What a difference 90 minutes can make.
Over three weeks have passed since Aston Villa’s dramatic final-day survival courtesy of a 1-1 draw against West Ham United, and the mood at Villa Park has shifted to optimism ahead of the 2020/21 Premier League season.
Dean Smith has started plotting his side’s ascent up the table next season. The boyhood Villa fan has already made several new additions to his backroom team - most notably a new assistant coach, Craig Shakespeare - with Smith viewing the former Leicester City manager’s top-flight experience as key to Villa’s development.
Now the attention switches to the transfer market, and to avoid becoming embroiled in another relegation scrap the Claret and Blues need to make some serious improvements from the squad which limped over the line in 2019/20.
Villa need to add extra quality to their side, as well as depth across the board, while also being conscious of Financial Fair Play and not making ‘too many’ signings.
In reality, the Villans are probably looking at seven or eight additions, but which areas need strengthening most urgently, and which players could be realistic transfer targets?
Starter: Tom Heaton
Substitute: Orjan Nyland
Reserves: Jed Steer, Lovre Kalinic
Signings? Pepe Reina
Villa are in a tricky position in goal. First-choice keeper Tom Heaton is expected to miss the start of the season and it’s unclear how long he will be sidelined for.
Ideally, Villa would bring in a temporary No. 1 on loan until Heaton is fit again. Pepe Reina is the obvious solution and, while not without his kamikaze moments, the Spaniard did a respectable job in the latter weeks of the season.
Orjan Nyland has also shown potential but, as Sheffield United know only too well, the stopper is prone to the odd clanger. Long-term goalkeeper Jed Steer should consider looking for first-team football elsewhere, while Lovre Kalinic is also expected to depart for a fraction of the £7m that was paid for the Croatian in January 2019.
Starters: Ezri Konsa, Tyrone Mings
Substitutes: Bjorn Engels, Kortney Hause
Signings? Phil Jones, Ben Godfrey
Post-lockdown, the Villa defence looked much more reliable, and the partnership of Tyrone Mings and Enzri Konsa gives Smith something to build on.
Elsewhere, Bjorn Engels and Kortney Hause enjoyed good spells in 2019/20 and will offer dependable back-up.
That leaves Villa with four acceptable centre-backs after James Chester’s departure last week. So the heart of defence might not be the most pressing concern for Smith at present.
However, should they decide to invest in this area, why not tempt the experienced Phil Jones? Failing that, Norwich City’s athletic, ball-playing defender Ben Godfrey would also tick all the boxes for Smith. Alternatively, former Villan Ciaran Clark could offer a cheaper alternative, while also adding that sought after Premier League knowhow.
Starters: Frederic Guilbert, Matt Targett
Substitutes: Ahmed Elmohamady, Neil Taylor
Reserves: James Bree
Signings? Nathaniel Clyne, Jayden Bogle, Christian Fuchs, Danny Rose
Villa’s current four full-backs - Frederic Guilbert, Ahmed Elmohamady, Matt Targett and Neil Taylor - have proved satisfactory without being sensational.
Yet, with other areas of the squad causing more concern, Smith may be tempted to hold off on any serious improvements until next summer.
Should the Claret and Blues opt for some cheaper additions, free agent Nathaniel Clyne is an option at right-back, as is Newcastle United’s DeAndre Yedlin or Jayden Bogle of Derby County.
On the other flank, Christian Fuchs could be a realistic acquisition or a more ambitious possibility would be Tottenham Hotspur’s Danny Rose.
Starters: John McGinn, Douglas Luiz, Jack Grealish
Substitutes: Conor Hourihane, Marvelous Nakamba
Reserves: Henri Lansbury
Signings? James McCarthy, Joe Lolley, Emi Buendia, Eberechi Eze
Danny Drinkwater’s return to Chelsea and the likely departure of Henri Lansbury leaves Villa with just five centre-midfielders.
That’s certainly not enough for a full campaign, although the three starters - John McGinn, Douglas Luiz and Jack Grealish - offer probably Villa’s strongest area of the starting XI.
Despite that, the Villans need some new blood here. Jeff Hendrick, James McCarthy or Etienne Capoue would offer some Premier League experience for an affordable fee, while the Championship’s Joe Lolley and Eberechi Eze would also be exciting alternatives.
Villa are also in need of some creativity in the centre of the park - regardless of whether Jack Grealish leaves or not - and Norwich’s Emi Buendia would be a great signing.
Starters: Trezeguet, Anwar El Ghazi
Reserves: Andre Green
Signings? Said Benrahma, Ryan Fraser, Robert Snodgrass
This is probably the position which requires the most major surgery. Jota was poor in 2019/20 and Smith clearly doesn’t fancy Andre Green. That leaves just Trezeguet and Anwar El Ghazi in the wide areas, and even that pair lacked consistency during their maiden term in the top flight.
Said Benrahma has been heavily linked with a move to the Midlands and would make an excellent addition to this Villa squad. However, with the winger likely to cost around £30m, that could be a sizeable chunk of the club’s transfer kitty.
Ryan Fraser also seems like a no-brainer on a free transfer. He’s also unlikely to attract many more high-profiled clubs than Villa. Meanwhile, former Villa man Robert Snodgrass could add that much-needed Premier League knowhow on the wing.
Substitutes: Mbwana Samatta, Keinan Davis
Reserves: Indiana Vassilev, Scott Hogan
Like the goalkeeping department, Villa’s main man up front is set to miss the start of the new campaign through injury. Yet, even at his best, Wesley never inspired confidence among the Villa supporters last season.
Back-ups Mbwana Samatta and Keinan Davis didn’t manage a single goal between them after Project Restart and they are in real need of an upgrade.
Ollie Watkins is the name being most touted by those in the know and the Brentford forward would be a superb signing for Villa given his goal output last season.
Bournemouth duo Callum Wilson and Josh King would also be good additions, but Dwight Gayle, Shane Long or Danny Welbeck could offer a cheaper alternative for Smith.
If the Villa boss was feeling ambitious, a loan move for former striker Tammy Abraham would be a coup for the claret and blues, as would a temporary deal for Liverpool youngster Rhian Brewster.
Smith has targeted Premier League experience this summer, and he undoubtedly needs it. Villa also require some added quality, especially in the attacking areas and strength in depth at the back and central midfield.
Therefore, Villa’s best bet could be to spend significant sums on a winger and striker, while supplementing that with some free transfers and cheaper signings.