Guardian writers’ predicted position: 15th (NB: this is not necessarily Paul Doyle’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position: 17th
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 1,000-1
On 2 May 1981 a former Trappist monk hijacked a plane over Heathrow and threatened to blow it up unless the Pope revealed the third secret of Fatima. Down below, in Highbury, Aston Villa lost to Arsenal but were crowned champions of England because Middlesbrough beat Ipswich. This is planet Earth.
Villa lifted the European Cup the following year but they have yet to regain the title and – here comes the bold prediction – they’re not going to win it this season. But with two billionaire owners intent on restoring past glories, they plan to get much closer than they did last term, or at least avoid another near-relegation experience.
“If we remain in the league, then we have certainly got the power to compete with some of the other big clubs,” said Dean Smith during last season’s great escape. But his squad has yet to change despite his wish to get recruits in early. Villa’s fate will hinge on what happens in the month before the closure of the transfer window and how quickly new arrivals adapt.
Behind the scenes they have been busy. They have hired a new sporting director, luring Johan Lange from FC Copenhagen to replace Jesús García Pitarch, who carried the can for last season’s struggles. Smith had also got an extra, experienced assistant manager in the person of Craig Shakespeare, the former Leicester manager (and a boyhood Villa fan who attended the above-mentioned match at Highbury). But no new players yet.
The spine of the side needs to be reinforced even if Smith managed to keep the team up last season without it. A new goalkeeper is a priority, with Tom Heaton not scheduled to return from knee ligament damage until October at the earliest. Ørjan Nyland did well in last season’s Carabao Cup but the fact he lost his place for the Premier League run-in to Pepe Reina, whose loan has expired, suggests Smith is not convinced the Norwegian is solid enough to be No 1. After all the hard work Villa did to mend their defence towards the end of last season, they need a keeper they can totally trust.
They also need a reliable goalscorer. Last year’s major recruit, Wesley, was starting to look sharp just before he, too, suffered a knee ligament injury. Nobody knows for sure how soon he will get back to his best nor, truth be told, whether his best will be good enough. Ali Samatta, the striker rushed in to replace Wesley, started brightly but lost his way towards the end of the campaign, serving neither as a fulcrum nor a finisher. Keinan Davis, by contrast, showed he could hold the ball up well but putting it in the net is a skill he has yet to master. Indiana Vassilev makes cute runs but, at 18, is not ready to carry an attack. So a polished striker should also be on Villa’s shopping list.
Villa also need speed. A shortage of it throughout the squad restricted Smith’s options last season. When the team defended deep, they were not fast enough to strike regularly on the counterattack. If they poured forward, they left themselves vulnerable to opponent’s counters and their own panicking. The formula that worked best for them, and which went a long way towards helping them survive, was to keep compact and make maximum use of set-pieces.
Which brings us to the qualities that Villa do have. They have class in central midfield thanks to fit-again John McGinn and, in particular, the artful Douglas Luiz, who, after a slow start last season, developed into an artful instigator of attacks and vigilant protector of defence.
Villa’s defensive improvement also owed much to the strides made by Tyrone Mings and Ezri Konsa, with the latter growing into a dependable partner for the England international, leaving Bjorn Engels with plenty to prove to get back into the side.
Villa’s full-backs are useful but it would be no surprise if Smith decided to invest in upgrades to tighten up the left and improve the supply to forwards from the right, especially as the right-sided wingers offered little consistency last season, although by the end of the campaign Trézéguet suggested he was closer than Anwar El Ghazi to being a Premier League force.
Other than Conor Hourihane’s set-pieces, the chief supplier to Villa’s forward last season was, as ever, Jack Grealish, even though he was uncharacteristically patchy after lockdown. If he stays for another season, he will again be instrumental in most of Villa’s attacks. If he gets a move to a Champions League-chasing club, then Villa will have to buy even more new players and take the opportunity to develop into a team whose attack is less reliant on one wandering marvel.
On the touchline Every boyhood Villa fan dreams of running the team from the dugout but Smith still reckons the view is better from the stands, which is why he took advantage of the absence of crowds to watch home games from a row just behind the dugout at Villa Park. He also altered his dress code, preferring leisurewear to the black suit and white shirt combo he wore before lockdown.
On Zoom Even when deep in the relegation swamp and with some fans calling for his head, Smith remained affable and lucid last season, losing neither his cool nor his belief that his team would survive.
Douglas Luiz arrived just before the start of last season and took time to get to grips with the Premier League but once he did so, he ran Villa’s midfield and was critical to their survival. He protected the defence and instigated attacks, helping to provide a platform on which others, including Jack Grealish, could flourish.
Wes Edens and Nassef Sawiris, both billionaires, teamed up to buy Villa in 2018, having previously collaborated in the purchase of a professional video gaming team, FlyQuest. Edens also co-owns the NBA team Millwaukee Bucks while Sawiris’s other businesses include the world’s biggest supplier of nitrogen fertiliser. Smith is understood to prefer a prolific striker.
The 19-year-old American Indiana Vassilev joined Villa after impressing at the 2017 World Cup and finally made his Premier League breakthrough last season, with four appearances off the bench. A versatile forward who can play wide or centrally, the teenager has been praised by Smith for the intelligence of his runs and was rewarded with a new contract in May.
No signings yet.
Villa changed colours regularly in their infancy – sadly the chocolate and baby blue stripes introduced in 1886 did not stick – but they settled on claret and blue for the maiden football league season in 1888 and those have been their colours since, inspiring many imitators.
Notes from an empty stadium
“All aboard! Hahahahahaha!” There you have the opening words to Ozzy Osbourne’s Crazy Train, which is still blared around Villa Park before kick-off even with no one in attendance, which, come to think of it, is probably only right. That’s about it as far as atmosphere goes, apart from the banners displayed from fan groups from all kinds of places, from Dubai to Perry Barr.
When Tom Heaton suffered a serious knee injury on New Year’s Day, that looked to be the end of his hopes of appearing at a major tournament. But the postponement of Euro 2020 gave the goalkeeper extra time to recover and, if he gets back to his best with Villa, he can aspire to playing for England next summer at the age of 35.