It would always have been Aston Villa’s biggest problem: how to replace Jack Grealish and move on?
The £100m sale of their star player and talisman captain to Manchester City in the summer posed a problem for manager Dean Smith as he took Villa into his third season in the Premier League
Ultimately, Smith’s inability to replace Grealish’s influence was a huge factor in his sacking last week, following a fifth loss on the bounce to Southampton.
Jack Grealish’s departure from Aston Villa gave Dean Smith a problem he couldn’t solve
Smith lost his job last week after Villa was beaten to Southampton for the fifth time in a row
Smith said of Grealish’s departure in August: “Obviously we’ve lost Jack, but that quality that we’ve reintroduced gives us depth in the squad now.
“Our first season in the Premier League would always be difficult with the changes we had to make, our second was progress and our third is now going to make even more progress.”
That progress has yet to be achieved. On the contrary, the first three months have seen not only a stagnation, but also a decline.
Smith used most of that £100million for three players to fill the void left by Grealish’s departure: Danny Ings, Emi Buendia and Leon Bailey.
On paper, it all seemed like a wise investment. Ings played for England last season before injury halted his form, Buendia has long made an impression at Norwich and Bailey has been on the radar of some of Europe’s top clubs while emerging at Bayer Leverkusen.
Danny Ings scored three goals in nine games before sustaining a hamstring injury
Emi Buendia has not yet revived and is short of the form shown in Norwich City
VILLA’S NEW ATTACK TRIO
Danny Ings, £25 million – Southampton
Emi Buendia, £33 million – Norwich
Leon Bailey, £30 million – Bayer Leverkusen
TOTAL – £88m
Still, the statistics show the impact – or lack thereof – of these moves so far, especially when compared to England international Grealish at the same stage last season.
In his first 12 games of the 2020-21 season, Grealish scored five goals, provided eight assists and created 37 chances.
However, Ings, Buendia and Bailey’s combined numbers are no better than Grealish’s. Together they have scored five, but only five have been made, giving them 20 goals.
It’s indicative of one of Villa’s biggest shortcomings as far as, along with the out of shape Ollie Watkins, the lads in burgundy and blue just aren’t shooting for goal right now.
Ings scored three goals in nine games before sustaining a hamstring injury in October, record signing Buendia has gone off without catching fire and Bailey has spent more time in the treatment room than on the pitch.
And yet there’s plenty of talent for aspiring boss Steven Gerrard to work with.
Leon Bailey was in demand across Europe before signing for Aston Villa in the summer
Yet the Jamaican has only shown a glimpse, as against Everton in September, of his talent
Speaking about the job during his first interview with the club, the new Villa boss acknowledged the talent in the squad but admitted his number one priority was in the back.
“One thing I would like to improve is the structure of the team from a defensive point of view,” he said.
“From possession, our distances and our form, and what we do to get the ball back. That’s very important to me. I have been very fortunate to learn from some world class managers.
“It should be a no-apologies, no-blame culture. It’s up to me and my staff to install a new way of playing, an identity. There is a lot of talent in the squad, but we don’t have a lot of time, so it’s very important that the players listen and are focused.”
Gerrard knows he needs to start quickly – and he stopped the club’s losing run with a 2-0 win over Brighton in his first game.
New Aston Villa boss Steven Gerrard needs his attacking trio to get them on the table
Gerrard knows he needs to get off to a fast start – and build on the win over Brighton
But the Premier League season, and a top priority to get Villa out of the relegation zone, will be a struggle until May. In that time he will need his star attackers to get well.
Gerrard knows Ings from his time as a Liverpool coach and will likely put him down the middle with Watkins on the left should he opt for a 4-3-3 formation.
That probably leaves just one place for Buendia or Bailey on the other wing. Such competition for places should work in Gerrard’s favour, as he wants to immediately rejuvenate Villa’s summer signings.
The form of the attacking trio – bought for a combined £88 million – will have a big impact on how Gerrard’s first season in the Midlands will turn out.