Aston Villa FourFourTwo preview and prediction: Is Emi Buendia the man to deliver Villa European football?
Jack Grealish has departed, but Emi Buendia has the impish talent to more than fill in for football's finest calves. After a busy summer, is it time for Dean Smith's side to take the next step in the Premier League?
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And the Emi goes to... Aston Villa. For the second successive summer, Villa’s scouting team have prised an Emiliano from Arsenal’s clutches, much to the delight of the claret and blue faithful.
Snapping up Emiliano Martinez last September and then using the Argentine goalkeeper to help convince compatriot Buendia to choose Villa over the Gunners has sparked some social media argy-bargy between the fanbases. A faux rivalry, which at this time of year only extends to Aston’s finest breathing down Arsenal’s necks atop of The Alphabet Table, now has some added South American spice.
The statement signing of Norwich star Buendia, however, is exactly the type of transfer Villa needed to execute the next phase of their masterplan. They want to reel in Mikel Arteta’s transitional team, and clubs around them, to push into the European places.
Last season, Villa did the double over Arsenal for the first time since before Buendia was born – the 1992/93 campaign, stats fans. Without the annual injury absence of Jack Grealish, Dean Smith’s bright young side might have further closed the six-point gap between themselves in 11th and Arsenal in 8th. With Manchester City circling with intent, and a bucketful of money, for Captain Jack it's a feeling Villa need to get used to.
Filling that Grealish-shaped void, whether through injury or sale, is the reason technical director Johan Lange and Villa’s team of talent spotters worked so hard to get Buendia on a five-year contract, after Ross Barkley failed to shine after a promising start last term.
With 15 goals and 16 assists, Buendia was named Championship Player of the Season as the Canaries stormed the division to secure a quickfire return to the Premier League. It took a club-record transfer fee that could rise to £38 million to land the 24-year-old playmaker, whose highlights reel showcases how this versatile, diminutive gem can strut his stuff either in wide areas or as a No.10.
Replacing Grealish was not a scenario the claret and blue brigade wanted to contemplate, but supplementing him with Buendia to load Ollie Watkins’ bullets has got the club daring to dream of Europe for the first time in more than a decade. The arrival of Bayer Leverkusen winger Leon Bailey – who struck nine goals and eight assists in the 2020/21 Bundesliga – is another canny bit of business.
Much to Arsenal’s annoyance, there’s no ‘Emi’ at the Emirates Stadium, but Aston Villa fans are ready to be thrilled by the best thing to come out of Norfolk since the pedestrianisation of Norwich city centre.
The five-point plan
1 “Jack who?”
Nah mate, never heard of him. Forward-comb his ridiculous fringe to hide his face, get some oversized shin pads to cover his whole body (and his entire shins, for once), do whatever it takes... Deny all knowledge of Jack Grealish whenever those pesky ‘Super League suitors’ come knocking. If you could discreetly eclipse those six goals and 10 assists though please, Super Jack, it can just be our special secret.
2 Prepare for a Dear John letter
A photo of John Terry posing proudly with his UEFA Pro Licence certificate on his Instagram made the former Chelsea captain's Villa Park departure all-but inevitable. Terry was an integral part of the Villa revolution and, despite having recruited Craig Shakespeare last summer, Dean Smith might want to evolve his backroom team once again.
3 Witton’s Got Talent
Do it sensibly, but it would be very nice to see some of Villa’s FA Youth Cup-winning whippersnappers, such as Carney Chukwuemeka and Louie Barry, benefit from some more first-team action, following Jacob Ramsey’s encouraging breakthrough of 619 Premier League minutes last term.
It's a debut goal for Ollie Watkins!Grealish feeds Taylor, who plays a low ball across the box for the record signing and #AVFC are level!Watch #BAFC v #AVFC live on Sky Sports Football or follow it here: https://t.co/JGDsSObZ1H pic.twitter.com/tyyaMBy67ASeptember 15, 2020
4 Young and old
What will Ashley Young offer in his claret and blue sequel? Twenty-one the first time he signed for Villa from Watford in 2007, he’s now in his mid-30s and easily the oldest player at the club. Inter’s 2020-21 Serie A winner is cover for full-backs Matt Targett and Matty Cash and a wing deputy, but could he give the wide boys a run for their money in his Holte End hurrah?
5 Set(piece) the record straight
A team with the country’s most-fouled player last term should be scoring more from dead-ball situations. But for all the set-piece scepticism, Villa were actually in the Premier League’s top eight for goals scored from corners and free-kicks last season, with 11. That’s not to say they can’t be much deadlier to close in on West Ham’s 16 goals. Get practising.
FFT verdict: 10th
Villa’s recruitment makes the Grealish sale less of an issue. Could be an outside bet for Europe.
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