Alex Keble continues his Premier League club reviews with Aston Villa, and why tactical deficiencies may see them relegated.
"The club have fallen slightly short, and yet assuming they will be in a good position to roar back in 2020/21 supporters won’t look back on the current season with too many regrets."
When Aston Villa spent big in the summer of 2019 opinion was split: either they were doing a Fulham or sensibly restocking a depleted side with astute signings. In the end it proved to be neither, and instead the defining feature of the campaign has been a tactical deficiency.
Villa are weaker than the sum of their parts, a squad of talented players inexplicably too porous in defence and unable to hold onto leads. Dean Smith's side have looked brittle when the chips are down, and have shown little inventiveness when performances began to sharply decline in 2020. The Premier League suspension has come at a good time for Villa. Relegation was beginning to look like a certainty.
Season so far
Things began relatively well for Villa, and indeed as their televised games through the autumn brought heroic defeats to 'Big Six' sides pundits everywhere declared the club would be just fine. But rather than build on these competitive displays Villa simply couldn't learn from their mistakes, picking up just seven wins across the season - all against struggling sides.
The main reason for this is Smith's wide-open tactics that appear to lack the complexity required at Premier League level. Villa are a ball-playing side, a short-passing side, and a high-line side, but rather than instigate this with a clearly defined pressing game, or adapting it to fit higher quality opponent, the manager's tactics play out like a Football Manager gamer clicking the pre-set buttons for possession football.
The loss of John McGinn and Tom Heaton around Christmas had a big impact, although Villa's real problems stem from a shape that allows better teams to glide through unopposed. Villa conceded 56 goals in 29 games, the worst in the division.
Reaching the EFL Cup final in dramatic fashion, Trezeguet volleying in a 118th minute winner against Leicester City at Villa Park, is a memory the fans - who poured onto the pitch at the final whistle - will never forget. The final itself was another heroic defeat for the club, Claudio Bravo tipping a shot onto the post near the death to give supporters a 'nearly' moment to remember.
Villa's remaining highlights come from the first half of the campaign, when spirits were high. The 5-1 win at Norwich in October suggested the club were clicking into gear, while the 2-2 draw with Man Utd at Old Trafford gave hope Villa had overcome their jinx. It would prove to be the only point Villa won against 'Big Six' opposition.
Jack Grealish's performances have been a joy to behold, and his blossoming into a Premier League star has been both expected and not. Everyone inside the club knew he could make the step up, but few predicted he would raise his game quite so much, equalling his goal and assist tally (13) for the whole of last season.
Both Southampton and Bournemouth did the double over Villa this season, a serious low point, but arguably the main lowlight of the campaign was their most recent game, a 4-0 at Leicester that made it four consecutive defeats. In that match Villa were truly dreadful, suggesting all confidence had gone, and suggesting Smith - who looked a beaten man after the game - was out of ideas.
Douglas Luiz and Danny Drinkwater have been big disappointments, with central midfield something of a disaster area for the club since McGinn's injury in December. Frequent defensive errors, characterised by consistently shambolic defending from corners, has undermined John Terry's position, too.
What they can achieve in 19/20
Relegation, priced at 1.42/5 with Betfair Exchange, is by no means guaranteed, although if the Premier League does recommence at some point then Villa would need around 12-14 points from 10 matches. Their pretty dreadful run-in previously suggested that was beyond them, but the tournament's long suspension could offer hope.
McGinn and Heaton would be welcomed back to face daunting ties against Chelsea, Liverpool, Man Utd, and Arsenal. With only one remaining home game against bottom-half opposition (Crystal Palace), Villa would need to pull some shock results out of the bag. It's possible, but not likely.
What next: Summer transfers & 2020/21
Whatever happens over the coming months, and whenever football resumes in England, Grealish is surely going to leave for a bigger club. Man Utd are the favourites, at 4/6, with Chelsea (10/1) and Spurs (10/1) also in the mix. Likely relegation also means another couple of big names gone, perhaps McGinn and Tyrone Mings, which will leave Villa with some holes to fill.
However, theirs is a very strong Championship squad and, on sizeable wages, it isn't likely too many will push to leave. Villa can anticipate a good go at winning the second-tier title should they go down, as well as being well-placed to sign a couple of the most promising Championship players over the summer.
The 2019/20 season was always going to be hard for Villa. Indeed had a couple of close results gone the other way they would be out of the bottom three and, perhaps, be reflecting on a job well done (for now). Then again, serious question marks are being raised about Smith's viability at this level, even if the likely alternative - a fire-fighter like Sam Allardyce - is anathema to Villa fans.
The club have fallen slightly short, and yet assuming they will be in a good position to roar back in 2020/21 supporters won't look back on the current season with too many regrets. A League Cup final, some wonderful entertainment from Grealish, and a first Premier League campaign for three years; it's hardly been disastrous.