How Aston Villa hope to become the best of the rest
When the 1982 European Cup-winning Aston Villa side paraded around Villa Park ahead of last season’s final home game, many wondered how the mighty had fallen.
Spectators filled the stadium to watch the team draw 1-1 with near-relegated Burnley.
A final day defeat at Manchester City confirmed Villa’s 14th place, behind Brentford, who played in the former Third Division when Villa beat Bayern Munich in Rotterdam, and Crystal Palace, who narrowly avoided relegation to third rank in 1981-82. season.
The most depressing conclusion to the Burnley draw was how a crowd, so swollen before kick-off as they welcomed all of the club’s legends, quickly fell into a state of drift after a another disappointing home performance.
The hushed atmosphere inside Villa Park at times last season and the stuttering finish on the pitch were cause for concern.
Villa have won two of their last 11 games and at one point relegation fears even started to kick in.
But in the space of just a few months, the outlook has changed dramatically. For some time now Villa Park board meeting officials have been discussing ways to make the club the ‘best of the rest’ – the team most capable of challenging the Big Six in the Premier League.
Early transfer activity has set the tone for an exciting summer and for the first time under the ownership of Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens (NSWE), there are no major hurdles to clear in pre-season.
Manager Steven Gerrard has already told some key players the aim is to finish in the top seven.
He was disappointed with how the season ended in May, admitting there wasn’t much to celebrate when the campaign ended.
Gerrard spoke of “ambitious but realistic” goals for this season. Those above him are hoping this is the year Villa make serious progress and the expectations of the fans grow.
Villa were able to do the bulk of their transfer business even before the window opened as Philippe Coutinho, Robin Olsen, Boubacar Kamara and Diego Carlos all joined early on.
Negotiating the transfer fee for Coutinho from an agreed initial price of £33m to just £17m was impressive.
Signing Kamara on a free transfer and bringing in a centre-back in Diego Carlos, who was so popular at his former club Sevilla that he held an emotional press conference to officially say goodbye, also shows another sign of growth. club continues.
Villa even managed to convince Neil Critchley to quit his managerial role with Blackpool in the Championship to become the new assistant manager.
There is still room for improvement and Villa are considering signing another No.8 after further strengthening the full-back positions this week with the loan signing of left-back Ludwig Augustinsson from Sevilla.
Villa have yet to recover funds for some of the squad’s players who are unlikely to feature at the start of the season next month.
Compare the to-do list to Year One, however, when NSWE rescued the club from administration and were able to lift the soft transfer embargo imposed during the Championship era before winning promotion.
Or the second year, when Villa had to completely rebuild a worn and aging squad to become competitive in the Premier League, then sat up by one point on the final day of the season.
Even last summer there was the setback of losing star man Jack Grealish and then the change of manager when Dean Smith was sacked and replaced by Gerrard.
Now the way is clear of any major hurdles and the club continues to take bold and strategic steps not only in the transfer market but also with plans to expand the capacity of Villa Park, build a new center academy- city and revolutionize youth development.
Rival club managers are wary of the threat Villa poses – although their modest result last season suggested the club have in fact slipped back slightly from an 11th-place finish in 2020-21.
Villa have spent a lot of money in recent years and haven’t made every move well. Yet the continued investment has generated a squad that is now worth somewhere in the region of £550m – and there is a salary system in place that is stretched each season but not to a potential breaking point.
Structurally, Villa are well put together. Their best-performing, highest-earning international players have long-term contracts and have risen in value. The team’s average age is among the lowest in the league and a talented youngster is showing serious signs of progress in almost every position.
The foundations are there now and with a few more additions Villa look set for a crack in seventh place. He will do better the basics on the pitch that will set them apart now. West Ham United, Newcastle United, Leicester City, Crystal Palace and Wolverhampton Wanderers will all have something to say about Villa’s push for a European spot.
Villa need to improve defensively. The addition of Diego Carlos will keep others on their toes and Kamara should act as a much-needed midfield screen.
It sounds simple, but it is essential to take risks and eliminate individual errors.
The long list of games where Villa have missed in front of goal or handed points to their opponents too easily has led Gerrard to admit that the only way forward would be to sign new players who are better than last season’s underachievers.
A No.8 to bolster the midfield department will help and add further competition for places. Gerrard wants every player in his starting XI to feel pushed to perform.
Forward options already look solid, with Ollie Watkins, Danny Ings, Emiliano Buendia and Coutinho vying for a starting position. Leon Bailey is recognized as Villa’s joker. Getting an air of him this campaign could make a huge difference after a difficult first season in England.
Cameron Archer could also join as a third striker. He is in Australia with the team this week for the pre-season tour and a loan decision will be made soon.
There were some big moments under NSWE – the decision to keep Jack Grealish longer than expected when Tottenham Hotspur came calling, for example. Or how Villa persuaded Tammy Abraham to see out the league season on loan when Wolverhampton Wanderers offered a Premier League transfer in January 2019. Staying by Dean Smith during the lockdown months of 2020 when Villa appeared to be leaving the Premier League was also the right one call.
Serious behind-the-scenes work has continued throughout to build Villa into proper strength – from the new state-of-the-art performance center at Bodymoor Heath to rebuilding the academy and getting expansion plans in place from North Stand.
Villa announced that season ticket sales had sold out for the fourth consecutive year. There is a long waiting list and this summer’s tour will help the club expand into new markets.
It’s an exciting time to be a Villa supporter.
The awkward end to last season is forgotten and ahead of three friendlies next week the excitement is starting to build.
It feels like the season where we find out what this club is really made of.
(Top photo: Albert Perez/Getty Images)