The Premier League is a land of opportunity unlike most other major European competitions, and much like a deposed politician, Aston Villa have discovered just how quickly fortunes can change.
Except in their case, Dean Smith has led a revolution for the better. Rather than be ejected from office, the commander-in-chief has led Villa from the brink of relegation to European contention. There can be no feeling of disappointment even if they fail in that pursuit.
One point was all that kept the club enlisted in the top flight last season, when Smith secured eight points from their last four games to keep his side up. If nothing else, their manager had accomplished his job of securing survival in their return to the first tier, finishing his first full term with a no-frills total of 35 points. That feat was made all the more satisfying by the fact Smith was born only a short drive away in West Bromwich.
Six months later, Villa have amassed only three points fewer at the halfway stage of the current campaign and racked up 10 wins, one more than they managed in the whole of the 2019-20 season.
The team benefited from two controversial decisions by the video assistant referee to clinch a valuable 1-0 victory at Southampton in Week 21, a second win in three and their first maximum-points haul away from home in 2021:
Smith won’t mind the messy means by which those points were secured. The club’s summer signings are a large contributor in the club’s climb to ninth in the table, and goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez—a $25 million recruit from Arsenal—went a long way to proving his value in particular:
The clean sheet at St. Mary’s Stadium was all the more welcome after Villa lost four of their first five games of the new year, though the recent dip in form is more understandable given the level of competition they’ve faced. The Birmingham outfit drew 1-1 at Chelsea in their final match of 2020, followed by league losses at Manchester City and Manchester United, with an FA Cup exit at Liverpool’s hands sandwiched between.
Those misses against the Premier League’s biggest superpowers—some nearer than others—are a chief indicator as to why it may be unrealistic to expect a return to Europe this year. Martin O’Neill famously led the Villans to three consecutive sixth-place finishes between 2008 and 2010, but competition to crack those top six spots is steeper than ever.
Can Villa's defense make them contenders?
Outside the more established ranks of City, United, Leicester and Liverpool (who make up the current top four), it’s foreseeable Arsenal will continue to rise following a renewed run of form under Mikel Arteta, while new Chelsea hire, Thomas Tuchel, promises to improve their situation. That’s without mention of Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur and Everton, who are impossible to ignore under Carlo Ancelotti’s command despite severely lacking in consistency.
To their credit, Villa have clinched important wins against some of those contenders. In the space of one month, Smith’s men secured wins over Leicester and Arsenal, and no-one at the club will forget their 7-2 scorching of Liverpool in a hurry, regardless of how anomalous the result may prove:
But significant wins have come parallel to oversights against the likes of Leeds United, Brighton & Hove Albion and Burnley, from whom Villa took one point in their two meetings this season. The holes are still too many to keep their ship floating among the ‘true elite’, but the general outlook is hugely positive, especially if we consider the nail-biting manner of their top-flight return last season.
Only Manchester City (13), Tottenham and Arsenal (20) have conceded fewer than Villa’s 20 goals this season, while only five Premier League peers have outscored them (34 goals), each of whom have played at least one game more. Their starting XI has drastically changed from the one that clinched promotion from the Championship in 2019 and frequently outperforms xG expectations, as highlighted by Cian Carroll:
Transfers set the club's new foundation
Last summer’s new arrivals have improved Smith’s squad in all areas, leading Villa to thrive as a result of their newfound depth while adding quality options to the starting XI. Questions may be asked as to how long the club can keep hold of talisman Jack Grealish, though the homegrown star will be as tempted as any other to find out where their trajectory leads, particularly after he signed a new contract in September.
Owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens—who took a controlling stake in July 2018—are reaping the benefits of investment in stars like Ollie Watkins, Martinez, Matty Cash and Bertrand Traore. That group cost a little more than $100 million combined last summer, boasting an average age of just 25 (Martinez being the oldest by a distance at 28).
Sporting director Johan Lange—hired from Copenhagen in July 2020—has taken little time to leave his mark on Smith’s side, helping the manager create a team worthy of challenging for Europe.
Clubs face a conundrum in how fiercely they spend on squad upgrades after sealing survival, for fear their value could be lost should they fail to preserve their place in the Premier League. Villa opted to be aggressive in the market despite the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, signing each among the aforementioned quartet in September 2020—as well as Ross Barkley on loan from Chelsea—and that money is proving well-spent, both for now and the seasons to come.
Lange’s endeavors continue to have a positive effect, as seen with the January signing of Marseille midfielder Morgan Sanson, a deal that would have been considered outside Villa’s reach this time last year.
A succession of the correct hirings, both on and off the pitch, looks destined to help Villa back to the heights they enjoyed a decade ago. It’s easy to argue the feat is more impressive now considering what was once an exclusive top four in the Premier League has expanded substantially since they last featured in Europe.
Leicester set a new standard in what could be accomplished in the division when a club is run properly, their 2016 title triumph coming as a result of good management and great boardroom business working in tandem.
Villa are making moves of similar promise as they build a lineup capable of challenging the hierarchy, a gradual process in most cases but one that’s lifted the club’s prospects faster than expected. A European comeback will likely prove out of reach for Smith in 2021, but Villa’s off-field improvements mean it seems only a matter of time before continental conquest is back on their list of priorities.