Relegation battle to title contenders
Last year was the most interesting year in recent memory. Like many other sports, the uncertainty in football had led to a bizarre outcome- with teams over-performing and underperforming, tight fixtures in between national games and domestic cup competitions. Least of all, the lack of fans in the stands had further affected the financial and psychological aspects of the game globally. However, the troubling times has has brought a lease of life for a few surprising teams and players.
Aston Villa 2020/21
Aston Villa are arguably the best surprise the premier league has offered this season. Currently, we can say they are punching above their weight, despite the struggles in recent weeks with rising Covid-19 cases. Covid19 also caused Villa to field an U23 team in their FA Cup fixture loss against Liverpool.
Despite these setbacks, they have produced some superb performances this term, notably during the memorable 7-2 thumping of Liverpool and the 3-0 win against Arsenal. They also got away with a 1-0 away win against Leicester City and Wolves and had good games against Brighton and West Ham, despite being defeated on both occasions. They were unlucky to have lost against both Manchester teams in previous fixtures even after playing very impressively in both games. Against Manchester United, they were on a five-game undefeated streak-winning three of those matches. However, things were not as sweet for them considering the situation they were in during the same period, last term.
Dean Smith has been a lifesaver for Villa after helping them avoid relegation last season. However, as we pen this article, they are 8th in the table, with more games to play than any other teams. They have a two game advantage over other sides. They also managed to get a taste of the top four during a couple of occasions this term and they did the unthinkable when they managed to overpower Liverpool in a 7-2 performance. They have so far enjoyed an impressive 2020-21 campaign to date, picking up 29 points from their 17 matches. The speed of play and the ambition of the squad has been evident all season with the high-intensity football they play week in and week out. Villa’s Dean Smith received the manager of the month award for December for his team’s performance and dominance.
Not Just Grealish
It is questionable whether Aston Villa would be on the same level without the presence of their highflying talisman Jack Grealish. His contribution to the game this season is undeniable and the amount of quality he provides is what makes them more dangerous. Villa with wise summer recruits and with Jack Grealish in the playmaker role; the quality to carry a genuine run for the title is not to be written off. Grealish has scored five goals and nine assists in 17 previous Premier League appearances so far, which are great numbers considering he is a midfielder. However, for Villa, the success this term is not the product of a player, but rather a success bought with proper recruitment in the summer and the presence of more than one world-class player in the team. Besides, they have used a squad consisting of the fewest numbers (19) and are the youngest side in the Premier League this season. The link-up play in attack and the discipline they bring to the game is something that makes them good to watch.
Key Transfers and Style of Play
Emiliano Martinez’s move from Arsenal proved to be crucial for the Villa as the Argentine has not only been an ever-present figure but also has 8 clean sheets registered to his name already. Whereas defender Ezri Konsa has also had a wonderful season at Villa Park so far playing an important role in Villa’s robust defence. Also, according to WhoScored.com, Konsa is the only defender in Europe’s top five leagues to have played 10 or more games this season without been dribbled past once by an opponent player. Meanwhile, defenders Tyrone Mings and Kourtney Hause alongside Konsa have so far managed 8 clean sheets for Martinez. How impressive that sounds, their quality in defensive play is what has made them hard to break down this season. They have so far conceded only 18 goals and they have managed to score 31 times during this time. Other than that in 14 matches, they have created 10 goals through set pieces, which is just six short of their entire tally of last season.
Chelsea loanee Ross Barkley had been combining well with Jack Grealish and Ollie Watkins, settling well into the game with a memorable debut against Liverpool. Even though Chelsea are demanding a huge paycheck for making the loan deal permanent, the impact Barkley delivers to Dean Smith’s side is pivotal. The idealistic plan had given Dean Smith enough quality players like Ollie Watkins, Anwar El-Ghazi, Jack Grealish, Trezeguet and Bertrand Traore to play a formidable brand of entertaining football. Meanwhile, Tyrone Mings and John McGinn have played every minute of football this season alongside Captain Jack Grealish.
Ollie Watkins, another summer signing had managed to score six goals in his first seven Premier League games, including netting against the likes of Liverpool and Arsenal. However, his recent goal drought, although he scored against Newcastle last night, has proved to be a concern for Dean Smith considering the lack of a proper attacker in the camp. Bertrand Traore and Anwar El Ghazi meanwhile have proved to be important figures in the last couple of games as their role is turning out to be more crucial for Villa. In addition, the presence of Douglas Luis and John McGinn in the middle of the park is a great revelation for Dean Smith, considering Villa’s ability this season to close spaces in the middle of the park. To pressure the opponent with the ball was also another strategy adopted by Villa this term with the team often slotting into a 4-4-2 Defensive style during the game.
Despite this, their likeness to change formation is important for this high-pressure game plan. The idea of having a well-balanced defence and attack is what makes them different from Leeds United, who play a similar brand of football under Bielsa. Villa like to deploy a progressive style of football despite this being their least effective way of playing, and their quality in widening the play through the wings through precise interplays and through balls is exceptional. The major role of Grealish in becoming much more of an all-rounder in the game, has further made it hard to man mark him. This tactical advantage along with their quality in the final third was visible in their game against Liverpool. However, with struggles ongoing with Watkins, Villa are pressurised more to deliver in the final third, which leaves them vulnerable in defence as well. In their defeats to Southampton, Brighton, West Ham and especially against Manchester United, Villa found themselves falling into their own traps despite dominating against opponents who preferred to sit back. In addition, Villa it is being reported have agree a deal with Marseille for midfielder Morgan Sanson for a fee of £14 million as a replacement for Conor Hourihane, who has departed the club on loan for Swansea City after failing to make any progress under Dean Smith.
Villa’s big fixtures with Spurs and Everton were postponed due to the club’s senior squad and staff turning out Covid-19 positive this past month. However, their first team made a comeback against Manchester City, in a match of more defensive play than attack. Villa played the game with a game plan to sit back defensively and try to surprise City in counter attacks. However, they were unable to make the tactics work as they were dominated by City throughout the game. Dean Smith would be more satisfied with his team’s dogged defensive display until the first goal. They held out until 79th minute, when Bernardo Silva, brilliantly fired into the top corner from the edge of the box. The controversial goal, ended with Mings and Dean Smith, both being sent off for their protests. City had 24 efforts until then, and before the final minute, they managed one more goal against a largely distraught Villa. Villa rode their luck during the entire game, especially with some important clearances from Emiliano Martinez in goal.
Without FA Cup action this weekend, Villa beat Newcastle 2-0 last night. As of now, they are placed 8th in the Premier League with 29 points in 17 games. Meanwhile, Dean Smith was slapped with an £8,000 fine and a one-game touchline ban for his actions in their last game, meaning he was not available in the dugout in person for last nights game. Villa were also without John McGinn for this match after he picked up his fifth yellow card of the season against City. Villa undoubtedly welcomed the win considering they have had three crucial away defeats to Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City. Villa still have two games in hand over the teams that are around them in the table.