On a warm afternoon in late May last year, Aston Villa were celebrating a Championship Play-Off Final victory over Derby County that secured their return to Premier League football after a three-year absence.
Now, a little over 13 months on, the dream has soured, with Thursday night’s defeat to Manchester United leaving the Villans facing relegation from the top flight, barring a dramatic upturn in form.
But where has it gone wrong this season for the West Midlands outfit?
The big decisions
While the final table rarely lies, Villa have hardly enjoyed the rub of the green in terms of refereeing and VAR calls this season.
The 3-0 loss to United included yet another example of a major decision going against Dean Smith’s side, as Bruno Fernandes won a penalty at 0-0 after seemingly stamping on Ezri Konsa’s shin.
Looking at the freeze frame of the incident in isolation, you’d assume it depicted a red card for the Portuguese midfielder, but instead Jon Moss awarded a spot kick, bizarrely approved by VAR, which Fernandes duly converted.
It will have been of little comfort that the Premier League came out after the fact to state that the wrong decision was reached.
That took the wind out of Villa’s sails after they’d made an encouraging start to the game, getting at United and winning the ball high up the pitch in the opening half hour.
And the claret and blue faithful will tell you it’s been a familiar theme all season, particularly against the so-called ‘big six’.
There was a penalty not given at 1-0 up on the opening day at Tottenham Hotspur, when Davinson Sanchez clumsily flattened John McGinn in the area, another for what appeared to be a blatant handball against Sokratis in September’s 3-2 defeat to Arsenal, and a goal awarded to Manchester City when Raheem Sterling should surely have been deemed offside, essentially killing October’s clash.
Perhaps the most acute sense of injustice came away at Crystal Palace in August, when Jack Grealish, while being shoved off balance, managed to smuggle a pass through to Henri Lansbury to slot in a last-gasp equaliser, only for Kevin Friend to blow for a dive by the Villa captain.
And while detractors will point to the Sheffield United ‘ghost goal’ in the first game back following Project Restart, the Midlanders will feel it has far from levelled out.
The New Year’s Day win over Burnley has the look of a pivotal moment in Villa’s campaign, but not for the right reasons.
First, Brazilian forward Wesley suffered a cruciate ligament injury due to an unnecessarily abrasive challenge from Ben Mee, after he had put his side ahead in the game and generally seemed to be finding his feet following a slow start to life in England.
Then, as Chris Wood halved the deficit for the hosts late on, Tom Heaton’s scrambling attempts to keep out the effort from his former teammate saw him suffer a similarly severe injury – neither player has featured since.
The loss of Heaton has hit particularly hard, with mistake-prone Orjan Nyland and the ageing Pepe Reina unable to match the England international’s consistency and presence between the sticks.
And up front, Mbwana Samatta has failed to fill the goalscoring void left by Wesley since his arrival in January, while Keinan Davis’ promising performances of late have not quelled the suspicion that he is not a natural goal-getter.
Those injuries, allied to the three-and-a-half months missed by McGinn before lockdown, have served to derail Villa’s survival bid.
Lack of quality
One of the laziest criticisms of Villa this year has been that they have ‘done a Fulham’ – signed too many players who have failed to gel as a team.
The truth is that Smith lost a huge chunk of his squad at the end of last season, from older stalwarts such as Glenn Whelan, Alan Hutton and Mile Jedinak, to loan stars Tammy Abraham and Axel Tuanzebe.
In total, 18 players departed Villa Park in the summer, so there was no choice but to bring in numbers in order to cope with the demands of the Premier League.
As for the notion that they should have purchased ‘proven quality’, that would have meant spending bigger on fewer players, leaving them light once injuries hit.
The fact of the matter is that there was always going to be an element of risk to the signings, and Villa’s season was inevitably going to be defined by how quickly they adapted.
With notable exceptions, such as Heaton, Douglas Luiz and to an extent Wesley and Konsa, they haven’t come off.
In defence, Bjorn Engels is an accident waiting to happen, Tyrone Mings has been increasingly complacent since winning an England cap, Kortney House looks little more than a utility man, and Matt Targett’s lack of positional awareness has been horribly exposed.
Centrally, Marvelous Nakamba lacks the on-the-ball skill to flourish as a Premier League midfielder, Danny Drinkwater appears to have little interest in rekindling his career, and the trio of Anwar El Ghazi, Trezeguet and Jota offer little on the wings, lacking pace and end product.
And in attack, Samatta doesn’t seem to be up to the speed and physicality of the league and offers nothing in behind, while Borja Baston will go down as one of the season’s most baffling acquisitions.
Truthfully, beyond Grealish, McGinn and Luiz, who has been the one bright spark of recent weeks, there just isn’t enough quality in the Aston Villa team.
Timing is everything
The 10-match winning streak that propelled Villa into the play-offs last season papered over the fact that this was for the most part an ageing Steve Bruce team, lacking a real sense of direction.
When Smith was brought in to replace Bruce the season looked dead and buried, with a remit simply to stabilise and use the money from Grealish’s inevitable departure to go again the following term.
He’d undoubtedly have looked to buy younger, more exciting attacking talent that he could mould into a team and coach for a promotion push.
As it happened, the talents of Grealish, McGinn and Abraham combined to spark that freak run of form, culminating in a glorious Wembley afternoon.
And although it was a fantastic occasion, looking back it may have been better for the club’s long-term health if they had lost to the Rams.
Instead of entering the top flight with a solid core of a side that required just a few quality signings (think Wolves two years ago), Smith has had to build a team almost from scratch, a feat that’s a lot easier to achieve in the second tier.
Villa need to stick with Smith, the man who masterminded that unlikely promotion, regardless of whether they survive this season.
He has made mistakes, but he bleeds claret and blue, has a good record in the Championship, and deserves a chance to build a side in his own image, an opportunity that hasn’t been afforded to him yet.
By all accounts, among Smith’s key targets in the summer were Leeds United’s Kalvin Phillips, and attacking duo Said Benrahma and Neil Maupay from his former club Brentford, three players who would walk into the team at present.
Sporting director Suso had other ideas, and it hasn’t fared well.
It will be a financial blow to go down, but they have valuable assets to sell, particularly Grealish, who deserves his chance to shine in a better team, no matter how hard that will be for Villa supporters to stomach.
It may not come to pass, there may still be a miraculous escape, but it’s getting harder and harder to see the light.
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