Ahead of the new season, we look at Aston Villa's strengths, weaknesses and what the targets will be for boss Dean Smith...
Wednesday 9 September 2020 15:33, UK
Having survived by the skin of their teeth, Aston Villa now have a platform to build on in the Premier League.
Whether that's with talisman Jack Grealish, or with the funds his transfer could generate, remains to be seen, but the feeling is the club have got the hardest part out of the way already: Premier League survival in their first season back.
It was an odd campaign for Dean Smith's Villa - big summer spending, lots of hope, then injury, tactical naivety and a lack of cohesion. But it culminated in a valiant effort to secure survival on the last day. One thing is for sure, expectation at Villa Park is big, and fans won't be expecting another dog fight. The focus on 2020/21 is build, build, build.
Like many teams, Villa's 2019/20 season can be assessed in two distinct parts. Before lockdown, Smith's expansive, toe-to-toe style was failing, as Villa plunged towards the bottom three.
After the restart it was more shut up shop, tighter defensively, conceding fewer chances but making fewer chances. In the final four games, that style brought the two wins and two draws needed to secure safety.
Style-wise, somewhere in the middle should be the aim for Villa this coming season.
The club is financially secure, but want a wage structure that is within their limits to avoid the near-financial ruin they experienced in 2018, and under Smith they have a manager who knows the soul of the club. He still has much to prove in a tactical sense, and Villa's recruitment needs to improve, but that should be aided by the arrival of new sporting director Johan Lange, who enjoyed success at FC Copenhagen.
Matty Cash - Nottingham Forest to Aston Villa, £16m
Ben Chrisene - Exeter, undisclosed
Callum O'Hare - Coventry, free
Anthony Scully - Lincoln, undisclosed
Matija Sarkic - Wolves, free
Rushian Hepburn-Murphy - Pafos, free
James Chester, released
Andre Green, released
James Bree - Luton, free transfer
"Villa look set for another testing campaign. They have got to finish 17th next season, if they do that then they will have pulled up trees again. I hope Villa don't rest on their laurels and think avoiding relegation meant they finished last season well.
"They played certain teams at the right time towards the end; Crystal Palace were on a bad run and had nothing to play for, against Sheffield United they had a goal disallowed that should have stood and on the final day they played a West Ham side who were safe. Villa may think that they are alright but when you look at it closely, that isn't the case. They have to improve."
The lack of an established target man is abundantly clear, with Grealish scoring a team-topping eight goals. But a clinical poacher would certainly receive service: Villa attempted 798 crosses - only five clubs recorded more.
Simply, Villa's strength often lies wherever Grealish is on the pitch. Though predominantly left of a three, the Villa captain has a free role and is happy to drop deep or drift central.
For Merson, Grealish remaining is key. "I've said it time and time again, but keeping Jack Grealish is crucial. It would be disappointing at this stage for Grealish to leave on the eve of the new season, if he was going to leave it should have happened already so Villa had ample time to deal with it. They need to keep hold of him and add proven Premier League players to the squad."
It's quite simple for Villa. With Wesley picking up a cruciate injury, and both Ally Samatta and Keinan Davis scoring just a goal between them all season, a striker is No 1 priority.
Beyond that, strength on both wings is imperative. Though Trezeguet scored important goals towards the end of the season, the consensus is that Villa can improve, and the same goes for Anwar El Ghazi. Central midfield competition is also key, plus some strength in depth at full-back; Matty Cash from Nottingham Forest should provide that for Freddie Guilbert.
While Dean Smith should be in the hunt for a striker, the stats also suggest he needs reinforcements at the other end. The Midlands club shipped 67 goals last term, only Norwich leaked more - while costly errors were all too common. As previously mentioned, however, that may come with a change of style.
Merson says: "Villa should get someone like Ashley Barnes at Burnley. He works his socks off, leads by example, leads the line, holds the ball up and get crucial goals.
"Newcastle's signing of Jeff Hendrick begs the question why Villa weren't in for him. Villa need players, preferably international players, who have played in and know the Premier League, not players they are waiting to come good once they have settled into the league.
"I would test the water for Barnes, he's a great pro and would be a Dion Dublin kind of signing for Villa that would bring leadership into the dressing room. When you have someone like him leading from the front, the rest follow."
This won't come as much of a surprise. Grealish is Villa's linchpin.
Aside from his skill on the ball and leadership qualities, Grealish's influence on Villa's style of play can be key in the coming season, too.
He draws defenders, leaving space for the rest of Villa's cast to play a part, and his ability to take the ball out of defence and bring Villa up the pitch 50 yards under pressure should not be underestimated. The idea that Grealish is a luxury player, incapable of performing defensive duties, is unfounded. He was routinely Villa's top runner last season.
But of course, it may not last. One positive of a potential departure is the money it would generate, and £65m+ could bring in three quality players to add to Villa's depth. It could be a case of one step back, two forward without Grealish.
Douglas Luiz. The Brazilian was hit and miss before lockdown, but was arguably Villa's best player in the 10 games thereafter.
Luiz, a £15m signing from Manchester City, was always going to use Villa as a stepping stone, with City possessing a buy-back clause for the 22-year-old, and his recent performances will have caught the eye.
His range of passing, comfort on the ball and positional sense was crucial to Villa's solidity in midfield after the restart, and it will be intriguing to see if he can carry this form into the coming season.
For so long Villa were Premier League ever-presents, challenging in the top half, and that will be Villa fans' ultimate expectation. Villa are a top half club, with a top half history, a top half fan base, top half owners and a top half stadium, but in the current climate, that means very little.
For now, Villa are still a relatively new Premier League club, and expectation can't exceed reality. Avoiding a dog fight is key, and somewhere between 10th and 14th must be the aim. Throw in another cup run, and that's success.