Aston Villa and the state of play

Dave Woodhall looks back at Villa in 2020-21.

Of all the weird and wonderful things that happened in 2020-21, surely none were as unpredictable as being disappointed that we ‘only’ finished eleventh. The best finish in a decade, the first time for even longer than that when we could sit with our feet up a month before the season ended. Not bad for a team that (altogether now) only stayed up because of technology failure and were favourites to go down again, yet it still felt underwhelming.

The reason, of course, was that for half of the season we watched some of the best football for a quarter of a century topped by the most incredible game in a lot longer than that. Top six was looking possible for much of the season and there were even faint hopes of the Champions League early on, although in the long run perhaps it’s best that we don’t have the extra games that an extended European campaign would bring.

Villa’s success this season was built around a solid defence, with four outfield plyers who could fit into the England team and a world-class keeper, plus an attack that was a mixture of genius (Jack Grealish), hard work (Ollie Watkins) and infuriating inconsistency (perm one from three).

The problem was what came between these two units. Douglas Luiz and Marvelous Nakamba started off well, lost form when the results began to dip and came back at the end. Ross Barkley proved yet again that the better a player starts off at the Villa, the worse he becomes, while Morgan Sanson seems to be another in a line of French midfielders who seem alright at first then fade from view. And John McGinn was his usual self.

Before Christmas Villa were capable of not just beating anyone, but on form they were destroying the opposition – Ian Wright memorably likening the team to John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Dean Smith fully deserved the Manager of the Month award for December and at the turn of the year Villa Park was once more a lively, vibrant place to be, even if we couldn’t go there.

Unfortunately, things went wrong from then. Jack’s injury was certainly a major factor in Villa’s slump but there were other mitigating factors. If the Covid break had kept Villa up in 2020, the brief 2021 version saw the favour returned and for the next four months our luck was certainly out. Jack wasn’t the only player missing – Trezeguet suffered a season-ending injury, Matty Cash and Tyrone Mings both missed games and Wesley still wasn’t fully-fit. For the youngest squad in the Premier League, and one which had scarcely had time to catch its breath after the last-day escape of the previous season, these events were bound to take their toll.

Eventually, as the injuries started to clear up, Villa’s last two games of the season saw two of the best results – wins away at Spurs and at home to Chelsea, where ten thousand Villa supporters could finally see in the flesh what all the fuss had been about. Then came the FA Youth Cup final, where Liverpool were dealt with in the fashion we’ve come to expect from this season’s crop of youngsters.

If there is such a thing as a five year plan then we’re still a bit ahead of schedule, and most importantly we have an extra season’s-worth of Premier League income that hadn’t been budgeted for. Reports of a £250 million budget are doubtless wide of the mark but it will be nice to see Villa linked with top-class players for a change. It doesn’t take detailed analysis to work out that we need a defensive midfield, unless Nakamba can add more consistency to his game, and a winger, with the same said about Traore or El Ghazi. Another forward to take the pressure off Ollie Watkins would also come in handy. It’s a measure of the progress we’ve made that two summers ago we needed more than a dozen signings to have any chance of survival; now the right three should get us into the top six.

And to finish, my highlights of the season were:

Player of the season – Emiliano Martinez. No surprise here; we’ve had some quality keepers over the years and he could proved to be as good as any.

Most Improved – Another easy pick. Matt Targett went from weak link to international prospect.

Goal of the season – There were so many to choose from but I’d go for Ross Barkley’s late winner at Leicester partly because it stared with Tyrone Mings starting another attack when many teams would have been seeing out the closing stages for a draw.

Best performance – Not the obvious one, which was unreal but a one-off. Instead, the win at Arsenal where Villa bossed the game from the kick-off and showed we could do it at the biggest grounds.

One to watch – If Bertrand Traore is the most improved player of next season he’ll be one of the best in the league.

Moment of the season – Louie Barry’s goal celebration with what looked like the ball boys but were actually his team-mates. Their sheer joy in his achievement showed the magic of football is still there, even if you have to look hard to find it.