In one of the most remarkable games in Premier League history, many will have reacted in utter shock after Aston Villa hammered Liverpool 7-2. Very rarely, if at all, have we seen the champions exposed to such an extent over the past three years. It was a collapse of epic proportions. Yet, even though the scoreline was astonishing, this was the continuation of a turnaround at Villa Park that has been occurring for a while.
Before their recent League Cup defeat to Stoke City, Villa were on a run of eight games without defeat in all competitions. After enduring a difficult return to the Premier League last season, in which their narrow survival was only secured on the last day, there is now new-found optimism around Villa Park and a belief that they can establish themselves as a regular in the top flight.
Aston Villa: Bright Start Underlining Their Progress
Transfer Business Has Been Key
After years of instability brought on by poor recruitment and a lack of organisation, Aston Villa now seem a settled side ready to push on. Their transfer business was less frantic and smarter, key players have committed their futures to the club and others are returning from injury. “There is certainly that feel-good factor about the place at the moment,” manager Dean Smith told Sky Sports.
The importance of recruitment has increased over the years and a club like Villa were no exception. Stemming back from the disastrous 2015 window when £60 million was spent on 12 players who could not stop them from enduring one of the worst seasons in Premier League history, they gained a reputation as a club with no plan in the transfer market. And when £74 million was splashed on the unestablished quartet of Ollie Watkins, Bertrand Traore, Emiliano Martinez and Matty Cash, there was a fear that this summer was more of the same.
However, despite the fees seeming excessive, Villa’s summer additions are having a positive effect on the squad. Watkins already has five goals this season after his stunning first-half hat-trick against Liverpool, while Traore scored on his debut, Martinez saved a penalty on his first appearance and right-back Cash has developed into a reliable performer and popular figure among the fan base.
Yet the game-changing signing has perhaps been Ross Barkley on a season-long loan from Chelsea. Despite proving to be inconsistent over the years and still yet to reach his potential, he brings quality and experience to a squad that has a limited feel of top-flight football. Barkley’s 203 Premier League appearances are more than any player in the squad, with Ahmed Elmohamady (184) the only other squad member to pass 150 games. The 26-year-old’s display in the hammering of the champions last week, capped off by his first goal for the club, emphasised how much he can improve this Villa team.
“Ross choosing to come here is a coup for the club,” continued Smith. “He is a great addition to the squad. The fact that he has come here to show what he can do and get regular minutes to drive himself into that Euros squad at the end of the season. We entered the season last year and our most experienced players were Neil Taylor, Ahmed Elmohamady and Tom Heaton, who was a new signing,” says Smith. “Now we are adding more experience – certainly in Ross with the experience he has had in the Premier League and the games that he has played – and that can only stand us in good stead.”
As much as the new signings have improved Smith’s side, keeping Jack Grealish was arguably their most important business of the summer. As their club captain and star player, the 25-year-old is key to Villa’s ever-improving attacking game. The club scored only 41 goals in the Premier League last season but Grealish (eight goals and six assists), was involved in 34% of them. This season, Villa have already notched 11 goals in three games and their skipper has three goals and three assists to his name. The importance of him committing to the club can not be understated.
The sight of another key midfielder, John McGinn, fit and firing again after a long lay off will also encourage Villa fans. All of a sudden, Smith has some depth and quality at his disposal going forward and the returns are showing. The likes of Traore and Conor Hourihane could only make the bench on Sunday, while academy graduate Jacob Ramsey is showing promising signs too.
Tighter in Defence
It’s not just in attack where improvement is evident, either. After conceding the second-most goals (67) in the Premier League last season, Villa have now tightened up in defence. Before defeats to Manchester United and Liverpool in the final two games of last season, they conceded just six goals in eight games after the restart. This season, they have only let in two goals – both to Liverpool – in their three games – the fewest of any side so far.
Opta’s analytics also underlines Villa’s progress in this area. After giving up more big chances (59.1) than any other side in the Premier League before the restart, Smith’s side then conceded the fourth-fewest (9.7), beating the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, and Leicester City. The additions of Cash and goalkeeper Martinez have now boosted the backline further, while Tyrone Mings proves to be a reliable leader at the heart of their more pragmatic and structured set-up. The emphasis on pressing from the front, led by the energetic Watkins, has also been key.
After perils of last season’s relegation battle, Aston Villa fans are now enjoying their side’s stint at the other end of the Premier League table. They sit second and with a favourable run of fixtures on the horizon, have a chance to build on their strong start. Could it be a flash in the pan? Maybe, but Dean Smith’s side is an improving one and there is a feeling that this could be the beginning of some positive years ahead at Villa Park.