As the 2021/22 Premier League season edges closer, Aston Villa will be looking to continue to make progress and climb the table in pursuit of European qualification.
After narrowly avoiding the drop in our first season back in the top flight, Dean Smith and his players finished in a respectable 11th place last year.
Naturally, there was disappointment given our form and the level of quality we displayed in the first half of the season to not finish higher, as the drop off was frustrating from January onwards as we slipped out of contention for a top-six finish.
Nevertheless, from where we were the previous campaign to the level of expectation and hope going into this one, we’re certainly moving in the right direction ahead of what could be a pivotal year for many reasons for various individuals at the club.
As with any side, there are areas in which we can still improve, and Smith will be wanting to see that continued progression starting in August.
Protecting leads better
Particularly towards the back-end of last season, Villa were guilty of surrendering leads far too often and that ultimately cost us a number of points we were disappointed to drop.
Newcastle Utd and Liverpool away, Man Utd at home and Crystal Palace away were just a few examples of that, and having done so well to grind out results and protect leads earlier in the season, it was undoubtedly an area in which we declined.
While it’s partly mentality, it’s also having the quality to kill games off and manage those situations better. Hopefully lessons were learned and those frustrations won’t come back to haunt us next season.
Avoiding slip-ups in games we’re expected to win
While our early-season form last year was superb, back-to-back home defeats to Leeds Utd and Southampton, two games in which we conceded seven goals, highlighted that there was still work to be done.
Nothing is easy in the Premier League and so Villa are going to have to battle week in and week out to get the results needed to break into the top six.
However, while we did improve against the top sides, we’ve got to be better against the teams in and around us fighting for the same objectives, particularly at home.
Maintain and build on our defensive improvement last year
After conceding 67 goals in the 2019/20 campaign, Villa improved significantly in that department this past year having conceded 46 goals.
Emiliano Martinez equalled the club record for clean sheets in a single top flight season with 15, and coupled with the addition of Matty Cash to the backline, we now have a solid defensive unit.
However, if we’re to kick on and compete amongst the top six, that number has to be reduced again and as we become more difficult to break down, it will allow our attacking players to go out and win more games.
Produce more creativity, quality with or without Grealish
While the COVID outbreak in January was also a contributing factor to our slump in form in the second half of the season, Grealish’s absence due to a shin injury was a huge issue too.
Our influential captain missed 12 league games, of which we only won three and scored 13 goals in total.
The signing of Emiliano Buendia will no doubt help to address that, but as a collective, we need to be better at breaking teams down as we like to dominate possession where possible. Only Arsenal and Everton failed to score more goals than us last season out of the top 10 sides.
Smith to be more proactive with changes, better depth to impact games
One key criticism of Smith last season was the time it took for him to make changes in games to try and turn it into our favour.
Too often we would wait until too deep into the second half to shuffle things, and so it would be interesting to see if changes are made sooner, whether or not they would lead to more improvement.
Adding depth and players capable of coming off the bench to influence things is also critical, and so it comes back round to building a better squad again too.