Football Features

The Barkley x Grealish connection has Aston Villa’s ‘Wolves project’ ahead of schedule

By Harry Edwards

Published: 18:51, 23 October 2020

Prior to the start of the season, Aston Villa manager Dean Smith outlined the club’s long-term plans.

Despite having barely escaped relegation in 2019/20, Smith revealed Villa’s aim has to be to challenge in Europe as they did in the 1980s.

He used Wolverhampton Wanderers as an example of Villa’s aspirations, Nuno Espirito Santo’s side having qualified for the Europa League in their first season back in the top flight.

Smith caveated his optimistic aim by admitting he might not be the one to lead the team to Europe. But after the first few games of the 2020/21 season, that is starting to look less impossible.

The Villans are currently second in the table, having won all of their opening four games. This makes them the last remaining ‘perfect’ team in the Premier League and one of only two in Europe’s top five divisions, alongside AC Milan.

Premier League top six selected odds with William Hill:

  • Everton: 8/13
  • Man Utd: 8/13
  • Leicester: 12/5
  • Wolves: 5/2
  • Aston Villa: 5/1
  • Leeds: 13/2

*You have to be 18+ to gamble. All odds and offers within this article are accurate at the time of writing (13:40 22/10/2020). BeGambleAware.

Sheffield United, Fulham, Liverpool and Leicester City have all fallen to Villa, including a 7-2 thumping of the reigning Premier League champions.

At the heart of Villa’s perfect start has been the blossoming partnership between Jack Grealish and Ross Barkley. The latter was a loan signing from Chelsea made at the end of September, with Barkley having played three games for the Blues across all competitions.

Barkley was thrown straight into the deep end in the home game against Liverpool but thrived as Villa pulled off the comprehensive win, scoring his side’s fifth (albeit via a deflection). That same game saw Grealish score twice and record a hat-trick of assists, continuing his excellent form for Villa.

Although they are both attacking players, Barkley and Grealish have very different ways of approaching the game. While Grealish likes to control matches on the ball, taking the game to his opponents as shown by his dribbles, chances created and fouls won, Barkley is more than happy to be on the periphery. Almost giving off an aura of being off-pace, Barkley can pick his chances to break, hurting opposition defences as shown by his late winner against Leicester.

The arrival of Barkley, combined with the return of John McGinn (who incidentally has more assists than both Barkley and Grealish), has lightened the load on Grealish, who was often the sole performer for Villa last season. With less responsibility and more freedom, Villa are getting the best out of Grealish while not being completely reliant on the 25-year-old.

Grealish’s enthusiasm for his new midfield teammate is evident not only in their on-field demeanour (and during post-match interviews). According to the Telegraph, he was ‘instrumental’ in convincing Barkley to join on loan from Chelsea.

And their chemistry is not the only positive change. Villa have also tightened their defence this season. That 7-2 win over Liverpool was remarkable for so many reasons, not least because it actually resulted in the only two goals Villa have conceded in the 2020/21 Premier League. As this would lead you to expect, no team in the Premier League has conceded as few as Villa this season while only two teams in the division have conceded fewer shots on target. Summer arrival Emiliano Martinez has also maintained an impressive save percentage of 87.5%, which includes an effort from the penalty spot.

Up next for Villa is a potentially tricky match against Leeds United on Friday night before games against Southampton and Arsenal, followed by the November international break. If Smith’s side can remain unbeaten by then, who’s to say they cannot push for Europa League football in the second half of the season and bring the ‘Wolves project’ ahead of schedule?