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The case for being optimistic despite Villa’s quiet window

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With just three signings in the books a week before the season starts, it’s understandable to be a little pessimistic about Villa’s upcoming season. But what if the talent level wasn’t the issue last year?

Leicester City v Aston Villa - Premier League
Jack Grealish celebrates with former Villa manager Tim Sherwood after firing the Claret and Blues in front at the King Power Stadium on September 13, 2015, in Leicester.
Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

So here we sit. A week from today, the Championship season kicks off with Fulham v Newcastle, and two days later, Aston Villa’s campaign will get going, away to Sheffield Wednesday.

At this point a year ago — the Friday before the final week of preparations began — Villa had done more than the lion’s share of the summer’s transfer dealings. Micah Richards signed in June, while Idrissa Gana Gueye, Jordan Amavi and Jordan Ayew made their way to the club over the course of July. And on the day the month closed, that point I described above, then-manager Tim Sherwood finalised the signings of Jordan Veretout and Rudy Gestede.

In hitting today, the real last chance to get players in to stand a chance of playing at Wednesday, Villa have reached a spot where it’s probably a little tough to feel great about the chances for the upcoming season. While the spine of the side has been strengthened, some of Villa’s most fatal flaws — the right back position, attacking midfield and winger slots, and, of course, up top — have gone unaddressed so far. Hell, the most action those positions have seen comes with shifts away from them: Leandro Bacuna is probably going to be a midfielder this term, leaving a vacant spot behind Alan Hutton there, while Carles Gil, one of the few creative players in the side, is off to Deportivo La Coruña on a season-long loan.

But what if it’s not all doom and gloom at B6? What if this side really isn’t as talentless as a 17-point Premier League campaign indicates?

Let’s take a trip back in time, to August (and a bit of September) 2015. ’Twas an odd time on Trinity Road; two of the best players to grace the claret and blue in recent years had departed the club, yet significant transfer windfall meant Villa had largely completed a summer full of exciting, young transfers, bringing guys in who could do the same for the club that Fabian Delph and Christian Benteke had. A slow start was perhaps expected — Villa were throwing a bunch of new faces into a side that would need time to gel — but the expectation was that a young, exciting team playing good attacking football would develop.

Matchday 1 saw Villa away to Bournemouth, everyone’s darlings, praised for their attacking football, playing for the first time in the English top flight. Now, unlike the rest of this story, Sherwood did well. He set the side up to defend for the first 45 minutes and get to halftime level, 0-0. On a day where emotions were running high and the home side were amped to show the Premier League what they had, it was a smart, sensible move to take the air out of the ground before making their move.

Gestede came on as a substitute that day, and just past the midway point of the second half, he headed home from a corner to give Villa a 1-0 win and the perfect start to the season.

Manchester United followed for the Villa, and not too much needs to be said about that one. Adnan Januzaj’s goal, deflected off Ciaran Clark’s leg, was unfortunate for Villa, but in the end, probably deserved. That’s fine.

But after the United loss, Villa’s season was defined in three outings, three matches where managerial mistakes cost the Claret and Blues points.

Crystal Palace 2, Aston Villa 1: More than 11 months on, I still believe there’s no reason Villa lost this match. Level at halftime, in a half where Villa were probably the better side, if anything, Eagles manager Alan Pardew made two key changes, bringing on Dwight Gayle and Jordon Mutch.

But while Pardew made changes to add something to an attack that registered just one shot on target in the first 45, Sherwood sat by idly. It allowed Palace to take control of the match in the second half, and on 71 minutes, Scott Dann headed home to give the hosts a deserved lead.

Sherwood’s one change, made in the 69th minute, did pay off. He brought on Adama Traoré for the youngster’s début, and eight minutes later, Adama forced a Papa Souaré own goal to level the scoreline 1-1.

The only issue? Adama entered the match for Carlos Sánchez, moving Villa into a more attack-minded formation. Pragmatic management, having been given a lifeline the club hardly deserved in a poor second half, would have seen Villa take advantage of the gift from near nowhere, making a defensive-minded change (both Nathan Baker and Alan Hutton were on the bench that day) to see out a 1-1 draw.

As we know too well, that didn’t happen, with Bakary Sako scoring the 87th-minute winner that broke Villa hearts. It was a Jordan Amavi error, but one that came from simply trying to do too much; instead of clearing the ball up the pitch toward Gestede, Brad Guzan instead insisted Villa should play from the back. He put Amavi in a position he never should’ve needed to be in, which forced a brutal turnover of possession, leading to the Palace win.

Sherwood had two chances that day to make impactful substitutions to win Villa a point: At halftime, with the scoreline still 0-0, and after 77 minutes, when Villa had leveled to create a 1-1. He did on neither occasion, and Villa paid dearly three minutes from time. One point dropped.

Aston Villa 2, Sunderland 2: It’s pretty incredible that this wasn’t Villa’s worst result of the season, but somehow, it wasn’t even close! Villa went behind inside of 10 minutes when Yann M’Vila converted a free kick, but by the halftime interval, Scott Sinclair’s brace had given the Claret and Blues a much-deserved 2-1 lead.

But like last time out, the opposing manager made the changes Sherwood didn’t. Sam Allardyce made a double change, and the Black Cats gained an instant foothold in a match they didn’t deserve to be in. Seven minutes into the second half, Jeremain Lens equalised for Sunderland, who then pragmatically sat back and enjoyed the 2-2 scoreline.

Of course, on the basis of the last 38 minutes, Villa still should have won this match. Remember that Micah Richards miss? Or the penalty shouts denied when Carles Gil went down in the box?

But at the end of the day, an inability to make the right changes kept Villa from winning a match where they held 62% possession and outshot their opponent 21-7. They were the far better side on the pitch that day, but alas, it was two more points dropped.

Leicester City 3, Aston Villa 2: Okay, of all the bad results Villa endured this season, this was the ultimate. Away to the eventual champions, Aston Villa turned in a fantastic first-half attacking performance that saw so much promise realised when Jack Grealish opened the scoring with his first Premier League goal, just a handful of minutes before halftime. Remember, this was in the midst of the Grealish international future sweepstakes, back when everyone in the football world was impressed with the kid.

In the second half, Villa increased their lead on 63 minutes, perhaps a bit against the run of play, with Carles Gil firing Villa 2-0 up with his first Premier League goal. Hold onto a two-goal lead for 27 minutes. Easy task, right?

Not for Sherwood’s Villa it wasn’t. Bringing Gil off on 66 minutes made a lot of sense — you don’t need two attacking midfielders on the pitch to see out a 2-0 win. The only issue? He brought on Jordan Ayew, a player every bit as attack-minded as Gil. His other substitutions were also like for like: Gestede for Gabby Agbonlahor and Hutton for Bacuna. By sticking in his attack-minded formation, despite being 2-0 up on 70 minutes, Sherwood managed to cost Villa the full three points, as Leicester scored thrice to mark what remains the defining result of the season.

For Villa, it was three more points lost.

Hell, it might as well have been the day the club met its relegation fate.

From there on, whether under Tim Sherwood, Rémi Garde or Eric Black, Villa had little fight, little cutting edge, little that made you believe they played in the same division as the other 19 Premier League sides. The final, meager point total reflected that.

But it’s hard to imagine the season going the same way had the proper adjustments been made in Villa’s first five matches. There was no reason a point wasn’t secured at Palace, nor was there a reason wins against Sunderland and Leicester weren’t seen out.

Do those three things, and Villa would have sat on 10 points through five matches, good enough to sit joint-third after a quick open to the season.

Do those three things, and the Villa side would have been high on confidence, especially with Tactics Tim in charge.

Do those three things, and we’re looking at a Villa side happy to play attacking football, to play to the strengths of Grealish and Gil, with a chance to build them as a playmaking duo.

Do those three things, and Villa are still a Premier League side. That is a statement I genuinely believe, and one I’ll stand behind.

So let’s ask a question: Had the 2015/16 Aston Villa season started with Roberto Di Matteo, not Sherwood, in charge, would things have turned out differently? In my eyes, yeah, probably. Survival? Who knows. But it wasn’t a complete lack of talent that steered Villa on a crash course with the Championship.

Why are Villa driving such a hard bargain with Celtic for Scott Sinclair? Maybe it’s because Di Matteo thinks there’s a player in there, one whose breakout season was rapidly stunted after the Leicester loss. Could Adama Traoré be the answer down the right side when he’s fit again?

Or perhaps that playmaker Villa so desperately need is Jack Grealish, that the two goalscorers to take Villa back to the top flight are Jordan Ayew and Rudy Gestede? And maybe Alan Hutton will be good enough at fullback this year.

Aston Villa’s 2015/16 season was a miserable disaster, and there’s no disputing that. But with a few tweaks, the Claret and Blues would’ve gotten off to a fantastic start, one they likely would have carried through the season to survival. Statistically, Sherwood’s Villa side wasn’t one of the three worst in the division — they were just consistently a tad bit worse on the day than their opponent, never making the right changes to ensure they stayed on level footing.

So as we’re set to only see two or three new faces in Villa’s opening day XI in eight days, keep that in mind. Under different circumstances, this group of players might turn out to be alright.