The Premier League title race may have been done and dusted long before the final day of last season, but the relegation battle went right down to the wire. In the end Aston Villa survived by the skin of their teeth, as a 1-1 draw with West Ham United condemned Bournemouth to the drop despite their victory over Everton. Had West Ham scored once more at the London Stadium, Villa would have gone down instead.
There is still more than half of the current campaign remaining, but Dean Smith’s side will almost certainly be in a more comfortable position on matchday 38 this time around. Villa are sitting pretty in the top half of the table on New Year’s Day, having enjoyed a better December than most teams in the division. Indeed, only Liverpool, Everton and Manchester United amassed more points in the 12th month of 2020 than Villa, who won three and drew two of their five Premier League encounters. They will now be looking to maintain their upward momentum at Old Trafford on Friday night.
Although there are cases to be made for Everton and Southampton, Villa are the most improved team in the league so far this season. It took them a long time to get to grips with the top flight last term, and a four-match unbeaten run at the end of the campaign brought survival by the finest of margins. Villa conceded far too many goals last season and lacked a prolific scorer at the other end of the pitch. They were overly reliant on Jack Grealish, their talisman captain, for inspiration in the final third.
That has not entirely changed in 2020/21, with Grealish as influential as ever as he continues to take his game to new heights. Yet Villa are a much better all-round team these days. Ollie Watkins has solved the centre-forward problem, scoring six goals in 14 games and earning plenty of admirers for his link-up play and work ethic. Bertrand Traore has started to make an impact after a slow start, while Ross Barkley was excellent before injury forced him out of the team.
All three of those players were signed in the summer, with Barkley brought in on a season-long loan from Chelsea. Villa also added Emiliano Martinez to their ranks. The former Arsenal goalkeeper has been magnificent so far, keeping a league-high eight clean sheets behind a much-improved Villa defence, which now features Matty Cash at right-back. John McGinn and Douglas Luiz have formed a superb partnership in the centre of the park, with Grealish sprinkling his stardust slightly further forward.
There is a much better balance to Villa this term. Too easy to play against at times last season, Smith’s side have become more solid and robust. Only Manchester City have conceded fewer goals so far, but Villa have found the net seven times more than Pep Guardiola’s men. And while Watkins is the leading scorer, Grealish, Anwar El Ghazi and Barkley have all been chipping in. Even centre-backs Tyrone Mings and Ezri Konza have four goals between them.
The highlight of Villa’s season was undoubtedly their stunning 7-2 thrashing of Liverpool back in October. There have been plenty more impressive displays, though, including a 1-0 win at Leicester City, a 3-0 triumph over Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium, and a 3-0 success against Crystal Palace on Boxing Day despite playing more than half of the match with 10 men.
Villa were not quite as free-flowing in attack against Chelsea last time out, but Smith was rightly delighted with the resolve his players showed. Olivier Giroud’s header gave the hosts the lead at Stamford Bridge, but Villa battled back and levelled things up through El Ghazi. In the end they were well worth a point.
"I'm pleased with the point. It was a really good point,” Smith said after Monday’s game. “It's a tough place to come. They've rotated what is a very strong squad. We knew they could do that. I thought there were spells from both teams.
"We started better for the first 20 minutes but they scored and we weathered a storm after that. They switched the play really well getting two-vs-one but we addressed that at half-time. We found a really good balance again between attacking and defending. The energy levels of my players was incredible considering the fact we played just 48 hours ago.”
It is that balance which is serving Villa so well this season. At this rate, European qualification does not look out of the question.