Wow, what a hairy one. It’s been a weird season all in, and I think every Villa fan knew from early on that if we stayed up, it would be a very close run thing. It was evident from the utter euphoria that accompanied that home win against Everton early in the season, which I watched through Now TV in a hotel room in Munich. The reaction showed we knew even then that wins would be hard to come by.
The end of the season has been at the opposite extreme to those ‘eyes from abroad’ early days for me: locked in our houses with the games played out in front of nobody at all, and, oddly, they’ve brought most of the year’s highs (and been a fantastic distraction), though I’d be lying if I pretended I didn’t think it was over with four or five games to go.
The season’s really had its moments, from the ‘ghost goal’ we conceded against Sheffield United (which I have a feeling Bournemouth fans might be talking about a while) and general VAR controversies, to the power and passion of Grealish and Douglas Luiz, and the defence finally coming together for those final few games that saw Villa edged to the narrowest of 17th places. Relegation could have gone the other way if West Ham had conjured a single late goal on the final day. What a rollercoaster.
A heads up before I start: this is a long one.
A good season, or a bad one?
This is a genuinely difficult question. I don’t think there’s much doubt that if Villa had conceded a late losing goal at West Ham on the final day, this would be classified as really quite a bad season, with relegation back to the Championship. That said, I think most Villa fans – and I certainly put myself in this category – would consider staying up, even marginally, a really quite good season. Beating the drop on the last day was totally euphoric, and a fantastic end to the year in a game we probably should have won.
Cynics will point to the money spent in the summer (which was substantial), though it has to be noted that a substantial chunk of that money was spent on players that were on loan last year, and took the team to only 5th in the Championship. Almost none of it, bizarrely, was spent on established premier league players. There have also been significant injury issues throughout the team.
In fact, it’s hard to argue the team this year was any stronger than last year’s all things considered: sure, the defence probably looked a little bit better on paper (though it performed poorly for most of the season), but we bought two relative flops up front and lost a far better striker in Tammy Abraham back to Chelsea, and even the goalkeeper position’s strengthening disappeared when Tom Heaton was injured for the second half of the season (round of applause for Pepe Reina’s cameo, though).
This was a team that was at best only just good enough for the Premier League, and that’s how it went, so by that measure it went well. We also got a cup final back in February and gave the money boys from Manchester City a real game in it, too. So all things considered, a pretty good season, but only because it went the way it did on the final day. I’d give it a 6/10. That said, there’s plenty to worry about, with next season just around the corner…
The Defence – 5/10 (up from maybe a 3/10 pre-COVID)
Considering the obvious abilities of Mings in particular, and John Terry coaching off the bench, how bad was this for most of the season? The answer is very.
Credit where it’s due to Smith (more on him later), he sorted it out in the end, but the amount of individual defensive errors were easily the difference between lower mid-table and the last-minute struggle. Villa were competitive in most games they played, but at times, the centre backs, in particular, looked like little more than rabbits in the headlights, and that’ll have to be fixed.
Another centre back is probably necessary to play alongside Mings, though if they play like the last four or five games of the season, I can live with what we have. I’m entirely unconvinced by Nyland as a goalkeeper, too, and he stayed in the side far too long. It should be Heaton going forward. I’m more than happy to stick with Mings, and Elmohamedy and Guilbert can be useful, but I have serious doubts about everyone else, even if Konsa and Hause have had some really good days.
The midfield – 8/10
Outstanding, especially next to the rest of the side, but liable to be savaged over the summer, unfortunately, because it’s just been that good. Nice cameos from the inconsistent but occasionally brilliant Trezeguet and El Ghazi. Oh, and one serious mistake in the awful Danny Drinkwater, and a lesser one in the ineffective Jota. Then there are the three great hopes, who I’ll take one at a time.
Villa fans could hardly ask for more from Jack Grealish. He’s led the club exceptionally, he’s been our core attacking threat throughout the season, and if he now wants to depart for pastures greener, so be it, he owes us, his childhood club, nothing. That said, if there’s anything that can be done to persuade him to stay, it should be done. The transfer figures being thrown around about him just don’t make sense for Villa until they reach the 70-80 million range, and even then it’s dubious as there’s no player of his quality that could be persuaded to come to the club to replace him, in my opinion. Given the team realistically need to be better next year than this year, there’s little point in collecting say 50 million and reinvesting it, as the team would be worse for it. He needs to be kept, or at least a vast war chest extracted from someone as a worst-case scenario. We live in hope.
The other two key men are a little more likely to hang around. John McGinn hasn’t been the best since the restart, but at times was almost outshining the main man, and he’s a great asset, a workhorse with a great pass and shot.
Douglas Luiz got better and better as the season went on, and seems to have flown under the radar a little bit because he’s not really an attacking player. He’s superb and only likely to improve. A nod to Hourihane, too, who’s delivery is not as good as people make out, in my opinion, but he is a threat. In this area, the best Villa can hope for is a little depth, but more importantly – if at all possible – to hang on to what we’ve got.
The attack – 3/10 (probably generous)
What a disaster area. The more positive amongst us will point to the potential of Wesley and the unfortunate timing of his injury, and to Samatta’s occasionally contributions, or the consistent line about Kienan Davies – that he’s good at holding up the ball (true, but not really enough). The thing is, all these players are functioning as out and out strikers, and while the service hasn’t been superb at times (being too far back to supply it being issue one), none of the three main men up top have delivered what you actually need from them, which is goals.
In fact, Wesley, with six goals this year, is only the club’s fifth highest goalscorer behind four midfielders. Admittedly that’s in half a season, and I do hold out some optimism about him. Those six still represent a goal every 301 minutes, which is hardly prolific.
Samatta, who’s scored two, has only 29% of his shots on target, and has scored a goal every 547 minutes, a stat which speaks for itself. Keinan Davis has managed just the one goal. In fact, Kodjia, allowed to depart in the late summer, has arguably been our most effective striker this season – he got two before he left in just over 90 minutes of football.
I’m all for giving Wesley more of a go, but not without alternatives. It’s time to bring in a proper recognised premier league striker, start looking at youngsters like Vasiliev and Barry, and scratch the rest.
There are things to love and things to get frustrated with over the boss. He clearly loves the club, and the adaptations to the defence in the closing stage and the tactical approach has, in my opinion, earnt him the right to more time, just about. That said, taking that long to fix things that were so obviously wrong is concerning, as is his lack of eye for a striker and a general front-line strategy.
It would only have taken a mid-level experienced premiership forward and this season would have been comfortable, I’d guess. A Danny Ings, a Shane Long, or even a Liverpool or Man City youngster on loan (Harvey Elliot, anyone?) would have given a far better return, and it’s concerning that it didn’t happen. But Smith did it, and he did it very much against the odds in the end, so he’s earnt the right to continue. He’ll just need to get the recruitment right. So good and bad, but he deserves time, at the very least. Watch this space, I guess.
Whatever way it went, this was always going to be a different relegation battle to last time around, when Villa were basically done by Christmas in real terms. But what a battle. Lots of awful football, late concessions and a not-insignificant amount of bad luck (the disallowed goal at Palace, in particular, stands out, though admittedly the one Sheffield United weren’t given at Villa Park was even more ridiculous) and we find ourselves in a position where we’re 7 points and a few goals behind 17th place with 4 games to go.
Cue me repeating the line ‘it’s the hope that kills you’ over and over again after a win against Palace and a draw with Everton. The Arsenal win with two games to go brought the belief back, and then the final day clinging to life was something to behold. The most nervous I’ve ever been watching a football match, but a real battling performance. What a day.
If Villa start with the same side as right now, ideally with the addition of a striker, I’d be fairly confident of staying up again, but it’s be another battle, unquestionably. If we’re pillaged as expected over the summer, it’ll be another uphill battle next year. Some lessons have been learnt, particularly in the defence, and we’re unlikely to be as unlucky with injuries next year. So much, though, depends on the summer transfer market. It’s way too early to know which way it will go.