The fight to avoid relegation from the Premier League in 2019-20 is well and truly on, and while it appears that bottom club Norwich City – who are stranded on 17 points, 6 points below the safety line – are probably doomed now, it seems that the other two spots could be filled by any pair of about 5 or 6 clubs. Aston Villa are one of those contenders; promoted into the Premier League via the EFL Championship play-offs in 2018-19, Dean Smith’s side have shown flashes of excellence, but they’ve also found life in the top flight hard at times, and have lost 13 of their 24 matches thus far.
However, after defeating Watford on Tuesday night, the Villains now sit in 16th place – so could Dean Smith’s side survive and remain in the Premier League? Here are 3 reasons why they can.
1. They have arguably the best player in the bottom half in Jack Grealish
Crystal Palace – who currently sit in 11th place in the Premier League – are living proof as to what the presence of a truly great player can do to a side who would normally struggle, as they have been buoyed by their outstanding forward Wilfried Zaha for some time now. And just like the Eagles, Aston Villa can call upon one of the Premier League’s most outstanding players in the form of their captain, Jack Grealish.
For all the struggles that Dean Smith’s side have seen during 2019-20, Grealish has seemed largely unaffected. The Villa academy product has been consistently brilliant practically from day one in the Premier League, and at times – particularly since the injury suffered by his excellent midfield partner John McGinn – it’s felt like he’s been single-handedly dragging the Villains through their matches.
Grealish has scored 7 goals and registered 5 assists this season, meaning he’s been involved in more goals than any other English midfielder. He’s also drawn more fouls than any other player in the Premier League, and when the Midlands side have needed a flash of brilliance, it’s usually been their captain who’s provided it; moments like his tremendous goals against Manchester United, Brighton and Burnley instantly come to mind, for instance.
Essentially, there’s a very real argument that Grealish could be the Premier League’s best player outside of the so-called ‘Big Six’, and it’s hardly a surprise that he’s been linked with a move to one of those teams. For now though, he’s a Villa player, and with him in their team, they have every chance of staying up.
2. Sticking with Smith might pay off
2019-20 has thus far been a surprising season when it comes to managerial changes; just 5 teams have changed boss thus far, with struggling Watford doing it twice. Naturally, sides in danger of relegation are usually the most likely candidates when it comes to firing their boss, and the Hornets’ fellow strugglers West Ham United have also made a change – replacing Manuel Pellegrini with David Moyes in December.
Both Watford and West Ham saw an upturn in form after changing their manager, but with the Hornets now back in the bottom 3 and the Hammers now winless in their last 3 games, only time will tell whether their decision was the right one. Aston Villa, on the other hand, have stuck with the man who took them into the Premier League – Dean Smith.
It would’ve been very easy for the Villains power-brokers to dispense of the former Brentford manager, particularly after the side’s run of 4 defeats in December or after the abject defeat to Watford – after all, they were pretty ruthless with Steve Bruce in 2018-19 when he went on a similarly poor run. But instead, they’ve kept faith – and it may be beginning to pay off, with the side’s last two matches showing a big improvement.
Keeping Smith allows for more continuity than a change would bring, and while a new manager might freshen things at first, who’s to say it’d work in the long term in keeping Villa up? Smith, on the other hand, has a proven record at the club, and you only have to look at Southampton – who could’ve fired Ralph Hasenhuttl, but instead stuck with him and have seen a huge upturn in results since – as an example of a side who kept their man and were able to thrive.
Sure, there’s something to be said for the so-called “new manager bounce” that a lot of clubs see after a change in boss, but in Villa’s case, there’s no suggestion that Smith has lost the dressing room, and it appears that his players have faith in him – so keeping him could be the club’s key to survival.
3. Villa got stronger as the season went on in 2018-19 – and could repeat the feat
It’s wild to look back on now, but less than a year ago, Aston Villa were sitting in 11th place in the EFL Championship table, with promotion to the Premier League nothing more than a pipe dream. Things changed when March arrived though, as Dean Smith’s team went on one of the most impressive runs in any league during 2018-19 – winning 10 straight games to rocket up the table and eventually into a play-off position.
Could they recreate that kind of run in 2019-20? Well, the Premier League is obviously a much tougher league than the Championship, so 10 straight victories might be beyond a side like the Villains, but it’s very possible that a big upturn in form might be just around the corner.
Why? Well, last season’s Villa side was very different to the current one, aside from a small handful of players (Jack Grealish, Tyrone Mings, John McGinn, Conor Hourihane) that remain, and so it took Smith time to impose his own way of playing on them. The summer saw the Villains bring in multiple new signings, so is it likely that those signings would take a similar amount of time to get used to Smith’s way of playing? Well, yes.
So while Mings and Grealish have been on form throughout the season, we may only just be seeing the best of players like Ezri Konsa, Matt Targett and Douglas Luiz – all of whom have improved their performances dramatically in recent games.
Add in the fact that Villa have just bought a new striker – Mbwana Samatta of Genk and Tanzania – to replace the injured Wesley, and suddenly they look like a much more coherent and dangerous team, and are certainly capable of keeping their Premier League status with another strong end to the season.