Premier League 2021-22 preview No 2: Aston Villa

Guardian writers’ predicted position: 11th (NB: this is not necessarily Paul Doyle’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)

Last season’s position: 11th

Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 150-1

Aston Villa are a rising force; the only questions are how high can they go and how fast? Among the people mulling over those posers are Jack Grealish. He surely knows that winning a major trophy with Villa would be a more beautiful feat than anything he could achieve with Manchester City, but the midfielder, who turns 26 in September, must also be tempted by the guarantee of regular and imminent Champions League and table-top action. Villa are in no position to make such promises just yet, but they are heading in the right direction and can expect to continue doing so if Grealish remains committed to the cause.

Villa won two of the 12 league matches Grealish missed through injury last season but they still finished with a 20-point improvement on their previous campaign, climbing six places to 11th. Making such progress again will be much tougher because the air becomes more rarefied the higher teams scale, but European qualification is not necessarily beyond Villa’s reach. The reasons for last season’s improvement still apply: savvy coaching, vibrant spirit and shrewd recruitment, of which there may be more before September.

Villa have very rich owners but are building patiently, literally and figuratively: they have plans to expand the stadium and revamp the training ground; their cultivation of budding talents saw the club win the FA Youth Cup last season for the first time in 19 years; and their first team is young and hungry.

So far Villa have been restrained in the transfer market this summer, with the signing of Emi Buendía for a record fee their only major outlay. The ingenious Argentinian is likely to succeed where Ross Barkley failed last season and should reduce the reliance on Grealish for creativity, whether he plays behind a lone striker or from the right wing. With Bertrand Traoré likely to improve on his strong second half to last season and John McGinn encouraged to provide even more thrust from midfield, Villa are set to be thrilling to watch and unpredictable to defend against.

They have a degree of depth, too, with Anwar El Ghazi reasserting his credentials towards the end of last season, Morgan Sanson apt to make an impact when he returns from injury and the 20-year-old Jacob Ramsey showing rich potential, while the free signing Ashley Young could still make useful contributions at the age of 36. All the same, to beat the elite on a regular basis Villa could do with even more invention in midfield, hence the summer interest in Emile Smith Rowe and James Ward-Prowse. The focus on the latter, for whom they have made a £25m bid, also reveals an eagerness to improve set-piece deliveries: Villa scored 11 goals from free-kicks or corners last season but have the armoury to net more with better service, especially if Grealish stays and opponents continue to make him the most fouled player in the league.

Up front Villa have a reliable goal-getter in Ollie Watkins, who excelled in his first season in the top flight and is likely to surpass last season’s tally of 14 goals. But the player hailed by Dean Smith as the best pressing striker in the league is so critical to the way Villa play that it would be a worry if Watkins were to suffer an injury, since they have no obvious replacement. Smith’s search for players who could make an impact either as a centre-forward or wide man has led to an agreement being reached to sign Bayer Leverkusen’s Jamaica international Leon Bailey.

Villa have an outstanding and inspirational goalkeeper in Emiliano Martínez. They also have an admirable first-choice defence. Tyrone Mings, the rousing leader, and the quietly brilliant Ezri Konsa form an impeccable partnership in central defence, while Matty Cash and Matt Targett are fine full-backs. And each of Villa’s defenders can be expected to get better. The way that most individual players have developed under Smith in the last two seasons has been a big factor in the collective progress. There is no reason to expect that to stop.

Smith is wise and confident enough to surround himself with able assistants whom others might construe as a threat to their jobs; he hired Thomas Frank to work under him while at Brentford, and at Villa he brought in Craig Shakespeare and John Terry before the latter left in July to pursue his own managerial ambitions, no doubt having learned much from Smith. While repairing Villa’s leaky defence in their first season after promotion has been one of the most impressive feats by Smith and his staff, the manager is attack-minded and encourages Villa to play with an ambition befitting former European champions. He tends to preach the virtues of continuity and is not one to rotate lineups out of dogma, so it is handy that he has an ability to foster a happy atmosphere in which players out of the starting XI remain motivated to work their way into it.

Martínez. OK, Grealish is a genius and and will remain integral to most of what Villa do going forward (if he sticks around). But you could say something similar about Lionel Messi, and he could not lead Argentina to Copa América glory until Martínez came in to inspire the team in July. On the back of that triumph, and a superb debut season for Villa, the goalkeeper is likely to continue infusing his team with confidence, and all while pulling off extraordinary saves on a regular basis.

Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens, both billionaires, combine to be the third-richest owners in the Premier League and they have big ambitions. Since taking charge of Villa in 2018 they have funded steady progression. Amid the uncertainty over Grealish’s future, Villa fans may take heart from the basketball team that Edens co-owns. After repeatedly rejecting bids for their star player, Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee Bucks were crowned NBA champions this summer for the first time since 1971.

Not the Euros but the Copa América, followed by the Olympics. Douglas Luiz, who showed signs of wear towards the end of last season for Villa, has had a busy summer for Brazil. He will surely need a break before regaining his best form in Villa’s midfield.

Stan Jones’ 1948 song (Ghost) Riders in the Sky has been covered by everyone from Elvis to Johnny Cash and Debbie Harry, but the Villa fans’ take on it is uniquely rousing – and promises to be even more so when they return amid a pandemic. Holte Enders in the Sky is an invocation of the memories of Villa fans who have died, and an expression of enduring love.

The good One of the best atmospheres in the Premier League and the charm of a stadium where each stand has its own character.

The bad A capacity of just below 43,000 and a season-ticket waiting list of around 13,000. Villa plan to upgrade their ground.

The Lion Rampant of Scotland, where the king of beasts famously abounds, has been Villa’s emblem since the 19th century owing to the influence of George Ramsey and William McGregor, the founder of the Football League. Fans long complained that the creature looked like a cuddly toy won at a fun fair, so in 2016 it was given a ferocious makeover, which basically meant adding claws.

“Dean Smith is Villa through and through but he has taken us as far as he can”

“We should never have doubted Dean Smith!”

“If Ezri Konsa isn’t in the next England squad, Gareth Southgate should be sacked”

“Buendía is the new Messi”

In 1998 the fan who dressed up as Hercules the Lion to entertain the crowd on match days was relieved of his duties following a half-time kerfuffle with a beauty queen.

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