Having stayed up by the skin of their teeth in 2020, Aston Villa had a much more comfortable campaign last time around.
They ended the season in 11th place – 27 points clear of relegation and just seven off the European spots.
It’s been an eventful summer at Villa Park, with plenty of players coming in and out. This makes them somewhat of an unknown quantity going into the new season. It should be interesting to see how things pan out.
There’s a lot of quality all over the pitch for the Villans. They’ve got four England internationals in their squad, a Copa America champion in goal, two very highly rated wingers coming in, and they’re solid in other positions.
But their strength surely lies going forward. Even without Jack Grealish, they have some exciting playmakers who are capable of causing problems for any backline.
Emiliano Buendia proved last season just how good he is, winning Championship Player of the Year after registering 15 goals and 16 assists for Norwich City.
He’s joined by Leon Bailey, who has been a real bright spark in the Bundesliga for a few years now.
And up front, there’s Ollie Watkins and new signing Danny Ings. With Bailey and Buendia creating the chances, we can expect these two to thrive in front of goal.
At the back, things are reasonably solid for Dean Smith, but there’s room for improvement.
Firstly, while Emiliano Martinez is one of the best goalkeepers in the league, the only senior back-up option for him is Jed Steer.
The 28-year-old has played most of his career in the lower leagues and may not be good enough should the number one choice get injured.
There is a similar theme running through the rest of the defence. Ezri Konsa proved himself to be a capable centre-back, and Tyrone Mings is also a good option, if not a bit inconsistent.
But the only alternatives are loanee Axel Tuanzebe and Kortney Hause. The Manchester United man may have promise but still needs to prove himself as a regular at the highest level.
Matt Targett and Matty Cash are a reliable pair of full-backs. But again, the only back-ups for them are Frederic Guilbert – who spent much of last season out on loan – and a 36-year-old Ashley Young.
Star man – Emiliano Buendia
Grealish was the main man at Aston Villa for many years. With the England international moving on, it’s time for someone new to take the mantle. That man could be Buendia.
As mentioned earlier, the Argentine was the star of the show in the Championship. His 15 goals and 16 assists fired Norwich City to the league title and won him the league’s Player of the Year award.
But it wasn’t just in the second tier where he has been able to produce. During the 2019/20 season, the playmaker created 83 chances – only Kevin De Bruyne, Grealish, and Trent Alexander-Arnold created more.
And that was while playing for a Norwich side who finished 13 points adrift at the bottom of the table.
Buendia will certainly be one to keep an eye on this season.
Villa Park has been one of the busiest places in the Premier League this summer, with loads of chopping and changing.
As mentioned earlier, Buendia was brought in for a club-record fee, while Bailey and Ings have also been signed for big money. Young returns to the club on a free transfer and Tuanzebe also returns for his second loan spell.
And it doesn’t seem like they’re done there. They submitted a bid for Southampton’s James Ward-Prowse last month and are expected to put in a second, while Norwich’s Todd Cantwell and Lazio’s Joaquin Correa have also been linked.
But the headline transfer story at the club has been the departure of Grealish, who moved to Manchester City for a British record fee. He will no doubt be sorely missed at the Midlands side.
Mbwana Samatta was also sold to Fenerbahce, while Tom Heaton, Bjorn Engels, Ahmed Elmohamady, and Neil Taylor left for free.
Despite the sale of Grealish, Aston Villa seem to be in a much better position than before. They’ve brought in another proven goalscorer, two promising wingers, and are expected to do more deals before the transfer window closes.
Smith has ended up with a strong starting XI, which leaves them with a great chance of progressing.
Having finished just seven points off the top seven, Aston Villa fans will feel like they can really push for a European place this year.
There are still some weaknesses, most notably the lack of quality back-up options.
Nonetheless, if they can remain relatively injury-free, they will have a great chance of qualifying for Europe.
Prediction: Europa League challengers.