The hard yards have been run, the friendlies in far-flung lands have been played, the Pro Fit shirt has been optimistically ordered and then predictably returned in favour of a size more accommodating of a middle-aged paunch. Yes Villa fans, the 2022-23 Premier League season is almost upon us.
Words: Daniel Bettridge | @DanielBettridge
As we edge closer to the curtain-raiser away to Bournemouth this Saturday, fans are giddy with anticipation ahead of what looks set to be a big season for the club.
And who can blame them?
After all, with a strengthened squad and a full pre-season under their belts – there’s every indication that Steven Gerrard’s Claret and Blue army are ready for an assault on the upper echelons of the Premier League table.
Yet, despite the very real cause for optimism, there are still a number of issues that Gerrard and co. will need to address in order to progress on the club’s disappointing 14th place finish last time out.
So from nagging doubts to full-blown existential crises, these are the questions that Aston Villa will need to answer if they’re going to enjoy a successful season.
Where will Aston Villa’s goals come from?
Ask me what Villa’s biggest issue was last season and I’d probably point you in the direction of a defence that served up more schoolboy errors than a Year 7 algebra test. Perhaps that’s why Steven Gerrard wasting no time in going out and strengthening his side, with the additions of Diego Carlos and Boubacar Kamara who look like they’ll go a long way to solving the scoliosis that Villa’s spine has traditionally suffered from.
And yet, despite our perceived defensive frailties conceding goals wasn’t the biggest problem that Aston Villa faced last season. Indeed on closer inspection Villa’s defence performed very well under Gerrard, ranking among the league’s leaders in terms of clean sheets (6th), shots conceded (5th) and xGC (8th).
No, Villa’s biggest problem last season was at the other end of the pitch where the underlying statistics reveal a team that struggled to achieve the all-important footballing feat of scoring an actual goal.
That was in large part due to Danny Ings, who has failed to look anything like the clinical striker Villa fans thought they were getting when he signed from Southampton. Ollie Watkins didn’t perform much better missing a hat-full of chances that prompted the striker to spend his summer enjoying extra finishing training, only to arrive at preseason missing the exact same type of chances as he did before.
Pre-season hasn’t done much to dispel fans’ fears that Villa’s prolificacy in front of goal might continue, and with Gerrard showing no sign of dipping back into the transfer market to bolster his attack we’re left to wonder where the goals might come from in the season ahead?
One answer might come in the emergence of Cameron Archer, the talented youngster who has demonstrated an enviable knack for scoring goals at every level he’s played at. But despite his undoubted talent, Archer is still learning his trade and placing the goalscoring burden squarely on his shoulders at such a tender age feels foolish in the extreme.
It seems the more likely solution comes in the form of Leon Bailey, the forgotten £30 million man who has been in spectacular form during Aston Villa’s preseason preparations. Bailey is finally showing signs of flourishing into the player that Villa fans thought they were signing last summer and in doing so threatens to add an extra dimension to an attack that desperately needs to carry more goal threat this time around.
What will Villa’s shape look like?
If Leon Bailey is going to emerge as a genuine difference-maker to this Aston Villa outfit Steven Gerrard might have to adjust his tactics to accommodate the Jamaican international. Since his arrival at Villa Park Gerrard has favoured both the Christmas Tree and the 4-4-2 Diamond, narrow formations that seemed intent on clogging up the middle of the park and using Villa’s full-backs to provide width.
The summer however has seen something of a departure from this with the team lining up in both a more traditional 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1 during their preseason friendlies. All of which means that a full nine months into his tenure as Aston Villa manager it’s still all but impossible to discern what Steven Gerrard’s preferred shape would be.
That of course could be a positive – with Villa becoming the very picture of a modern metamorphosing side, switching seamlessly between formations and throwing shapes at opposition managers like a drunk uncle at a wedding reception.
Or it could be a curse. This after all is a squad that still looks distinctly unbalanced and unless Gerrard manages to settle on a system that brings the best out of its disparate parts we could be set for another frustrating season in the stands.
Can Steven Gerrard prove himself?
Perhaps the biggest question mark hovering over Aston Villa’s season however is the manager himself. Gerrard has talked a good game since replacing Dean Smith in the Villa dugout but it’s been hard to see those words translated into genuine progress on the pitch.
Though Antonio Conte’s success at Spurs shows it is possible, arriving midway through a season and affecting change is never easy. Gerrard deserves a fair crack at the job and with a full preseason under his belt, all eyes will be on the Aston Villa manager as we head into the new season.
With last season’s disappointment still fresh in our minds, we need to see a pattern emerge from the magic eye picture that has been Gerrard’s tenure – tangible progress that marks the manager’s card as a genuine asset rather than another addition to the annals of great midfielders who’ve become substandard managers (see Keane, Lampard, Sherwood etc).
The jury is still very much out on the ex-Liverpool man and you imagine that he’ll need to make a strong start to the season to stave off any criticism. In truth, Villa’s fortunes are intrinsically linked to those of their manager. If Gerrard flourishes so will his side, but if he continues to falter we could be set for another season of transition.
Where do you think Aston Villa will finish this season?