AVFC Season 2020/2021 Review – A remarkable year for the Villans

Introduction:

When a team that starts the season with four impressive wins after finishing the previous season barely clinging to 17th place, you know the story, however it ends, is going to be interesting.  How to capture Aston Villa’s 20/21 Season in a nutshell is the challenge.

Well, it must be started with the offseason acquisitions.  No positions are more important than goalkeeper and striker, and Aston Villa’s club leadership did a phenomenal job in turning those team weaknesses into major strengths with the acquisitions of Emi Martinez and Ollie Watkins.  A world-class goalie and a consistent scorer and all-around hustler who was competing for a spot in England’s Euro squad paid huge dividends, while the speedy Matty Cash and the scorer of important goals, Bertrand Traoré, rounded out a rejuvenated line-up.

Of course, the improved play of the others in the team that was catalyzed by the infusion of stars, was also essential to make the dramatic difference in those early season games.  No holdover from the 19/20 season was more important than Jack Grealish, the team captain, and talisman.  Not far behind was Tyrone Mings, whose presence solidified the defense around him with Ezri Konsa and Matt Targett reaching a new level of soccer maturity.  The fact that the consistent and excellent play of John McGinn and Douglas Luiz received less notice had more to do with the rise of others.  That included Anwar El Ghazi whose perfect record from the penalty spot helped him to reach double digits as a goal scorer in the Premier League, a major mark.

The Team Evolves:

While the early flourish had to come to an end, the team continued to demonstrate a resilience to bounce back from adversity.  After two consecutive home losses (to Leeds and Southampton), they righted the ship with an eye-popping take-down of Arsenal in the Emirates Stadium, 3-0.  Similarly, after dominating possession and opportunities against Brighton at home and West Ham in London and coming away from both games with nothing, they overcame a red card to manufacture an injury time 1-0 win over Midlands’ rivals Wolves at Molineux, courtesy of an El Ghazi penalty.

Still, as the season progressed, it became apparent that the brilliance of Grealish and industry of Watkins were not enough to maintain the early momentum.  Ross Barkley was brought in on a one-year loan basis from Chelsea and Bertrand Traore was acquired from Lyon after three seasons in France’s Ligue 1.  The Barkley move initially seemed to pay off with a couple of important goals, but when Ross injured his hamstring taking a freekick early in the home game against Brighton, the Barkley experiment became a major distraction.

Traoré, on the other hand, started slowly, coming on to substitute for the injured Barkley and he made little impact until he scored against West Bromwich Albion and, other than being less than stellar defensively, he grew in his offensive contributions counting seven goals by the end of the season.

More Setbacks:

Morgan Sanson was added to the squad from Marseille in January bringing Champions League pedigree and speed, control and commitment that were a welcome addition.  Unfortunately, he picked up a knee injury that finished his season early leaving him with Wesley Moraes as players who have yet to be able to demonstrate they can succeed in the Premier League.  On the injury front, Trezeguet, who had seemed to find his scoring touch by counting a brace in a come from behind win over Fulham, almost scored a pivotal goal in the next game at Liverpool, only to suffer a devastating season ending knee injury as he competed for possession with Trent Alexander-Arnold.

These injuries further compounded the mid-February loss of Grealish to shin-splits that put him out of commission for the next three months.  During that period, Villa went from being in the hunt for a spot in Europe to a respectable 11th position that was, given the early promise, a huge disappointment.

Lessons Learned:

Those who remembered the promising Everton days of Ross Barkley (including Tim Howard) stayed optimistic that he could fill the void left by the captain’s loss, even as disheartening performances further sapped the 27-year-old’s confidence.

While it is hard to measure an individual’s impact during the to and fro of a season, there was little doubt that Grealish’s absence was a major blow.  In fact, without Grealish starting, Villa won only 3, lost 7, and drew 4 of those 14 games.  Another way of looking at the impact is to project how, with a fit Grealish, Villa’s season would have ended up.  Based on the 1.75 points per game average (achieved in the other 24 games in which Jack started), the Villa would have finished fifth, behind Chelsea but ahead of Leicester.  Of course, this should surprise nobody.

What might come as a surprise is that in the 12 games that Grealish played in which Ross Barkley did NOT make an appearance, Villa achieved an excellent 2.167 points/game, a rate that would have put them in second place behind Man City (at 2.26) and ahead of Man U (at 1.95).  Having chronicled every game of the campaign that necessitated repeated viewings of every minute of every game, this is no surprise.  My reports documented that and reflected my sadness for Ross and my frustration for the team and the fans.

Naturally, Villa management took note and terminated the Chelsea loanee’s agreement at the end of the season.  Furthermore, they have been aggressive in the transfer market and in renegotiating Grealish’s compensation.  Emi Buendia is a brilliant pickup as he will take a lot of offensive pressure off Jack, add to the goal tally, and make a game without Jack starting still winnable.  Meanwhile, Ashley Young still has lots to offer, and other major additions are still in the works. 

Prospects for Next Season:

Villa fans find themselves of mixed minds regarding the performance of Jack Grealish for England in the Euros.  Again, the statistics suggest that the England team was better with him in the line-up.  Of course, critics will respond that, as a substitute, he had the advantage of being fresher than the defenders he was playing against.  That ignores the brilliant assist that led to Sterling scoring the only goal against the Czech Republic, in Grealish’s only start.  Arguably, Grealish’s presence on the left contributed to freeing up Sterling’s run for the 2nd minute chance that came back off the post in that same game.

While every single one of us Villa fans would have been over the moon for Jack to have gotten the minutes necessary to apply his magic and be the England hero that brought the cup home, that moment of ecstasy could have come at the price of losing him to Man City. 

Better for him, and for us, to lift the Villa into Europe and to become a star for England as a Villan.  It is hard to imagine Pep Guardiola fashioning an offense around Jack and the Solihull boy could easily end up lost among other stars.  At Villa, he can be the star and leader and, with additions around him, less likely to experience the level of physical abuse that led to his injury.

Add to that the maturation of the squad over the season and the outstanding play of Mings and Martinez in international duty, the future looks incredibly bright.

Paul Howard