All 20 Premier League clubs are being previewed ahead of the 2019/20 season. This instalment discusses Dean Smith’s Aston Villa, who secured promotion with a 2-1 play-off final victory over Derby in May.
- 2018/19 Finish: 5th (Championship)
- Signings so far: Matt Targett (£17m), Tyrone Mings (£21m), Jota (Undisclosed), Anwar El Ghazi (£8m), Kortney Hause (£3m), Ezri Konsa (£12m), Wesley (£20m)
- Possible Gameweek 1 lineup (4-3-3): Steer, Elmohamady, Hause, Mings, Targett, Hourihane, McGinn, Grealish, El Ghazi, Wesley, Jota
- First six fixtures: Tottenham (A), Bournemouth (H), Everton (H), Crystal Palace (A), West Ham (H), Arsenal (A)
With just ten victories in 34 Championship games, Aston Villa’s promotion hopes were hanging by a thread. However as the clock ticked from February into March, their fortunes suddenly changed. Jack Grealish returned from a shin injury and was the final piece in Dean Smith’s jigsaw as a series of frustrating draws turned into wins. The skipper spurred his side on with two goals in two games, including the winning goal against Birmingham at St Andrews after an opposition fan had inexplicably punched him ten minutes in. That game proved to be a symbolic turning point as a further eight wins followed, ultimately securing promotion via the play-offs, avenging the previous season’s Wembley defeat to Fulham.
Since then, a spending spree nearing £100 million has been carried out, taking advantage of the rewards from ‘the richest game in football’. Loanees Anwar El Ghazi, Kortney Hause and Tyrone Mings, who were crucial in the promotion push, have all been secured on a permanent basis, importantly avoiding a large transfer spend being a mass squad overhaul. Attackers Jota and Wesley and defenders Matt Targett and Ezri Konsa have also been recruited.
One area that has not yet been solved is the goalkeeper position after four different options were used in 2018/19. Having kept goal from mid-February, Jed Steer looks the favourite to start the season, if a transfer does not materialise. However, the recently linked Tom Heaton would solve the goalkeeper situation at two clubs in claret and blue, if he was to leave Burnley.
In defence, the full-backs are encouraged to get forward whenever possible and that explains the acquisition of Matt Targett when comparing his 2017/18 campaign in the Championship at Fulham with existing left-back Neil Taylor’s 2018/19. Targett’s 0.7 shots, 1.4 crosses and 1.7 key passes per game far exceeded Taylor’s 0.2, 0.3 and 0.6.
The data from those seasons also suggests Targett is a slight upgrade defensively, with 1.9 tackles, one interception and 2.9 clearances per game compared to Taylor’s 1.7, 0.5 and 2.2. At nearly seven years Taylor’s junior, Villa have conducted a shrewd piece of business, acquiring a younger, more well-rounded and homegrown player for less than £20 million.
The arrival of 21 year-old Ezri Konsa can be put into a similar bracket, although he may have to be more patient for a starting place due to the extent of competition at centre-back. Compared to fellow centre-backs Tyrone Mings, James Chester and Kortney Hause, Konsa is not particularly dominant in the air.
In 2018/19, the ex-Brentford defender won just two aerial duels per game, at least one fewer than the other three. Hause was particularly impressive in this department with a total of 4.7 per game.
Konsa did make up for this discrepancy in other areas, particularly when the ball is at ground level rather than in the air. A pass completion percentage of 87.7% was the highest of the quartet, just ahead of Chester’s 87.0% and significantly more than either Mings (78.6%) or Hause (77.8%).
But with Tottenham up first, the onus will be on defending rather than sustained periods of possession. Konsa is certainly a talented ball-playing defender and will get his chance to impress during the season, but the more physical and aerially dominant pair of Mings and Hause are more suited to dealing with a team like Tottenham and a striker like Harry Kane.
At right-back, Frederic Guibert, who spent last season on loan at Caen, will face competition from Ahmed Elmohamady. Given that Guibert was signed under Steve Bruce and has never played for the club, there is no obvious indication as to who will fill that slot. Konsa could also fill in there if needed as the most natural ball-playing defender at the club.
The rest of the team largely picks itself. Forward-thinking midfielders John McGinn and Jack Grealish were vital in the promotion charge and will be supported from deep by Conor Hourihane if another defensive midfielder is signed. However, Douglas Luiz who spent last season on loan at Girona has been linked with a £15 million deal. Like Konsa at centre-back, Luiz would provide a different style of player in his position as more of a ball-winner than playmaker Hourihane.
The front three is comprised of three newly transferred players in the form of El Ghazi, Wesley and Jota. The wide players are less of an unknown quantity in the English game, having previously excelled in the Championship under Dean Smith.
More concerning is how the goals of Tammy Abraham will be replaced, with £20 million arrival Wesley having only hit double figures in a league season on one occasion. But at 22, the 6’3″ target man is reminiscent of a certain Christian Benteke who joined seven years ago from fellow Belgian club Genk as a 21 year-old and went on to score 49 goals for the club in three seasons. Previous success in the Belgian market is a positive sign.
Whilst Villa do have an array of goalscoring midfield players, the ability of Wesley to hold the ball up as a lone front man and score himself will be important in their bid to remain in the Premier League. Surviving in such a competitive league is difficult and spending so much money on transfer fees and possibly wages is very risky if it all goes wrong.
However, Villa’s recruitment also has a huge potential upside, given the age of the players brought in and the fact that Konsa, Mings, El Ghazi, Jota and Hause have all previously played under Dean Smith. Therefore, whilst the possibility of repeating Fulham’s relegation remains, the process of signing players appears a lot more sensible on closer inspection.
Stats from WhoScored