Aston Villa are over a third of the way through their second Premier League campaign after winning promotion back to the top flight in 2019 and Dean Smith’s side are already looking every bit an impressive outfit.
Competitive across the pitch, from Douglas Luiz’s combative streak with a samba touch to the endeavour of frontman Ollie Watkins, a sprinkle of Jack Grealish magic has too proved the key ingredient on many an occasion.
Villa have been making great strides since the Premier League suspended its remaining fixtures amid the Coronavirus pandemic last season, with Villa playing out the league’s final game – a 4-0 loss at the hands of Leicester City in March.
A microcosm of the dramatic improvements Smith’s side have made this term was staged later last year when Villa edged a 1-0 win at the King Power in the dying embers – Ross Barkley, Villa’s new loan capture making all the difference in November. There’s been plenty of evidence that Villa are a tighter, more effective and efficient unit, full of pride for the shirt and indeed hunger to play for the gaffer on the touchline.
Wins at Arsenal and Wolves followed a statement win at Leicester as Villa’s away record shone above all else. Of the teams who finished in the top half of the Premier League last season, Villa had beaten Sheffield United to open the new campaign, Leicester, Mikel Arteta’s Gunners, Wolves, and incredibly shoved seven past the reigning champions, Jurgen Klopp’s all-conquering Liverpool.
In fact, as 2020 drew to a welcome end, Villa became the first Premier League side since the turn of the millennium to have climbed more Premier League places than any other team in a single calendar year, apart from Leicester who ascended from bottom place to second en route to their title parade in 2015.
Though, Villa did become the first team since Claudio Ranieri’s side to have started the calendar year in the relegation zone and end it in a European spot. Sitting pretty in fifth place as New Year’s rolled around, an unfortunate loss to in-form Manchester United followed a well-fought draw at Stamford Bridge, only four days prior to travelling to Manchester.
While Villa did take a point back to Villa Park last time Smith’s side made the trip to Old Trafford, Villa have this season recuperated 15 points from games they failed to win last term – signs of progression are for all to see and Smith will be looking to cash in on Villa’s strong form come May.
Asked whether he was thinking about European football, the Villa boss quipped: “With the pandemic, I am not thinking about Europe at all, as we can’t travel at the moment!
“But no, seriously, we are not thinking of it. We are just thinking of the next game.
“There is a great focus from our team at the moment and there is a willingness to keep progressing as a club and as individual players.
“As long as I have got that whatever will be, will be. We will just keep working hard. I am pleased with the start we have had.
“There was only the Leeds game that we deserved to get beaten this season. We know we can go anywhere and compete.”
After acquitting themselves well through what has, on paper, been a tricky start to the new Premier League campaign, Villa’s boss knows he can count on his youthful team to rise to any given challenge.
“We were more fearful of these fixtures last season because of the newness of actually getting into the Premier League,” Smith told the Express & Star.
“This season we know where we’re at. We’ve proven to ourselves by going to Arsenal and winning, going to Leicester and winning, beating Wolves and getting a point at Chelsea that we can go and compete with the best in this league.
“We’re excited about the opportunities and we’re ready for them.”
‘We can go and compete with the best in this league’ – Dean Smith installing fearless streak
Fearless on the road
Villa had won just three of their previous 40 Premier League games on the road before starting the 2020-21 campaign with three successive wins away from Villa Park.
A fifth win out of the six trips Smith’s side made this season in 2020 came at the Hawthorns – the very ground Villa sealed a Championship play-off final place for a successive season in 2019.
It has been a frenetic opening to the 2020-2021 Premier League campaign for Villa, with records broken left, right and centre – there’s little left for Smith to surprise not only Villa fans, but suddenly the eyes of a nation captivated by 7-2 wins, 0-3 pastings over the Arsenal, and an away record envied by most.
Before the November internationals this season, only Champions League finalists Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain had averaged more goals per game than Villa in Europe’s top five leagues.
As Villa’s form picked up to stave off a swift return to the Championship last season, away form the last term was rather unsustainable to be thinking about a league finish higher than 17th place. Having failed to win in the 15 away trips that followed a 5-1 win at Carrow Road, Villa relied on home form to carry themselves over the dotted line come July.
Two wins in 19 away games were immediately bettered this season after just 41 days, as Villa won their first three on the road in the Premier League, at Craven Cottage, The King Power Stadium and at The Emirates. In fact, Villa were the only side left in Europe’s top five leagues to have kept three clean sheets in as many away games.
After putting three past former ‘keeper Sam Johnstone, and then another trio of goals against Vicente Guaita as Villa beat Crystal Palace by the same margin, Villa goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez also managed to claim his eighth clean sheet of the season after the opening 13 league games to the season.
Despite going a goal behind at Stamford Bridge, Anwar El Ghazi notched his fifth goal in as many games to set up a fascinating spectacle at Old Trafford. Disappointment and frustration are the words that best describe Villa’s immediate reaction to a game that many fans believed slipped through their fingers – it was there for the taking as Tyrone Mings might have, on another day equalised, or perhaps Keinan Davis saved a point and ended his top-flight goal drought.
Desire and application
Though, what can’t be questioned is a desire and application to the cause that Smith, Villa’s demanding manager, has brought out of a young group of players – Villa had fielded the youngest average starting eleven earlier this season.
With Watkins seemingly involved in every progressive move towards goal, and Grealish gliding in final-third possession, Villa have taken more shots per 90 than any other team in the Premier League. Furthermore, last season’s underperforming, under-firing and simply uninspiring team are now clocking at least ten shots in each game so far this term – a feat unmatched by any other team in the division.
Villa’s capabilities to not only become competitive by means of defensive solidity or midfield dynamism but also by threatening in transition and with lengthy spells of possession with the ball is helped with the justification of ball pressing analysis.
On the whole, pressing among Premier League teams is on the decrease, with every team bar Villa experienced a reduction in the intensity of their pressing in the attacking and midfield thirds since last season.
Apart from newly-promoted Leeds, West Brom and Fulham due to the lack of data available to compare to last season, only Villa have increased the intensity of pressing, with particularly Watkins the key instigator.
Smith’s dynamic system has afforded Villa with more opportunities to make use of Grealish’s ball-carrying efficiencies and club-record signing, Watkins’ pace and movement in behind a high defensive line.
This season, Villa have been content in inviting opponents forward before looking to exploit the spaces in transition. In fleeting moments last campaign, Villa would often break away after absorbing pressure, but to little avail. This term, the tenacity of Watkins, and versatile wingers, Anwar El Ghazi, Bertrand Traoré and Trezeguet have allowed Villa to become a significantly better team – defending from the front and packing a punch when on the ball.
It’s safe to say that Dean Smith’s Aston Villa is well and truly taking shape. An identity based on bravery and taking risks, Villa will sure get the due rewards as the season unfolds.