No one at Aston Villa was pleased with a 14th-place finish last season. It may have been only their second campaign back in the Premier League after a spell in the Championship, but Villa are a big club with ambitious owners and supporters. Despite their recent stay in the second tier, they aspire to be playing in Europe again – this, after all, is a team that won the European Cup in 1982.
Villa’s recruitment over the last couple of years suggests they are in a hurry to get back into continental competition, from which they have been absent since a run to the last 32 of the UEFA Cup in 2008/09. Villa are focused on signing players who can contribute here and now, not in a few years’ time. That group of recruits includes the 29-year-old Danny Ings and the 28-year-old Lucas Digne, bought last summer and in January respectively, plus Philippe Coutinho (30) and Diego Carlos (29), both acquired in recent weeks.
See our predictions for all the teams in the 22/23 Premier League season here.
Coutinho was on loan at Villa in the second half of last season, after which the club took up the option to buy him permanently. Steven Gerrard was no doubt a big factor in the deal. He played alongside Coutinho at Liverpool and convinced him that Villa Park is the best place for him to get his career back on track after a nightmare stint at Barcelona.
Gerrard was one of the best footballers of his generation and he wants to be among the world’s elite coaches too. His standing within the game is beneficial to Villa when it comes to attracting players, although the size and history of the club are significant factors too.
Taking the next step will not be easy, though, at least not immediately. Assuming the traditional big six finish in the top six, that leaves only one European place up for grabs via the Premier League. West Ham United, Newcastle United and Leicester City are among the contenders, while the likes of Brighton & Hove Albion, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Crystal Palace also finished above Gerrard’s side last season. Expect progress at Villa Park, but perhaps not quite enough to secure a top-seven finish.
Predicted XI (4-3-2-1)
Emiliano Martinez; Matty Cash, Diego Carlos, Ezri Konza, Lucas Digne; Jacob Ramsey, Boubacar Camara, John McGinn; Philippe Coutinho, Emiliano Buendia; Ollie Watkins.
There was a time a few years back when it seemed unlikely that world-class players would go into management after hanging up their boots. Those high-level footballers who came to prominence after the turn of the century were able to earn vast sums of money that would not require them to continue working in the game beyond their playing career. But the lure of coaching remains strong, as demonstrated by the career paths of men like Frank Lampard, Mikel Arteta, Wayne Rooney and, of course, Steven Gerrard.
The Liverpool legend did a magnificent job at Rangers in his first managerial posting, ending the club’s long 10-year wait for a Scottish Premiership title. He was always likely to return to the Premier League one day though, and Gerrard decided in November that Villa was the right place for him to begin his coaching career in England.
Last season had its ups and downs. Villa struggled for consistency throughout. A three-game winning streak was followed by a four-match losing run in the spring. Villa only drew five encounters under Gerrard. It was often a case of boom or bust. Gerrard will be keen to end that cycle this time around.
Player to watch
Emiliano Buendia embodied Villa’s inconsistencies in 2021/22. Signed from Norwich City for £33m last summer, the Argentina international produced both dominant and quiet displays. He appeared in all but three of Villa’s Premier League games, but 13 of his 35 outings came off the bench. Buendia was deployed in a variety of different roles, and while versatility is an asset it seemed like neither Dean Smith nor Gerrard knew how to get the best out of him week in, week out.
It would be wrong to deem Buendia a failure, though. He improved as last season wore on. It was always going to take a bit of time for him to adapt to new surroundings, and it is easy to forget the Argentine is still only 25.
Buendia was superb in the Championship for Norwich the campaign before last, and despite his occasional struggles he was still directly involved in 10 goals in 2021/22. The former Norwich star has the quality to make a big impact this term.
Diego Carlos (Sevilla), Philippe Coutinho (Barcelona), Robin Olsen (Roma), Boubacar Kamara (Marseille)
Matt Targett (Newcastle United), Conor Hourihane (Released), Trezeguet (Trabzonspor)
Our Premier League score card
In hindsight, it is hard to believe a goalkeeper of Emiliano Martinez’s quality spent 10 years on the books of Arsenal and only made 15 league appearances, the majority of which came a few months before his exit in the summer of 2020. That is when Martinez decided to leave the Emirates Stadium in search of more regular – and guaranteed – first-team football. He has since played 97 per cent of Aston Villa’s Premier League games.
Martinez is an excellent shot-stopper, still the most important aspect of goalkeeping. He is also adept at claiming crosses and dominating his penalty area, while his leadership qualities are evidenced by how vocal he is in communicating with his defenders. With Martinez between the sticks, Villa are in safe hands.
Villa spent £26m (€33m) to sign Diego Carlos this summer, so we can expect the Brazilian to be a regular starter this season. Comfortable on the ball and full of aggression and intensity without it, he is also relatively quick and should make Villa’s backline more confident to push up the pitch.
Diego Carlos is right-footed, so the left-footed Tyrone Mings is his most natural partner. The England international did not have the best of seasons last time out, however, as errors both with and without the ball blighted his game. Gerrard’s decision to strip him of the captaincy suggests Esri Konza could get the nod ahead of him.
Matty Cash is a reliable performer at right-back, but Villa are yet to see the best of Lucas Digne following his move from Everton in January.
The absence of a natural holding midfielder was Villa’s biggest shortcoming last season. The addition of Boubacar Camara should solve that issue, and it is possible to envisage a positive knock-on effect right throughout the team. One of the reasons John McGinn was inconsistent last term was the fact he did not have the assurance of a sitting midfield behind him. Camara’s presence should help McGinn to focus on what he does best.
Jacob Ramsey was one of the breakout stars of the Premier League campaign and Villa fans will be excited to see if the box-to-box midfielder can take things up another level this season. Douglas Luiz is likely to drop out of the starting XI, but he could be a valuable rotation option as a No.8.
Gerrard paired Ollie Watkins with Danny Ings at times last term, but he will probably choose to start with only one of the duo this time around. It could be a case of rotating between them.
Ings is more of a natural finisher who comes alive inside the penalty area, so he might be favoured when Villa are playing weaker teams at home. Watkins is more mobile and offers more outside the box, so he will probably get the nod in most of Villa’s Premier League games. He scored 11 goals last season but will hope to get at least 15 this term.
The striker will be supported by Emiliano Buendia and Philippe Coutinho from attacking midfield. The Brazilian started with a bang after arriving from Barcelona but faded as last season wore on. If Gerrard can get him back to his best, Coutinho has the potential to light up the division again.
See our predictions for all the teams in the 22/23 Premier League season here.
Villa’s squad is not short of options, but it might actually be too bloated and it will be interesting to see if Gerrard looks to move on some of the fringe members in the coming weeks. Anwar El Ghazi does not seem to feature in Gerrard’s plans. Neither Leon Bailey nor Bertrand Traore has got going yet as a Villa player; the Jamaica international will probably get another year, but Traore could be sold if a suitable offer arrives.
The same is true of Morgan Sanson in midfield, where cover is provided by Douglas Luiz, Marvelous Nakamba and, and possibly Kortney Hause at the back, although he did sign a new deal in January.
Final score: 38/50
Aston Villa will hope to kick on after an inconsistent season last time out. Steven Gerrard has built a strong first XI, but whether the team is quite good enough to finish in the top seven remains to be seen. Villa still have some deficiencies to iron out and they will need to leave behind the erratic form that bedevilled them in the second half of last season if they are to finish in the European spots.