Isn’t it grand to see Aston Villa acting like a big club again? It is not just about spending money, which any rich fool can do, it is about investing in the right people for the right reasons. With Dean Smith in the dugout and Ross Barkley this past week becoming the latest of five promising recruits signed during this transfer window, Villa look to be building well.
That does not mean that a club that escaped relegation on the final day of last season will beat the champions on Sunday but they can at least be expected to show enough improvement to swell hopes for the rest of the campaign. “Liverpool will be a great marker to see how far we have moved on,” says Smith.
You could be forgiven for thinking some people are getting carried away with talk of Villa’s improvement and the idea that getting Barkley, for instance, is a spectacular coup. Wasn’t the last player whom Villa brought in on loan from Chelsea, Danny Drinkwater, one of the flops of last season? He sure was.
But misguided signings made in the throes of an injury crisis in January should not mask what has been happening at Villa since the club’s billionaire owners hired Smith two years ago, when the club were in the bottom half of the Championship.
Villa have got better each season and now, thanks to new arrivals on top of a clutch of players who have been gradually getting better, they have a first XI, at least, that should be able to gain more than the nine Premier League wins Villa managed last season. Smith’s coaching is key.
Last season, Smith, a former centre-back as a player but attack‑minded as a manager at Walsall and Brentford, used the lockdown to mastermind a dramatic defensive improvement, turning the league’s most porous defence into one of its most solid. They have continued that this season, keeping clean sheets in their opening two matches, albeit against a Sheffield United side who were reduced to 10 men after 12 minutes and a Fulham team who look out of their depth.
Villa’s improvement has been little to do with formation, more down to individuals performing better so that the collective grows stronger. That is a sure sign of good coaching.
Under Smith, Tyrone Mings has become an England centre-half. His Villa partner, 22-year-old Ezri Konsa, is developing so much that Smith thinks he could be next on to the international stage. “Ezri Konsa and Tyrone Mings are a future England pairing, it’s certainly a blossoming relationship,” he says.
Konsa was one of the club’s less‑trumpeted signings last season, when Villa paid £12m to bring him from Smith’s previous club, Brentford. He plays with a discreet efficiency that can go unnoticed.
“That’s what you want from a centre-back,” says Smith. “Look at the best centre-back this club has ever had, Paul McGrath. He was just very, very good and very effective. The less you see of players like that in a game, the better they’re doing.
“I’ve just seen continual improvement from [Konsa] and a desire to get better. He certainly has the potential to be an England player. Nothing fazes him.”
Konsa and Mings are fast enough to enable Villa to defend with a high line and try to concentrate play in the opposing half. One critical point about the defensive improvement is that it has been achieved without sacrificing ambition. Two years ago, Huddersfield survived in the Premier League by tightening up but they became so passive that even their own players and manager seemed eventually to abandon hope, especially after the club recruited badly the following summer.
Villa have enough resources to be able to get a signing or two wrong and they have not stopped thinking big. Most of their recent acquisitions, even the enterprising right-back Matty Cash, have been brought in with the intention of adding firepower to a foundation that has hardened. Ollie Watkins, another player who thrived under Smith at Brentford, has already upgraded the attack thanks to his clever runs and ability to serve as a fulcrum, even if he has yet to score in their two league games.
Barkley and the new £19m recruit from Lyon, Bertrand Traoré, have been inconsistent at previous clubs but now have prime opportunities to fulfil their potential, just as Jack Grealish is doing at Villa. Barkley and Traoré have the skill to run with the ball, leaving opponents in their wake while drawing in others – teams would then have to think twice about doubling up on Grealish. John McGinn, who looks to be regaining his best form after the injuries that sabotaged him last season, is also likely to benefit from that.
Liverpool needed a goal in stoppage time to win at Villa Park last season. They are unlikely to find it any easier on Sunday.