What to expect from Aston Villa next season?
Background Image Via: Wikimedia Commons/Ian Wilson
After both Norwich City and Sheffield United sealed their place in the Premier League, it was time to see who'd join them via the play-offs - partaking in the most expensive game in football. Aston Villa and Derby County would go toe-to-toe in the Wembley showpiece, with the former coming up trumps winning 2-1. The Villans didn't have it all their own way mind, enduring a nervy last fifteen minutes as the Rams desperately piled on the pressure in search for an equaliser that never came.
Following Championship play-off final heartbreak last term, Aston Villa managed to right their wrongs just twelve months later in the perfect fairytale ending. Three years of second-tier football later, the famous Claret & Blue Army are back where they belong; sitting atop the summit of football in Birmingham.
The mastermind behind it all? Boyhood fan Dean Smith. After Steve Bruce was relieved of his duties in October 2018, Smith would come in and pull off something incredible. With 34 games played, Villa was sitting in thirteenth place, eight points adrift of the Championship play-offs. At that point, nobody anticipated The Lions would be a Premier League side just two months later. It truly was a stunning run of form that sealed their fate, winning ten games straight to propel themselves into the hunt and ironically, drubbing Frank Lampard's Derby 4-0 along the way.
Tactically, Smith didn't switch things up too much. Instead, the 48-year-old reinvigorated that dressing room, most notably the attack. Tammy Abraham started to score with consistency, Jack Grealish's leadership qualities begun to shine through. The super-talented English duo were the driving force behind a Villa train that wasn't planning on halting anytime soon.
Enjoying success on the football field all starts with a solid base. After goalkeeping troubles throughout the season, Villa eventually found a reliable pair of hands in Jed Steer. The 26-year-old was calmness personified, controlling his back line excellently while never looking back after being given the opportunity to prove his worth back in February.
Then you move onto the back line. The on-loan partnership of Tyrone Mings and Axel Tuanzebe were constantly plagued by injuries, but when starting alongside eachother the pair firmly adopted the 'you shall not pass' mentality. The perfect blend of youth and experience stepped up when Villa needed them most. It's vital that one (or both) return to Birmingham next season if they're to stand any chance at surviving.
Sticking with the loan theme but moving further up the field, you have Anwar El Ghazi who is at Villa Park on a short-term deal from LOSC Lille. The 24-year-old scored the all-important opener in the play-off final. That miscued header will live long in both his and the Villa fans' memory forever. He's already reiterated his desire to remain a Villan. Perhaps Smith's biggest masterstroke in the loan market was acquiring Abraham from Chelsea and in the end, the 21-year-old would score 26 goals in total. He'll be a wanted commodity over the summer, possibly by his parent club, although Villa has at least given themselves a chance at keeping their front-man for another twelve months.
We simply cannot talk about Villa without showering Grealish in praise. It goes without saying that the super-classy attacker could well leave the West Midlands outfit this summer but I sincerely hope that he stays with his hometown side for one more season. After giving his all to bring Villa back to the promised land, the 23-year-old doesn't owe the club anything, but it would be pretty special if he stuck around. We saw in the post-match interviews that his partner in crime, the excellent John McGinn, is doing his utmost to convince Grealish to stick around but that's easier said than done...
Villa is a massive club. Whatever division they're playing their football in, that will never change. Smith will have money to spend, I don't doubt he'll splash the cash wisely and I probably give them the best chance at staying up from any of the promoted teams this season...