In the last Premier League game before football across the world was brought to a screeching halt by the coronavirus outbreak, Leicester City’s Harvey Barnes opened the scoring in a 4-0 strike against Aston Villa by rolling the ball in an unguarded net.
Countless proactive goalkeepers were forced to leave their goal unattended, yet Pepe Reina was so far off his line he was out of his zone and off camera when Barnes took aim. Incredibly, that was one of two goals Reina conceded as she went over the edge of her 18-yard box on a six-month loan spell at Villa Park.
Entering the forced break, Villa conceded two goals per game, comfortably the worst in the division and languishing second from the bottom of the table. Things were gloomy.
Still, until the end of 2020 – a merciful act for many had it been offered in March – and Dean Smith’s side are in the mix for a Europa League spot, with a slew of games in hand, comes the turn of the year.
In an attempt to shed light on such a mind-boggling turnaround, Villa’s rejuvenation – without the need for a management shake-up – can be roughly split into two stages.
100 days after Leicester rocked Reina four times, Villa did the unthinkable and kept a clean sheet. Granted, that may have been helped by the first Hawkeye mistake in over 9,000 games (and a different keeper). However, Villa’s subsequent performances suggested this shutout was no fluke.
Of their last ten Premier League games last season, Villa have scored just 11 goals – almost half the rate they previously conceded – to win another top-flight campaign.
After flirting with a variety of formations, Smith opted for an uncompromising and rarely modified fullback, with Douglas Luiz seated in midfield, to drastically reduce the amount and quality of chances Villa offered. According to The Athletic, Smith also showed his team video footage showing how the Liverpool and Manchester City players defend, fight and cover each other when necessary.
However, in the end, Smith’s side only provided security on the last day of the season, ultimately propelling Bournemouth to 17th place by just one point.
Villa may have had the sixth best defense after the lockdown, but only two teams have scored fewer goals. To use Rafa Benitez’s analogy, trying to balance the two sides of the game is like wrestling with a short blanket – if you cover your head your feet are cold, if you cover your feet your feet are cold. head is cold.
So, faced with the short blanket paradox, Villa took the obvious approach: they bought a larger blanket.
With one of the best transfer windows in the division, Villa has improved their squad on both sides.
The club’s record signing Ollie Watkins was headline news and the 24-year-old has already equaled the number of Premier League goals all three forwards from Villa last season could muster. Watkins is also taking the scary industry off the ball. It is no surprise that Villa is one of the few teams in Europe to have actually increased their press intensity given that no Premier League player has tried more pressure in the third striker than Watkins this season, according to FBRef.
Between the sticks, Emiliano Martinez tends to be in his 18-yard box on the rare occasions he concedes, while right-back Matty Cash has settled in quickly and Bertrand Traore is also contributing going forward.
However, Aston Villa’s best deal has been to bind their Talismanic Captain for another five years. By averaging a goal or an assist every 115 minutes, Jack Grealish is in the shape of his career. Somehow, the versatile 25-year-old forward has improved in almost every aspect of his game, although teams will – if they weren’t already – keenly aware of the threat. that it represents. Although the fact that it isn’t the only irritant definitely helps.
Now fully restocked, Villa is averaging two goals per game, up from 1.1 in 2019/20. They sit third in the league for expected goals without penalty (via FBRef) and take four more shots per game – from better positions – than last season.
Smith attributed part of Villa’s success this season to the West Midlands giants using a minimum of 19 players in the Premier League. In fact, Smith was forced to make the only change he made to the 1-1 draw against Chelsea despite playing Crystal Palace out of the park two days earlier.
Now more pressure and less spin doesn’t exactly scream durability. However, Villa is not in the middle of a final streak or at the mercy of a miraculous goalkeeper. Smith and his coaching staff didn’t rely on a makeshift generous momentum to achieve such a turnaround, but took it one step at a time.