Despite looking like potential European contenders in the early stages of the season, Aston Villa’s season ended up petering out.
Following a mightily impressive month in December which saw Dean Smith win Manager of the Month, Villa found themselves nestled inside the top six. However, an outbreak of COVID-19 in the Villa camp saw the team out of action for two weeks. They came back well from this, with wins over Southampton, Newcastle, and Arsenal, but they suffered another major setback soon afterward.
Star man and captain Jack Grealish picked up a shin injury in February, derailing Villa’s entire season. They won just three of the 12 games he missed but won two of the three matches he started at the end of the season. This put Villa’s reliance on the England international into stark relief. It was a disappointing end to such a promising start to the season and highlighted Villa’s need for extra strength in depth.
However, this was still a season of massive progress for Villa. The campaign saw a huge 7-2 demolition of Liverpool, a rare double over Arsenal, some of the slickest and most exciting football Villa have produced in the last decade as well as their highest Premier League finish since 2011. Villa gave themselves a target of finishing between 8th and 12th and they did meet that. There were excellent transfers and crucially, one of the most popular groups of Villa players in recent years.
While the season did end disappointingly, the 2020/21 campaign gives Villa a great platform for future success.
Villa’s first move in the transfer market was not for a player, but for a director. Jesus Garcia Pitarch was axed, and Johan Lange was brought in from FC Copenhagen. He immediately shifted Villa’s transfer focus to domestic players and to a quality over quantity approach.
The first summer signing was the £15 million purchase of Matty Cash from Nottingham Forest. Villa swooped in late to complete the deal as the player was already in negotiations with West Ham United. However, he was more than worth it. Cash immediately ousted the more defensive Frederic Guilbert and he complimented Smith’s attacking style of play much better than the Frenchman. Cash had a hugely impressive first season in the Premier League and may be gunning for a place in future England squads.
Next came Ollie Watkins. The former Brentford hitman was a record signing for Villa and he was an instant hit in Birmingham. He grabbed a hat-trick in the famous 7-2 win over Liverpool and never looked back. Most impressively, he showed a willingness to work that Villa hadn’t seen in a long time. Watkins spent as much of his time dropping into midfield or drifting out wide to receive the ball as he did in the striker position. He made his England debut in March and ended the season with 16 goals in all competitions.
However, the biggest signing was the surprise capture of Emiliano Martinez from Arsenal. The Argentine 'keeper kept a joint club record 15 clean sheets in the Premier League and carried Villa through so many games. He was voted Fans’ Player of the Season and it is not hard to see why. His arrival finally ended Villa’s goalkeeping woes and gave them a settled number one for the first time since Brad Guzan’s run between the Villa sticks.
Bertrand Traore also arrived from Lyon and blew hot and cold. However, when the winger was on his best form he was unplayable. Traore also grabbed two of Villa’s best goals of the season against West Bromwich Albion and Manchester United and ended the season with seven goals and six assists. Ross Barkley also arrived on loan from Chelsea but was mainly underwhelming. The only January arrival was Morgan Sanson, but his bright start to life at Villa was disrupted by injury.
These signings should not overshadow the fine work done in keeping players at the club. Over the course of the season, Matt Targett, Tyrone Mings, Ezri Konsa, John McGinn, Jack Grealish, and Jacob Ramsey all signed new contracts while a spate of the FA Youth Cup-winning U18 side also secured new deals. These all showed that Villa are finally able to keep their best players at the club, rather than letting them all leave thanks to release clauses.
The turning point
The turning point for Villa's season was obvious. Rumours began swirling on 20 February that Jack Grealish had picked up some sort of leg injury. He went on to miss 12 games, of which Villa won just three. This completely derailed Aston Villa's season and their promising European push.
While this did demonstrate Villa's shocking lack of depth and one-dimensional tactics, the injury had its benefits. By exposing these issues, it sent an immediate message to Villa's recruitment team that further strengthening was needed. It also allowed the likes of Traore and Anwar El Ghazi to have a more central role in the team, for better or worse. Trezeguet also made a brief return to form and the starting lineup before his season was also cut short with an injury.
Player of the season
There really can be no doubt about this one. Emiliano Martinez was far and away Villa's most important player this season. The Argentine was one of the surprise stars of the season and kept 15 clean sheets in his first season of Premier League football.
If you want proof of his importance to Villa, look no further than their visit to Brighton. Graham Potter's men ran rings around Villa's defence and the forward players barely got a touch on the ball. Yet Martinez pulled out save after save to earn Villa a point. His fine displays between the sticks earned him the fan's vote for Player of the Season as well as his national team debut.
Honourable mentions should go to Ollie Watkins, Ezri Konsa and Matt Targett, but Martinez has to take it.
- Most improved player
Speaking of Matt Targett, he is easily Villa's most improved player this season. While he was still one of Villa's better players last season, he has improved on every aspect of his game this term. The former Southampton man has morphed into the complete left back and has won points with his defensive performances alone.
Targett's transformation really began to show itself in the victory over Wolves in December. He completed several tackles and kept Adama Traore in his pocket. He ended the season with the ninth most tackles in the league with 83, an average of 2.2 per game, and surely is not far from and England call-up.
Another mention should definitely go to Marvelous Nakamba. While the Zimbabwean hero played more of a bit-part role this season, making just 13 appearances, he was rock-solid in all of them. He added a new layer of defensive stability and he allowed other midfielders more freedom when he played. His performances in the final two games of the season against Tottenham and Chelsea were also a massive part of Villa's wins in those games.