Spotlight: Why Champions League should be the aim for Aston Villa this season?

Champions League

Why Champions League should be the aim for Aston Villa this season?

Villa keep talking about Europe, but it is one thing talking about it and another genuinely pushing for it.

There are after-all plenty of teams in the hunt this season, but it is a realistic ambition for Villa to be in Europe, a seemingly impossible job based on Villa’s form last season.

How do Villa get to that next level?

Villa currently sit 8th on 36 points with two games in hand on 4th placed Chelsea who are on 42 points. This puts Villa in an incredible position to potentially achieve Champions League football.

Many Villa fans have been saying that a top half finish would be a brilliant season for Aston Villa. Whilst I would not disagree with that it is perfectly plausible that Villa could find themselves in the unbelievable position of a top four finish.

Players at the club such as Martinez have persistently said, most recently saying in his post-match interview against Brighton, that Europe is the ultimate ambition of Aston Villa this term.

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Whilst he doesn’t say explicitly, many have taken to assume he’s talking about Europa league football. One can’t help but think he’s possibly talking about another European competition too.

Dean Smith has been much more level with his comments about the ultimate ambitions of this season as he has given us the usual statement of “we take matches game by game” but one can’t help but think in the back of his mind there is the very real ambition to sneak into that top four bracket.

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This article is not stating that Aston Villa should be getting Champions League football, make no mistake about that. To get into the top four after just surviving by one point last season would be almost unthinkable, but what this article is saying is that it’s not beyond the realms of possibility.

Covid Context

To start off with the coronavirus situation has created a Premier League which has resulted in bizarre results around the country as I’m writing this Fulham, who seem destined for relegation, have just beaten Everton away from home 2-0, a team who themselves are chasing the top 4.

The Premier League table as it stands is bizarre. We are 6 points of fourth with games in hand whilst Spurs, Arsenal and Wolves are currently behind us having played more fixtures. Current champions Liverpool are arguably out of the title race, sitting in 6th and looking rather out of sorts.

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Bar Manchester City and Manchester United there appear few certainties about any team getting into the top four, that leaves two spaces open and it’s simply a question of who is willing to take those places.

Why Villa could be one of those teams?

People reading this will immediately be thinking we’ve just had a poor performance against Brighton away from home (0-0) but strangely this actually supports my suggestion that Aston Villa could get into the top four.

When other teams around us have played poorly against bottom half teams they have lost. Villa have that desired ability to play poorly and still collect points. Other than the Leeds performance and potentially the West Ham display Villa have not been beaten badly by any team.

There is resilience in this Aston Villa squad and even in the West Ham defeat, we then bounced-back from that performance by going and beating Southampton away. Our bounce-back-ability is another much sought-after attribute we were previously lacking.

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Besides Man City no other team has kept as many clean sheets as Aston Villa have (12). Villa’s defence, therefore has performed to the standard of a top four side.

At the other end they have Jack Grealish, arguably the best playmaker in Europe currently, and Ollie Watkins a player who seems to be constantly improving as the season goes on.

With McGinn and Luiz as the holding midfielders, the foundations of the team are certainly there to enable Villa to compete.

Added to that we will have players (e.g Sanson) providing more competition as the season goes on.

Although it doesn’t look anytime soon, it would be surprising if Wesley doesn’t come back before the end of the season. Whatever your opinion of the Brazilian it is certainly better to have the stiker as an option than to not have him at all.

Not to mention Morgan Sanson also providing an option in midfield a player already with experience of Champions League football. Also, it is likely Jacob Ramsey will get more game time, a player who Dean Smith clearly highly rates given his frequent inclusion in the matchday squads and appearances from the bench.

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Villa under Dean Smith, Christian Purslow, Wes Edens and Nassef Sawiris have made it a habit of rapidly evolving the football club.

We got promoted probably a year sooner than expected, stayed up when no-one really gave us a chance, so could it be that we get Champions League football well ahead of schedule when nobody thought it was possible? Observers – me included – have been proven wrong before.

What needs to improve for Villa to get CL football?

The team is far from perfect and there are clear areas of improvement needed. Pressure needs to be taken off of Watkins for goals and other players have to take the creative responsibility away from Grealish. In particular Barkley and Traore.

The good news is they clearly these players have the ability to do just this. Barkley has won us games against Leicester and Southampton with his goals and Traore has also shown his ability to get goals and assists. Also, as mentioned above, Wesley could return to match fitness and potentially give Watkins some respite. 

It is worth noting to those who dismiss Barkley’s consistency overlook that he has only just returned from two months out.

Traore also tends to struggle in games in which Villa don’t dominate possession as he is relied on to do more off the ball work. If this changes then both of these players have shown they have the ability and be great foils to Grealish’s game.

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Some people might claim certain members of the squad aren’t up to that level yet. However, Villa have the youngest average age in the Premier League at 25 years old, and one would hope they will only get better with time.

So, if what we have witnessed so far is this team when they’re inexperienced, imagine how good they can become once they fully develop?

This development could take longer than this season, but one could argue not much more needs to be developed in our defence and its really in the attacking areas where we need to be more clinical.

This is not to detract from the fact this has been an incredible season so far, one which has brought a brand of football we haven’t seen in claret and blue for at least decade.

People may argue it’s greedy to expect more but then this is what the club expect after on-field improvements and off-field investment. Further, the Grealish’s, Martinez’s, Luiz’s, Watkins’, and Mings’ of this world might not consider an 8th place finish a success despite what us fans may think of the significant progress made.

Also, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity as this season will throw up a chance we may never get again, and we would be foolish not to do everything possible to get into Europe when it could completely transform the football club in the modern era.

Dean Smith has always said, and it has been proven, that his teams always get better as the season goes on. If the key players in this Villa team stay fit, if the squad keeps developing the way it has and if the other players take the pressure off Grealish then perhaps Champions League football is no longer merely a pipe dream.

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