Has Aston Villa’s Bubble Burst?

Aston Villa’s defeat to Leeds United in the Premier League on Friday evening brought to an end the club’s 100% start to the Premier League season. Their fine beginning to the current campaign had many observers wondering if this was the season that the Birmingham outfit could re-establish its credentials as a contender.

Dean Smith’s team have even been tipped as a side to keep an eye on by legendary bookmaker Geoff Banks. The result on Friday, though, has perhaps brought a touch of realism to things. Smith felt that his team were lucky to get away with a 3-0 defeat to Leeds, with a second-half Patrick Bamford hat-trick doing for the Villans.

“Who knows what would have happened if we had scored?” said Smith, according to the BBC.

“That is the first time we have been behind in a game and we didn’t handle it very well.”

It was Villa’s first defeat in nine Premier League games –  a run that extends back into last season. Viewed in that context, this defeat cannot be seen as too disastrous. The team was always likely to suffer a blip along the way. The key test now will be how Smith’s players react to the setback. It is worth noting that the improvement over the last few months has been dramatic.

After all, Villa have a pretty poor record since their return to the Premier League last season. The West Midlanders have lost 22 Premier League games and conceded 72 goals in the competition since the start of last season. For them to have begun the current campaign in such fine style marks a significant improvement. The run of four victories that they achieved ahead of Friday’s defeat is something of an aberration. Fans will hope that the team does not revert to recent type.

There are strong signs that that they won’t. Even though last season was difficult for Smith’s men there were some bright spots. They reached the League Cup final, and although they lost to Manchester City it was reassuring to see the Claret and Blues back in the Wembley spotlight. To reach the final of a knock-out competition shows that this team has the character to win big games when needed – a good sign for the future.

There are certainly plenty of very good players in this Villa side. Smith has assembled the core of a potentially very good team indeed, as shown by the results that they have achieved this season. The 7-2 thrashing of defending champions Liverpool was a strong indication of just how much attacking quality there is the team.

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McGinn and Grealish: Villa’s beating heart

A key cog in the Villa wheel is Scotland international midfielder John McGinn. The energetic former St Mirren and Hibernian player has got to be one of the best transfer bargains in the Premier League over the last couple of seasons. He cost a mere £2.75 million for Villa to bring him south from Edinburgh two summers ago – a deal that looks a real bargain now.

McGinn captained his country to an impressive win over the Czech Republic during the recent international window, and he has become something of a talisman for his club side too. His box-to-box style of play means that he makes significant contributions in both penalty areas, driving the team forward in attack but also adding a resilience in defensive areas.

He is certainly a great complement to Villa’s star player Jack Grealish. The Anglo-Irishman, now in the England international fold after winning six Under-21 caps for the Republic of Ireland earlier in his career, is a local lad with a significant emotional connection to Villa. For a player of his ability to take such apparent delight in representing the team he supported as a boy is a good sign that he will stay put when other clubs come calling – as they are sure to.

Recruitment over the coming months will be crucial. There are still areas of the team that require reinforcement. Ollie Watkins and Keinan Davis certainly look good up front, but Villa could certainly do with adding numbers and quality to Smith’s attacking options. McGinn’s goal threat from midfield notwithstanding, a proven goal scorer would certainly add much-needed strength to the side.

Dean Smith is a Villa man

Smith himself has a strong emotional connection with the club and its fans too – his father, who died last year, was a steward at Villa Park. In an age where local connections in football seem to be fraying more and more every year, it is pleasing to see someone who genuinely has the club at their heart in charge. Concerns about his lack of big club experience have certainly been eased, but the feeling does remain that perhaps Smith is laying foundations for a bigger name to build on.

If Smith’s Villa can react positively to the Leeds setback in their next game then they have every chance of at least claiming a top-half finish this season. For fans who have endured a decade of disappointment that should be enough.

But expectations are always large at Villa Park, and Smith will be aware that he will need to build on the foundations he has laid. Villa have been a sleeping giant for too long now. There are still lingering suspicions that they might have benefitted from lockdown too. As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to unfold in the coming months it will be interesting to see how Villa’s season turns out.

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