Who are Aston Villa? Dean Smith and John Terry mastermind return with Grealish the key
Aston Villa booked their place in the top flight for next season when they beat Derby County 2-1 on Monday in the Championship playoff final. Here we take a look at the club and what they will bring to the Premier League.
Last time they were in the Premier League
Previously a stalwart in the top flight, Aston Villa's relegation in 2016 was the culmination of years of neglect, under-investment and poor decision making. When things started to go wrong under Paul Lambert, the club turned to Tim Sherwood and while that worked for a short time, steering them away from relegation in 2015, the former Tottenham coach's deficiencies were brutally exposed and he was sacked in October that year.
Remi Garde, the former Lyon head coach and at one time the heir apparent to Arsene Wenger, replaced him, but he was a poor fit and couldn't repair the damage caused over the previous few seasons. They were relegated with four games to spare, finished bottom of the table and only won three games all season.
Who's the manager?
There is something sentimentally pleasing about two of the teams who won promotion this season doing so with fans of the club as manager. Chris Wilder took Sheffield United up automatically, and now Dean Smith, who stood on the Villa Park terraces as a boy, has done the same.
Appointed in October after doing fine jobs at Walsall and Brentford, results at Villa were initially inconsistent but Smith oversaw a run of 10 straight victories in the spring that took them into the playoffs, and ultimately into the Premier League. Sometimes unfairly overshadowed by his more famous assistant, ex-Chelsea captain John Terry, promotion is reward for years of excellence from one of the best managers in the Championship.
There were plenty of fallen giants in the Championship this season, but none as decorated as Aston Villa. Seven times English champions, only four teams have more league titles than them, while you can throw in seven FA Cups, five League Cups, and of course the 1982 European Cup, to a trophy cabinet that is the envy of all but the elite of English -- and even European -- football.
In recent years they have struggled to keep in touch with the best in the Premier League, frequently finishing in mid-table having rarely threatened either the top or bottom, although they finished second in the inaugural Premier League season and flirted with the Champions League places under Martin O'Neill a decade ago.
Jack Grealish very nearly wasn't a Villa player this season. Last summer, when the club were in the middle of significant financial strife, the homegrown No. 10 looked on the brink of a move to Tottenham, but ultimately the transfer fell through. Grealish missed three months of the season with a shin injury, but it wasn't a coincidence that their return to form coincided with his recovery -- a sensational volleyed goal against Derby sparking the run that would eventually lead to promotion.
While Grealish is Villa's most talented player and man through which most of their attacks run, their player of this season overall has been John McGinn, the Scottish midfielder who has been their driving force for most of the campaign. Additionally Tyrone Mings, signed on loan from Bournemouth in January, has been a colossus at the back and one of their main transfer priorities for the summer will be to secure him for the Premier League season ahead.
How do they play?
Dean Smith's sides have always been noted for playing attractive football, and that has been no different at Villa. It took a while for his methods to take hold, but once they did Villa frequently looked like the best side in the division, which is saying something considering the quality of the Championship this term.
Villa almost always play in some variant of a 4-2-3-1, with Grealish as the focal point in that attacking three behind the lone striker -- this season, Chelsea loanee Tammy Abraham -- but it will be interesting to see how they adapt their play in the Premier League. Not being so reliant on Grealish for creativity, which sometimes stems from his desire to win games on his own, will be a key factor for Smith to consider next season.
Expectations for 2019-20
A year ago Villa's financial problems were so great that they had to take out a loan secured against a piece of land used as a staff car park, just to keep things ticking over. Now, following a takeover last summer and with the riches the Premier League will bring, things are secure again. The question will be whether they take the conservative route and limit spending, or be aggressive and try to return Villa to their former heights as quickly as possible?
This Villa side, with a few shrewd additions, should have enough to at least survive in the top flight, but if they get their summer transfer moves right then they could achieve much more than that. A top-half finish isn't out of the question.