Last season Aston Villa finished one point above the relegation zone in their first season back in the Premier League. But Dean Smith has big asperations.
Fans of a certain age will remember Aston Villa as the one-time champions of Europe, winning the European Cup in 1982. And while that seems so long ago, with Villa more accustomed to the bottom half of the table, Smith believes they have to be aiming for European football.
“Villa footballers have won the top trophy before, the European Cup in 1982,” he told the Guardian recently.
“I’m not saying I’m going to lead the team to that but that has to be the aim: to plan, over the next five or six years, to try to be challenging in Europe and things like that.”
Some rival supporters may look to take the quotes out of context, mocking Smith for believing Villa can be challenging for European football. But the Villa boss will of course be aiming to move up the table rather than down it, and it’s not impossible, they just need to work on a few things.
Reduce the reliance on Jack Grealish
It’s safe to say Grealish plays a crucial role for Aston Villa. The 25-year-old has been the team’s star man for some time, both in the Premier League and the Championship.
In helping Villa remain in the Premier League last season, Grealish created 91 chances in 36 games, 75 of which came from open play, only bettered on both metrics by Kevin De Bruyne across the rest of the division.
Most chances created in the 2019/20 Premier League season
? De Bruyne (136)
? Grealish (91)
? Alexander-Arnold (87)
? Buendia (83)
? Maddison (79)
? Moutinho (77)
? Willian (76)
? Digne 72)
? Ward-Prowse (62)
?? Salah (61) pic.twitter.com/I1oPnV8dvA
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) July 27, 2020
Those performances saw Grealish linked with a move away from Villa over the summer, with Manchester United among those credited with interest. But, having received his first England call up and cap, Grealish signed a new five-year deal with Villa, committing his future to the club until 2025.
A boyhood Villa fan and so far a one-club man, Grealish spoke of his delight in committing his long-term future to the Villains, telling their official website: “I am delighted to make this commitment to Villa. It is my club, my home and I am very happy here.
“The owners have made it very clear to me how ambitious they are and how they want to build Aston Villa. There are exciting times ahead and I am very glad to be part of it.”
But while the deal is certainly an excellent one for Villa, they need to build on this and avoid becoming Jack Grealish FC.
Naturally with Grealish only bettered by De Bruyne for chances created, he was of course Villa’s chief creator last season, but the gulf between him and his closest teammate is the cause for concern.
After Grealish’s 91 chances created, the next Villa player was Conor Hourihane who registered just 38. John McGinn (37) and Anwar El Ghazi (30) were the only other Villa players to create at least 30, though only McGinn created at least 30 from open play.
Grealish was also the only Villa player to be directly involved in more than 10 Premier League goals, scoring eight and recording six assists, highs for both among his teammates. In terms of an overall involvement, Grealish’s goals and assists accounts for 34.15% of Villa’s total Premier League goals last season.
That meant, more often than not, that if Grealish had a bad game, as every player is susceptible to, then Villa struggled. In fact, in the 13 Premier League games in which Grealish created at most one chance, Villa won just once, beating Everton 2-0 near the start of the 2019/20 campaign.
Of the remaining 12, Villa drew three and lost eight. When restricting it to games in which Grealish failed to create a chance, Villa lost all four matches. Of course, they also lost matches when Grealish was creating chances, most notably the 3-0 defeat to Southampton at the end of 2019 in which he created his highest single-game tally of seven, but that’s where he needs quality around him.
Looking back into the goal tallies for the season, Villa’s two recognised centre-forwards Wesley and Mbwana Samatta combined to score six goal (Wesley 5, Samatta 1). Yes, Wesley missed the second half of the season through injury and Samatta only signed in January, but Villa fans and Grealish would have hoped for more. Villa have looked to remedy this in signing Ollie Watkins from Brentford after his excellent season in the Championship but how well he will do in the Premier League remains to be seen.
They also need to look at adding creativity from deeper positions in midfield, though McGinn can still provide this if he has a full season.
Becoming Wolves 2.0
Villa fans may not like the comparison but to get European football they will have to mimic Midlands rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Just two seasons ago Wolves were promoted to the Premier League and, despite being tipped to struggle, they secured Europa League football by the end of their first campaign. They may have dropped slightly down the league last season, in part due to the busier schedule, but they certainly look more likely to challenge for Europe again than fight against relegation.
OFFICIAL: Wolves have qualified for the 2019/20 Europa League.
— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) May 18, 2019
It’s progress that Smith himself admires, telling the Guardian: “You see the progress Wolverhampton have made over the last three years and that’s been fantastic to see as a fellow Midlander.
“You can’t help but admire what they’ve done. So a club as historically esteemed as ourselves should be aiming at that level as well.
“That’s what our owners will be aiming at and that’s what we have to aim at as coaching and playing staff.”
One of the foundations on which Wolves built their 2018/19 Premier League campaign was their defence, conceding 46 goals. Although this may sound like a high amount, only the top four conceded fewer than Nuno Espirito Santo’s men that season. In contrast, Villa last season conceded 67 goals with only Norwich City (75) conceding more, but the Villains definitely showed signs of improvement post-break.
Villa’s final 10 games of the season saw them concede just 11 goals, a good amount for a team that had looked a guarantee for relegation went the Premier League was suspended in March. But perhaps more remarkable were their performances in the final three games, which effectively secured safety. Beating Arsenal and drawing with Everton and West Ham, Villa conceded one goal and faced just two shots on target. They restricted Everton and West Ham to one apiece while Arsenal did not test Pepe Reina at all.
It’s not just defensive solidity that this shows, however. The performances were real team efforts, playing as one unit with the goal of safety clear in the mind. We’ve only had one chance to see Villa play so far this season, a League Cup second-round tie against Burton Albion which they won 3-1. But there were glimpses of the togetherness and fight, even among a slightly rotated team, having to come behind after conceding inside the opening couple of minutes.
It may be too soon to say Villa can do a Wolves, but if they build a balanced team around Grealish this season and remain strong at the back, they’ll be on the right path.