a mid-table position since the turn of the New Year, manager Smith believes his side will be even better equipped to challenge in the Premier League next season.

He said: “We’re building a squad that’s capable of challenging in the top half of this league. There’s been a progression from that period of lockdown to where we are now. We want to keep progressing.

“Our jobs as coaches is to improve each and every player but also team performance. I thought the first half of the season was very good.

“We’ve been a bit hit and miss in the second half of the season but individually you can see we’ve now got better players and more depth for playing in the Premier League.

“That’s something we’ve worked hard to create and they will be better next season from playing this season.”

While Villa exceeded expectations to secure promotion back to the Premier League in 2019, proved the doubters wrong to survive against all the odds in 2020, and made significant improvements this year too, do you want to bet against the Villa going one better again next season?

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