With the 2020/21 Premier League season on the horizon, The Hard Tackle takes a closer look at Aston Villa and their prospects in the upcoming campaign.

Glory be to the Villans! What a crazy return to the Premier League it was for a club as iconic as Aston Villa! One of the oldest professional clubs in England, Aston Villa were an integral part of the league up until their demotion to the Championship in the 2015-16 season after a 29-year stay in the Premier League.

The club went through a bit of off-pitch turmoil on either side of the relegation, with fortunes starting to turn once new owner Tony Xia appointed Steve Bruce as the man to guide Aston Villa back into the top flight. The current Newcastle manager led Villa to fourth and subsequently into the 2017-18 Championship playoff final, only to lose to a spirited Fulham.

However, Xia is no longer at the helm; Aston Villa look rejuvenated under Dean Smith and now have one miraculous escape under their belt. With the team settling down and gelling in well, let us look forward to what Villa might have in store for the Premier League in the 2020-21 campaign.

Prelude – The Backdrop

A celebratory return to top-flight football; Aston Villa took no time in trying to shape their squad to adjust to the demands and quality of the Premier League. The shift in ownership had no effect on transfer dealings, with the club doing more business than any other Premier League outfit.

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Perhaps, it became a case of things changing too soon in terms of squad dynamics and that had an affect on team chemistry. Villa did start off well, putting up spirited performances in defeats to Tottenham and Bournemouth before bouncing back with a 2-0 win over Everton.

The form though, dipped soon and Villa found themselves in disarray on the Premier League table, with just one win in 7 games. Back to back wins over fellow relegation candidates Brighton and Norwich saw them jump to 12th, which would be the highest position they would achieve in the 2019-20 season.

With narrow defeats and lost leads on several occasions, Villa continued to go in and out of the relegation zone up until Matchday 27. A horrendous run of 8 games, wherein Aston Villa scored just twice, pocketing a mere 2 points from a possible 24, led them deep inside relegation zone with imminent danger of an immediate return to the Championship.

It all came down to the last four games, with Villa set to face Everton, Crystal Palace, Arsenal and West Ham; their Premier League fate depending on these results and how teams around them do. A win at home to Palace and a draw at Everton weren’t nearly enough to push them above the relegation zone and their next opponents featured an in-form Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and a resurgent Arsenal squad.

Their summer spending spree though, aided their cause against the Gunners, with a wonder strike from Trezeguet earning them a 1-0 win and the 17th spot for the time being. It all came down to the wire, with Villa level on points with Watford, who were facing Manchester City.

Bournemouth were also in the running and ideally, Villa would need at least a point to save their spot from Eddie Howe’s team while hoping Watford don’t manage a miracle against City. Aston Villa scrounged to a draw at West Ham, thanks to a goal from star man Jack Grealish and ensured another season in the Premier League.

Villa survived against the odds, with their draw with Sheffield United just after the season restart coming to mind. The Villans were lucky to have Goal Line Technology not detect a clear over-the-line ball and a subsequent goal for the Blades. That one saw Bournemouth go down eventually when it should have been Villa if not for technology or lack of it on the day.

Villa had the second worst defence in the Premier League while also having the third worst Goal Difference in the 2019-20 Premier League season. It was an escape from Dean Smith & co. and the club should now look to stabilise themselves in the top-flight campaign.

Squad Update

There has been a lot of churning in the Aston Villa dressing room up until now, with a fair bit of the transfer window still left. Thankfully, almost all of it have been departures, with the club seemingly learning from their mindless spree last season.

Pepe Reina and Danny Drinkwater returned to their respective clubs after the end of their loan spells at Villa Park while Andre Green and Borja Baston have run down their contract and are now free agents.

The likes of James Chester and Matija Sarkic chose to move to fellow English clubs Stoke City and Wolves respectively on a free transfer while Rushian Hepburn-Murphy chose an interesting route, joining Cyprus club Pafos FC, also on a free transfer.

There have been no incomings so far for Aston Villa apart from James Bree and Lovre Kalinic, who return from their respective loan spells at Luton and Toulouse. Bree though, has since joined Luton on a permanent basis. The club is closing in on Matty Cash from Nottingham Forest, with the player likely to be the first-choice right-back at Aston Villa.

Aston Villa are also in search of a goalkeeper and a striker, especially with Pepe Reina returning to AC Milan after his loan and the club having no real backup option for Wesley. They have been linked with the likes of Emiliano Martinez and Ollie Watkins. But, so far, Matty Cash is the only player destined to arrive at Aston Villa. 

Villa have signed one player. However, Ben Christene, who became the youngest player to make his senior debut (15) beating Ethan Ampadu’s standing record, joins from Exeter City and is likely to join the academy setup at the club.

Will Grealish stay and lead Aston Villa to a better Premier League season in 2020-21? (Picture Courtesy - AFP/Getty Images)

Will Grealish stay and lead Aston Villa to a better Premier League season in 2020-21? (Picture Courtesy – AFP/Getty Images)

The main bone of contention would be whether Villa can keep their key man Jack Grealish at the club. The player has been repeatedly linked with Manchester United and a move seems to beckon the Englishman. If they can hold onto Grealish and strengthen the aforementioned areas, they will be in a good position in terms of team dynamics.

Key Fixtures

Aston Villa have their first game at Villa Park against Sheffield United on September 20 and will be looking to set the tone for the rest of the season. But, their first bout of crucial fixtures comes in the month of October, starting from the game at home to Leeds United.

This follows a run of seven fixtures including the ones against rivals West Brom and Wolves wherein Aston Villa have the power to achieve results in each of them. This might just be the make or break period for Villa this season.

Ideally, Dean Smith would want the club to be safe by the time Matchday 31 comes around. Villa face Liverpool on April 10 and the fixture follows a run of seven games that features four of the remaining BIG SIX clubs – Chelsea, Manchester City, Tottenham and Manchester United.

If the still-to-be-scheduled Arsenal match also falls in this period, Villa might have to face the entire BIG SIX in the span of a couple of months. The club could be in a real pickle if they are in and around the relegation zone by the time the end of the season approaches, with a horrendous run of fixtures to close out, as mentioned above.

Key Players

Jack Grealish

None more important than the creative cog of Aston Villa. Grealish has recently been called up to the England National Team, which is likely to only pique interest in him. The 24-year-old was vital to Aston Villa securing the final point against West Ham, which helped them evade relegation on Matchday 38.

Grealish ended the Premier League campaign with 8 goals and 6 assists, which made him the highest goalscorer and creator both for the club. The 2019-20 Club Player of the Year will be the main man once again and the biggest focus of Aston Villa’s transfer window would be to somehow retain his services.

Ezri Konsa

Trezeguet might have been the hero against Arsenal for his goal and Grealish’s goal against West Ham might have prevented the drop. But, Konsa’s display against Arsenal was immaculate and showed maturity beyond his age. The 22-year-old now has a year in the top-flight under his belt and will be ready to up the ante this season.

John McGinn

If Grealish was the star man, McGinn was the one pulling all the strings behind the curtains. The Scottish midfielder paired up well with Douglas Luiz in the middle of the park and contributed well to both facets of the game, allowing Luiz more freedom to find the right pass and Grealish to not be vested in defensive duties.

McGinn scored thrice and created as many goals for his teammates. But, it was his performance defensively, with a 55% tackle success rate, that caught the eye. McGinn was also adept at getting past opponents with a 73% dribbling accuracy along with a long ball accuracy of 75%, which eased pressure on the backline and allowed Villa to press on.

Season Expectations

Aston Villa may have just escaped the relegation zone last season. However, on paper, their squad is a lot better than their final position in the 2019-20 season. There is also some sense in what they have done so far and are trying to do in the current transfer window.

Matty Cash is due for an individual promotion to the Premier League, with the impending move to Aston Villa. (Picture Courtesy - AFP/Getty Images)

Matty Cash is due for an individual promotion to the Premier League, with the impending move to Aston Villa. (Picture Courtesy – AFP/Getty Images)

Trying to bring in Matty Cash, who is a regular right-back, while also being linked with stars that have experience playing in England for other areas is a good way to go forward for Aston Villa, especially after last summer’s spree. Villa’s squad looks strong and they are finally going about it the right way by spending wisely and also moving on pieces that are not needed.

The Hard Tackle predicts Aston Villa to not be lucky enough for another Houdini escape this season. However, the author feels Villa can really kick on and improve on their 17th placed finish, provided they are able to get the Matty Cash deal over the line, sign a quality goalkeeper and striker along with retaining or replacing Grealish adequately.

While there are many caveats to the author’s prediction, it will be interesting to see how Aston Villa fare if they do manage to tick each of the boxes.

THT Prediction: 18th (Relegated)

Author Prediction: 14th

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