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Pre-season Roundtable 2018/19: Will Villa win promotion from the Championship?

Our pre-season roundtable concludes with a look at the club we cover: Aston Villa.

Telford United v Aston Villa - Pre-Season Friendly
A few members of the 7500 to Holte crew have booked Conor Hourihane as the key man for Villa this year if Jack Grealish is sold.
Photo by Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images

We’re back with the third and final installment of the pre-season roundtable.

Catch up with Thursday’s part 1, then Friday’s part 2 if you missed them.

As a reminder, this year, we’ve conducted our roundtable in our Slack channel, encouraging some discussion.

What should Villa’s target be this season? What would constitute a good “regular season”?

Jake Fenicle: Honestly, finish top 6 in the playoffs is what it’s looking like for a “good season” with our situation but obviously top 2 for auto promotion would be a great goal to reach, and it’s definitely possible with our squad still.

Alex Carson: I think the top two should be the squad’s target, but I also think a lot may have to go right for that to happen. Villa aren’t as deep as they were last year, so a handful of key injuries could be really detrimental. Particularly if Jack Grealish leaves, a top-six finish with another shot at the play-offs would be a fine outcome.

Phil Vogel: Automatic promotion has to be the target. Top six would be “good.” Anything lower is unacceptable. With the giant caveat that everything changes with a couple of key transfers.

PV: Alex you are spot on with the depth concern — especially along the back. The center midfield is the one exception though — Villa are stacked with talent and experience there.

AC: I feel like we’ve come full circle here, Phil. When Villa first came down, the problem was that Roberto Di Matteo entirely all but ignored the center of the park in his transfer window and the depth at CM lagged so far behind other positions. Now it’s kind of the opposite.

James Rushton: It’s mad how Villa make the same mistakes over and over again. You wonder if they’ll ever learn? Villa’s target should be nothing but promotion. You cannot afford to set the bar low in this league.

Sean Evans: For me a good regular season would be top six. Obviously we’d all like to see Villa get automatic promotion, but I am not confident that will happen. Ideally last year’s play-off experience helps them come good if that is once again the finish. On the whole, Villa need to get back to the Premier League this season.

Matt Booher: Promotion. Aston Villa should be playing for nothing less than promotion and quit screwing around in a league where they don’t belong. They’re Aston Villa FFS. It’s time the circus ends. There are a lot of reasons why that’ll be difficult as outlined, but if Villa don’t win promotion this season, it’s a failure.

So, that said, where will Villa finish this season?

JF: 2nd, I gotta have the faith.

PV: I like your faith. I don’t share it, but I like it. I’ll say 6th.

JR: I really think this is one of the first seasons in memory in which I don’t know about fan expectations. They are all over the map. I reckon Villa should be aiming for 1st or 2nd place, and hit the promotion playoffs. If Villa try to scrap into the playoffs, I can guarantee that they’ll fall short. I reckon 3rd is a good finish — but I expect anything between 1st and 11th, with the lower bar raised because the bottom half of the Championship looks so very poor.

AC: The bottom end of this league is truly awful — and that means getting maximum points against bottom-half sides is key. That was Villa’s biggest problem last season, dropping points nine times in the 24 matches against the bottom half. If Villa can consistently beat bad teams (hello Hull, QPR, Bolton and Reading), they’ll finish top two. Until Steve Bruce consistently starts playing strong, attacking football against those bad teams, though, I just can’t expect that to happen. I’ll go for a fifth-place finish and another play-off exit.

JR: I agree Alex, in a perfect world it’s possible. There’s sixty points to gain from ten teams in that lower section. Do the ‘easy’ work, and you make yourself a platform. It’s just about being professional and ‘getting the job done.’

SE: I’m going to say fourth or fifth. Though if Villa can get off to a better start this season, maybe some early momentum can carry them higher.

AC: Yep, a good start will be key, particularly because of the top promotion contenders, Villa only play Brentford and Swansea City (both at home) in the first 16 matches. The flip side is that November and December are going to be very difficult — but a strong start would put pressure on our opponents.

MB: Villa could realistically finish anywhere in this league, but certainly and likely no lower than 10th. So I’ll split the difference and say fifth because Bruce will find a way to bottle a few a easy matches by failing to rotate the squad. He’ll squander more points than win points we shouldn’t expect. So fifth for me.

Who will be Villa’s key player this season (not named Jack Grealish)?

JF: Whoever starts in net, and someone like Hourihane coming out from the mid and hopefully continuing his preseason and even last year’s goal-scoring form.

PV: Chester is the easy answer because he has to hold the back line together. But I’ll take the larger view and say André Green because he is the young player who can breakout and become the the club’s next big asset.

JR: Key player? It’s going to be someone who steps up if Jack Grealish does leave the club. We know what Chester offers - but what about Hourihane or Lansbury if they have to start creating? I expect we’ll consider Hourihane the key player.

SE: I concur on the Hourihane front, we’ll need someone to provide a spark in attack if Grealish is sold. I also have an eye on Jonathan Kodjia. If he can stay healthy and find his goal scoring form from a few seasons ago, he too could play a major role this season.

MB: Birkir Bjarnason. He doesn’t always pass the eye test but if he gets the 38 or so matches he deserves this season, I think we’ll look to his grit and playmaking ability as a reason we’re having a successful season. I also second Kodjia. If he’s scoring goals, anything is possible.

AC: I’ve been a big proponent of Hourihane for a while, so I have to echo James and Sean and stick with him here.

Who will be Villa’s leading goal-scorer this season?

JF: Uncle Al.

PV: Jonathan Kodjia.

JR: André Green, if played. Jonathan Kodjia, if fit.

SE: It is Kodjia for me as well.

MB: Kodjia. He’s established at this level he can find the back of the net. Now it needs to be done with a team gunning for promotion.

AC: I’ll throw a shout to Conor Hourihane, though if a loan striker isn’t brought in, it’s probably Jonathan Kodjia. Tammy Abraham could change the complexion of this entirely, though.

Who will be Villa’s breakout player this season?

JF: If André Green counts I’ll give him a shout of the obvious.

PV: I will not say James Bree this year... I will not say James Bree this year... I will not...

JR: I’m not going to go with André because he’s ‘broken out’ as far as I’m concerned. Jake Doyle-Hayes is my pick. He’ll be delightful in the midfield soon.

PV: (whispers) James Bree.

PV: I just can’t help it. The potential is there. It is a position of need. Maybe, just maybe it will be him this year.

PV: James, I would love to see Doyle-Hayes do it -- but I don’t think he will get enough playing time with the quality midfielders ahead of him.

JR: I’ll have to go with Bree then. Really think he’s got a chance.

SE: Particularly if Grealish leaves, I quite like Callum O’Hare and think he too, if played more, can have a real impact in attack.

MB: COH. He’s Grealish 2.0.

AC: He’s not a Villan past this season, but I think new loan signing Axel Tuanzebe could have a great year at centre back. As far as permanent Villa players, I think Ritchie De Laet could be really useful this season, and among the youngsters, Doyle-Hayes is probably the most likely to slide into a regular starting role (aside from Green).

What is the most compelling story line at Villa this year?

JF: What in the hell is gonna happen to us if we don’t meet FFP?

PV: Yup. The axe of FFP. I said it was the most compelling story of the entire League so gotta stick with it. All the other clubs are watching it too and will act accordingly.

JR: FFP, for sure. The close of the Steve Bruce saga. The new direction. There’s a lot to take in. Also, Villa Ladies are moving closer to Birmingham. I truly hope there’s a permanent home for them closer to Villa, or Villa Park.

JR: Also, the youth narrative. Villa are going to have to rely on their youth players!

SE: FFP is no doubt the proverbial massive monkey on Villa’s back. Though for me, I think it is the start of the season and Steve Bruce’s future. He might have the hottest seat of any manager in the league and you wonder if the new owners don’t want their own guy. He’s quite simply got to get off to a better start than he did last year.

MB: I think the boardroom drama is far from over. Villa now have some investment but I’ll be interested to see how they deal with FFP, Bruce’s style, and whatever else the EFL throws at them this year.

AC: See, James, I’d love for Villa Ladies to get some play on AVTV because I’d watch that.

AC: On the men’s side, to be specific, I think the way in which Villa will balance running head-first into an FFP breach (which it appears they’re doing) is intriguing. The tactic means promotion is again a must this season, but it also requires youth development -- if Villa are to be hit with a transfer embargo next summer, the only way to improve will be through player development. Whether or not Steve Bruce can strike a balance there is interesting.