What was the situation like when the league was suspended on 13 March? Gloomy, with patches of hope. Villa slid into the relegation zone after losing their last four league matches before the shutdown, including grim defeats by Bournemouth and Southampton and a 4-0 spanking by Leicester. Constant mistakes, unfortunate injuries, a general lack of pace and widespread inconsistency gave Villa the look of a newly assembled team running out of time to get things right.
Yet they undoubtedly have quality and also have a match in hand on the teams around them thanks to their progress to March’s Carabao Cup final, where, though they ultimately fell to Manchester City, they showed the sort of resilience they will need to survive.
What about now? The outlook is brightened by the return from injury of John McGinn, who was sorely missed after damaging his ankle just before Christmas. The Scot left a hole in midfield that could not be filled, not even by Danny Drinkwater. Now that McGinn is fit again Villa can look forward to an injection of dynamism and thrust. With the form of Marvelous Nakamba having been one of the positives for Villa before the suspension of the league, they can expect to be strong in the centre. Another positive was the sharpness of Mbwana Samatta, the striker whose arrival in January offset the loss to injury of Wesley. The goalkeeper Tom Heaton, however, remains a key absentee and much will depend on the performances of his replacement. That could be Ørjan Nyland, who did well throughout the Carabao Cup campaign, or Pepe Reina, who has recovered from a harrowing case of coronavirus.
What needs to be done to have a successful end to the season? For a start, Villa need to stop conceding so many goals. That means eradicating the basic mistakes that have frequently sabotaged good work this season. It also means finding the right formula. Dean Smith had success when he switched to a back three in the new year but that proved temporary and he ended up reverting to a back four. Whatever system they use, Villa need at least one reliable central defensive partner for Tyrone Mings. Björn Engels, though hardly infallible, has looked the most likely so far. Villa will also need to improve their attacking, particularly the service from the right to Samatta and McGinn. Villa collected eight points from their previous matches this season against the 10 teams they have left to face; they will probably need more than that to survive.
Have players and staff behaved during lockdown? Mostly. But anyone who saw the photograph in March of Jack Grealish wearing one slipper and one flip-flop as he stood forlornly on a Birmingham street contemplating his damaged Range Rover and flawed judgment will be aware that the club captain let the side down by venturing outdoors just hours after publicly calling for others to abide by lockdown. He has apologised.
Any unsung/community heroes? Not so much unsung as singing. Kortney Hause revealed his vocal talent by releasing his first single in April. The song, entitled Worth It, was not just a boon for lovers of R&B but also for the NHS, to whom he donated all proceeds from sales. “Music has been a passion and a hobby of mine for many years,” he said. “It felt like the right time to do my bit and help out.” Grealish, meanwhile, gave money to Birmingham Children’s hospital and raised over £55,000 for the NHS by raffling off one of his Villa shirts.
Key player in the run-in? Grealish. He is not just Villa’s most gifted player, he is one of the best in the league. Dismissed as an overrated bauble by people who do not pay enough attention, he is, in fact, a highly reliable and effective performer who works relentlessly and creates regularly despite constant attempts to take him down and rough him up. When he is on the pitch Villa always have a chance of scoring.
End-of-season-prediction With Grealish, Samatta and McGinn available to play together for the first time, Villa could yet fire their way to safety. They will survive. Just.
Remaining fixtures (all times BST): Weds 17 June Sheffield United (h) – 6pm, Sky Sports Sun 21 June Chelsea (h) –4.15pm, Sky Sports Weds 24 June Newcastle (a) – 6pm, BT Sport Sat 27 June Wolves (h) – 12.30pm, BT Sport TBC Liverpool (a), Manchester United (h), Crystal Palace (h), Everton (a), Arsenal (h), West Ham (a)