Aston Villa, one of English football’s greatest institutions, are back in the big time.
Some Birmingham and West Brom fans may disagree but for the most part, this is something to celebrate. Away day trips to Villa Park are some of the best around, while the Premier League has just not quite been the same since the 1982 European champions dropped out.
The Villains have certainly been busy in the transfer market, too, in an effort to make sure they avoid dropping out the top flight again, making no fewer than nine signings so far.
Sure, it could all go up in smoke, just as it did for Fulham last season, but to be fair, Villa have let a number of players leave the club – including Glenn Whelan and Mile Jedinak – meaning they were left short on numbers and in need of more depth.
So, with this reshaped and repurposed squad, just how might Dean Smith deploy his team next season? We’ve taken a look at three options.
1. Create to inspire
Yes, they’re a newly promoted side but this is Aston Villa we’re talking about. Their fans will want, no, expect more than just bunkering in for 1-0 wins here and there. They want to see their side entertain and inspire. Most importantly, and rather unlike their last season in the Premier League, they want to have fun.
Well, this first line-up is certainly stacked with creativity and flair. In goal, Jed Steer will continue to hold out Croatia international Lovre Kalinic, who has conceded 15 goals in just eight games in a Villa shirt so far. Ahmed Elmohamady impressed at Afcon 2019 and will continue at right-back, while Matt Target will bring further dynamism to the left side following his arrival from Southampton. Tyrone Mings made his loan stay permanent for £20m and will continue at centre-back alongside new signing and England U21 international, Ezri Konsa, who signs from Brentford for £11.97m. Both centre-backs are as tenacious as they are graceful with the ball and Villa should have no problem progressing possession with these two.
The midfield three will be the same as the trio that won the Championship Play-off Final against Derby County. In the absence of a true destroyer – such as Whelan – John McGinn and Conor Hourihane will have the job of dishing out both offensive and defensive duties between them. If one goes, the other stays, but both will be charged with shielding the defence, especially when Villa’s full-backs press high up the pitch.
And why will these two have so much responsibility on their shoulders? Well, this is where it gets really fun. Jack Grealish will, of course, be deployed ahead of Hourihane and McGinn, with licence to pretty much wander wherever he wants across the pitch, as long as he’s picking up possession and creating. The 23-year-old notched six goals and seven assists last season and is undoubtedly Villa’s star man, this is a huge chance for him to prove how much he’s matured on the big stage.
Tammy Abraham’s 25 goals were vital to Villa’s promotion last season but it looks like Frank Lampard has some serious plans for him at Chelsea. However, Welsey Moraes has arrived for a club-record £22.5m to fill the void. He and Abraham are two completely different players, though, with the former excellent at dropping between the lines to link play and create space, while the latter is a predatory striker, hellbent on scoring in the box. Smith’s tactics will have to change but flanking Wesley with Anwar El Ghazi – who managed six goals and six assists in the Championship last season – and new signing Trezeguet should provide plenty of thrust in the spaces Wesley creates. Trezeguet, especially, is an exciting signing having scored and assisted at Afcon 2019, while playing more key passes (7) than any other Egyptian player at the tournament.
This side has pace, flair and guile in abundance and could be just what the Villa fans are looking for.
2. Bunkering in
But as we mentioned before, Villa are a newly promoted side. That has to be kept in mind and when it really boils down to it, fans would much rather consolidate than play wild, attacking football but concede their way back into the Championship.
In this more defensive line-up, Steer remains in goal, while three of the back four remain the same. The only change here would see Neil Taylor come in at left-back, with his extensive international experience with Wales potentially holding massive value to Smith’s side.
Villa will definitely need a destroyer in this system but with the departure of Whelan and Jedinak, options in this department are shot. As a result, Iceland international Birkir Bjarnason will step in. The 31-year-old isn’t the most graceful footballer but he’s an incredibly tenacious and robust ball-winner. If Villa are under the cosh, you can count on him to make vital tackles and win aerial duels, meaning he can even step in-between Konsa and Mings if required.
Ahead of him, McGinn will continue to carry out his box-to-box role, helping Bjarnason when required but also getting forward with the ball to relieve pressure whenever he can. Grealish will play alongside McGinn and while he won’t quite be afforded the same amount of freedom he would in a more attacking system, Smith will still look to him for creative flair.
Wesley will once again be deployed up front and while his ball retention skills will still be vital, it’ll be more about pressure release than freeing up wingers. The first of those wide slots would be taken up by Jota, who made the controversial switch from Birmingham earlier this month. The Spaniard notched an impressive 11 assists last season but plays much deeper than El Ghazi, as a functional winger rather than an inside forward. On the left, Targett would be pushed forward slightly. The 23-year-old started eight games as a wing-back for Southampton last season and is just as solid as he is adept at crossing the ball. He can protect Taylor while also getting to the byline and finding runners in the box.
Sure, this line-up depends more on functionality and discipline but if it keeps Villa in the Premier League for this first season, it’ll give them a great platform from which to build.
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3. The perfect blend
If the first one is too hot and the second too cold, the third one should be just right.
Smith may be inclined to call upon more international experience for this third line-up, and so, Kalinic would take the gloves, while James Chester comes in at centre-back to replace the young and relatively inexperienced Konsa. The other three defensive spots remain unchanged.
A double pivot of McGinn and Bjarnason provides all the requisite ball-carrying, passing and battling qualities needed of a midfield which must both retain possession and keep the opposition at bay, while Grealish would once again taking up the No. 10 role means Smith won’t be short of that delicate pass in the attacking third. In fact, he, Jota and Trezeguet could rotate freely between themselves, popping up all over the place behind the main striker and proving to be a nightmare to mark. Each has their own unique blend of pace and guile and will give Villa a real unpredictable edge.
This time, Jonathan Kodija will be deployed up front. The Ivorian scored twice at Afcon 2019 and is a brilliant dribbler, able to operate anywhere across the forward line. This only supplements those behind him; as he drops out to the left, Trezeguet bursts inside, or maybe he drops into the No 10 position and allows Grealish to run beyond him and drive at the centre-backs? You get the picture. Fluidity all over the pitch.
How does the current squad compare to 2015/16?
Villa’s 4-0 defeat to Arsenal on the final day of the 2015/16 marked a new low in a season of new lows and remains the club’s most recent Premier League fixture. All that is about to change, of course, but how does the current Villa crop compare to the one that took the field on that miserable day at the Emirates?
It’s safe to say Steer has had far more success in a Villa shirt than Mark Bunn ever did, while Kalinic is yet to prove himself but already has extensive international experience under his belt with Croatia.
One of Jordan Lyden’s seven Villa appearances came during this game but injuries destroyed his career in the Midlands – Elhmohamady is certainly an upgrade here. In fact, right across the defence, the likes of Kevin Toner, Aly Cissokho and an ageing Joleon Lescott pale in comparison to the likes of Mings and Konsa – Villa should be much tougher to break down this time around.
The likes of Carlos Sanchez, Idrissa Gueye and Ashley Westwood were great performers for Villa and are still doing the business at the top level today. Gueye, especially, has been a revelation for Everton and looks set to make a switch to PSG soon. McGinn and Hourihane have been excellent in the Championship but simply cannot be compared to Gueye. Grealish, meanwhile, now has his chance to show he really can cut it in the Premier League.
Jordan Ayew and Scott Sinclair managed just nine goals between them during this relegation campaign and while the latter has gone on to find success with Celtic in Scotland, the former has remained inconsistent in the Premier League, scoring just nine goals in 70 top-flight games. If Wesley lives up to his billing, he should have no problem eclipsing any of those totals.