Four games played, four wins and three cleans sheets. That’s Aston Villa’s record going into their Carabao Cup tie with Stoke City on Thursday. Villa remain the only team to have not conceded in the Premier League, which is no mean feat given that there have been almost 100 goals already in the competition. They’re also six games unbeaten – pretty impressive stats for a team threatened with relegation for so much of last season.
They had the second-worst defence in the league last term, conceding 67 goals. Project Restart was the catalyst for a change. Following his side’s victory at Fulham, head coach Dean Smith pinpointed this as the reason Villa are now winning games.
“Before lockdown, we were guilty of being gung-ho trying to win games. After lockdown, we defended deeper and in numbers.”
There were a lot of parallels between Fulham’s season this year and Villa’s return to the Premier League. Like Fulham, Villa lost their opening two games. Like Fulham, Villa were attractive going forward but poor at the back. Villa have addressed their issues and now a team that appeared lost in the Premier League looks to be at home.
Aston Villa and Their Positive Start to the Season
Summer Signings Having an Effect?
It’s no secret that Villa’s first season was fraught with transfer trouble. Several players looked unable to cut it in the top flight and former sporting director Jesús García Pitarch (Suso) was deemed surplus to requirements this year.
This summer has seen Villa spend £88 million on four players. The most outstanding so far has been Emiliano Martinez, who has helped rejuvenate the defence. During both the Sheffield United and Fulham games, the former Arsenal shot-stopper looked in total control, claiming crosses, passing under pressure, and preserving Villa’s second clean sheet with a spectacular save.
His passing ability is also key for Dean Smith’s men. Confident on the ball, he averaged 20.46 passes per game with an accuracy of 83.94% for Arsenal last season, according to Total Football Analysis. So far this season, this stat has rocketed to 32.5 per game. Smith likes his team to play out from the back with confidence. Past keepers there were always a nervous, but Martinez looks composed under pressure, something Villa lacked last term.
The two Championship players Villa have signed, Ollie Watkins and Matty Cash, also look to have hit the ground running. Cash cleared the ball from his own line in a spot of last-ditch defending against Fulham, while Watkins’ movement off the ball gave Jack Grealish all the space he needed to tee up Villa’s second goal on Monday night. While Watkins is yet to score in the league (he did net against Burton Albion in the Carabao Cup), he looks tenacious and provides plenty of pace and movement off the ball.
Should Aston Villa Fans Be Excited?
It’s still early days and Villa are yet to come up against any truly difficult opponents. Sheffield United and Fulham are both yet to pick up points, but it’s important to win those types of games. Villa’s new-found form will be put to the test soon as they face last year’s title winners, Liverpool, in their next Premier League game.
The Champions have conceded in all but one of their opening fixtures, almost dropping points to newcomers Leeds United on the opening day. There is no doubting that they are looking to continue blowing teams away with their electric attacking football, but Villa nearly beat them this time last year. They only missed out due to a lapse of concentration in the final five minutes. A lapse, current form reveals, which is unlikely to happen a second time.
Regardless of the result against Liverpool, Villa fans finally have something to cheer about in the Premier League. Their club has addressed the areas where they were lacking, signings are still likely to happen and, for the first time since November last year, they have a fully fit spine to their team. Without Tyrone Mings, John McGinn, Wesley and Tom Heaton, Villa struggled during a woeful December and January. Arguably, McGinn is only just returning to full fitness and looks like a new signing with his skill at the weekend.
We’re not saying Aston Villa will be competing for the title, but relegation should be in the rearview mirror as they look to build a team that can compete in England’s top flight.