Dave Woodhall on Villa’s 2019-20.
The longest football season in history is drifting to a close and the Villa just about got away with it. A lot was said during the summer about the money that was spent on new players, and even more was said throughout the season. Yes, it was a huge amount, and equally, not all the players signed proved to be worth the bother but anyone who looked closely at how Villa had performed during 2018-19 would have seen that what happened was the only practical course of action.
Due to negligent ownership and managerial myopia, Villa won promotion on the back of loan signings and players who were coming to the end of their contract. We had to sign players in bulk; the alternative was either a central defensive partnership of James Chester and Tommy Elphick, or playing Albert Adomah and Jonathan Kodjia up front.
But anyway, the season got underway with a visit to the new Spurs stadium, and rarely has an opening day so perfectly set the scene for what was to come. Going into the lead, looking good, then throwing the game away with a show of defensive frailty. We got used to this – the first home match against Bournemouth saw Villa two down thanks to what would be called unforced errors in tennis, then came the game at Arsenal where three points were chucked away as Villa froze in the closing minutes.
Error-strewn at one end of the pitch, ineffective at the other, the team showed brief flashes of being able to cope with life back in the Premier League, but were never able to climb away from the relegation zone. Even during the one time when the team put together a run of reasonable form, getting seven points from four games in January and reaching the League Cup final, they were never more than one defeat from dropping back into trouble, and that came with a string of bad results and worse performances that culminated in the 4-0 defeat at Leicester in the last game before lockdown.
I’m still unsure whether the season should have been resumed. There was some clear unfairness with Villa losing more home advantage than any other club, and strange fixture congestion as three games in quick succession were followed by lengthy periods with nothing happening. But in the end, the season ended without any great incident as players stayed fit and healthy. It was probably for the best that Project Restart happened, although had Villa been relegated I would have had a different response.
Talking of which, apparently no team has ever escaped relegation after being seven points adrift with four games to go. That’s quite an achievement, as long as you ignore the thirty-four previous games that contributed to this situation. If Villa had played the rest of the season in the same way they ended, we’d have been looking at European qualification. The leakiest defence in the league somehow changed to conceding just two in those last four matches, and both were flukes in their own way. Credit for that, even if they couldn’t improve so much further up the pitch.
In the final analysis, Villa stayed up because they managed to use the break to better effect than other clubs, even if it didn’t seem so at first. The Sheffield United goal that never was caused a lot of hysteria, particularly for some reason from Leeds supporters, who appear obsessed with fair play and justice. That’s the Leeds who deify Don ‘backhander’ Revie and his team of cloggers and cheats. To hear some, this was the only time a team has ever benefited from a refereeing mistake, which is ridiculous, because it wasn’t the only mistake made that night.
Looking back, there were occasions to remember at home to Everton, Watford and Leicester in the League Cup, and the fact that these were all night fixtures just proves my theory that if we could play every home game midweek and under lights, we’d be regulars in the Champions League. There were a few to forget as well, so best to do just that.
Douglas Luiz and Ezri Konsa, in particular, were outstanding during the run-in. Dean Smith finally seemed to have learned from the mistakes that had been made throughout the season – and it’s worth remembering that he’s achieved every target that’s been set for him since his appointment, with a cup final thrown in as a bonus. If John Terry was responsible for the tightened defence, then credit to him as well.
And so to the forthcoming season. Even if as much money was available as it was last summer, Villa won’t be bringing in so many new players, because they won’t be needed. A striker is obviously top of the list, and equally obviously if Tammy Abraham were to become available he’d be the first choice. Another striker would also come in handy, and here’s a thought – how about giving Christian Benteke a loan spell as his last chance in England prior to what will likely be a move to a high-paying, low-achieving league in China or the Middle East?
Then there’s a winger, maybe a central defender, a midfielder who can kick the opposition and possibly a left-back. That would be around £100 million, but Wes and Nassef can afford it. If the end of one season is any indication to how the next will go, it could be the most enjoyable we’ve had for a long while.