27 May 2019, the Championship Play-Off Final, Dean Smith’s Aston Villa triumphed 2-1 over Derby County to lift the hearts of a Claret and Blue persuasion. “We are Premier League!” came the chant. As a Villa fan since birth and season ticket holder, it was one of the happiest days of my life.
In the summer of 2019, Villa signed 12 players for around £130 million, including club record signing Wesley Moraes, having shipped out around 20 players in a complete summer rebuild. However, like Fulham last year, Villa have found that spending big on a brand-new side does not guarantee results, and sit 18th with 26 points, having not won in nine games, picking up just two points in that time.
Villa have the league’s worst defensive record, having conceded 62 goals this season. Perhaps Villa’s greatest downfall this season has been of their own making. They have made 10 errors leading to goals, the second highest in the league, and have also dropped 19 points from a winning position this season. Most of their best performances have been in games where they have suffered a gut-wrenching defeat in the dying minutes of games. Ironically, without this flakiness they would be safe on 46 points in 9th place.
Villa have also stopped playing their style of football, meaning they have had a major decline in goals scored. When Smith came in, he brought an attractive, pressing, possession-based style the fans nicknamed ‘Smithball’ whereby Villa were constantly looking to get forward and score goals, with a mentality of simply outscoring the opposition. In first half of this season, Villa scored 25 goals in 19 games, amongst the highest in the league.
However, due to defensive concerns as they kept dropping points, Villa began to sit back and invite teams onto them and into their half. They no longer attack or pass with the bravery, pace and ferocity they once did, and have since scored a mere 11 goals in the second half of the season. They have also continued to ship goals and won only three in 15 matches. A goal scoring striker has been a problem for much of the season, with Wesley getting only five goals before a season-ending injury, and his replacement Mbwana Samatta getting only one league goal. Villa must find a way of increasing their goal output if they are to survive, having only scored two in their last seven games. Villa seem to be constantly battling with a dilemma – do they defend more but lose out on goals, or attack more and risk conceding more?
Villa’s remaining fixtures are a tough run in for a relegation-threatened side. Manchester United, Crystal Palace, Everton, Arsenal and a potential relegation decider on the final day against West Ham United, but as everyone will know, football is a weird, unpredictable game where anything can happen. In such tight scenarios, merely a point or swing in goal difference elsewhere suddenly changes everything in the game of relegation-style Russian roulette.
Captain Jack Grealish has been one shining light for Villa. He leads with seven goals and six assists this season and is the main attacking outlet. Grealish and John McGinn, now back from injury, lead Villa for completed passes that lead to shots. If Smith reverts to a 4-1-4-1 system, it gives room to allow Douglas Luiz, a stand-out player since the restart, to dictate the midfield in front of the back four, McGinn to carry the ball forward and Grealish can do the most damage from the left wing.
Villa need to be braver, get forward again and press the opposition as they allow too much pressure to be drawn onto them which leads to shots, mistakes and inevitable opposition goals. They need to maximise the attacking output of Grealish and McGinn in order to create more chances to score. The relegation crunch time of the season comes down to who is prepared to risk it all to survive, but the worry for Villa is that, especially without the raucous crowds of Villa Park, they simply don’t have enough to do so. Villa can take hope from the fact that teams around them keep losing too, but they will want to start picking up points in order to take advantage of this as they may simply find they run out of chances and are cut adrift.