After winning their first back-to-back openers this century, Aston Villa kicked off the season in the kind of mood that few Villa fans would have expected mere weeks ago.
The spectre of the cloud of financial doom had lifted due to the new owners, Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens’ investment – Villa had stood firm on keeping Jack Grealish and even bought players before the transfer window had closed shut.
After Villa’s wins against both Hull and Wigan, early Championship odds remain cautious for Aston Villa now putting them as fifth favorites to win the league at 8/1. As some sportsbooks reviewed here vary from juicier odds to bigger opening deposit, it’s good to know before any of you pundits place any early season bets.
Obviously this time around Villa will want to avoid the gamble of the play-offs and will be targeting automatic promotion as a priority. The fact that Villa are already five points up on Stoke City, the favourites to win the league at the start of the season, is a positive sign.
Villa have had a couple of seasons to get to grips with the league and Steve Bruce has been at the helm for one-and-a-half seasons now, so they have the kind of stability that will give them an advantage over the traditionally favoured relegated Premier League teams.
Both Stoke City and West Brom are fancied more by the bookies, than Villa, while Swansea are out at 12/1, making them the 7th favourites.
Again Middlesborough are fancied, as they were at the start of last season, but Tony Pulis’s team will be less of a concern than the hotly tipped Leeds United team, who have seemingly metamorphosed under Marcelo Bielsa. In their two games so far against Stoke and Derby, Leeds have moved the ball well and look confident and could shape up to do what Wolves did last season.
Path to Improvement
The fact Bruce was playing his strongest XI throughout the pre-season games suggests the Villa boss was keen on improving on the start his Villa team made last term.
Likewise, he was vocal after the Wigan game about realising his mistakes of last season, although playing Mile Jedinak at centre-back wasn’t exactly proof of that.
The main question this season though is how does Villa improve on last season with the same manager and without three of their top players from their first XI of last season? Namely, Lewis Grabban, Robert Snodgrass and captain John Terry.
When looking at the trio of experienced players, while they helped lift the spirits and camaraderie of the Villa team over the season, when Villa needed them the most at Wembley in the play-off final, it’s fair to say all three didn’t exactly impress on the day.
While the trio ultimately delivered individually during their time at Villa, it wasn’t as if they helped formed a fluid and dynamic team.
Becoming more of a cohesive team on the pitch is a trump card Bruce can play to improve on last season, he just has to find it in the pack first though.
Straight away it looks like the inclusion of John McGinn offers the movement and dynamism that Villa have craved in midfield, and he is the kind of foil that can help get the best out of Jack Grealish.
An injection of more pace in the form in Andre Green (who missed most of last season) on the left flank will be welcome, as Villa at times last season were a little one paced. Another loan striker with a bit speed would also prove useful, as would a zippy left-back.
The cutting edge of Robert Snodgrass has been replaced by John McGinn, who has an eye for goal.
So, there is actually hope for Bruce to forge a proper team this season, but there are sections of it that need fixing quick, before it hampers Villa’s promotion effort.
For once, the Villa midfield is looking rather healthy and has a host of options, but now the main question marks are at centre back and centre-forward.
John Terry leaving has created a bit of a hole and Villa’s main concern at the moment is forming a settled defensive unit ASAP, before they can consider themselves a promotion force for real.
Then it’s a question of where the goals will come from during the season. So far, it’s been the likes of Alan Hutton, Tommy Elphick, Ahmed Elmohamady and James Chester getting on the score sheet. And Villa can’t rely on their defence to do most of the scoring like in the opening two games.
Last season, Grabban was bought in to cover Jonathan Kodjia and he eventually also kept him out the team. As a knock-on-effect, the Ivorian has looked a little out of sorts since, and this season he’s had an air of dejection about him.
Still, it’s early days and a goal or two will certainly help Kodjia’s confidence and hopefully allow him to kick-on. There’s also Scott Hogan and Kienan Davis to return from injury, and as previously mentioned, the chance to draft a striker in on loan.
One thing for sure though is that teams normally need a striker contributing regular goals to get promoted, and Villa’s odds for promotion with the bookies will probably remain long until one emerges.