After losing at Wembley Stadium in the promotion playoffs last season, Aston Villa had high hopes for the season, only to find inconsistent play nearly derailing their season… until a late season winning streak secured their place in the playoffs for the second straight season.
Once there, they won their first semifinal game against West Bromwich Albion at home, but needed penalty kicks in the second leg to advance back to Wembley for a finals matchup against Derby County. In the final, in front of over 85,000 fans, Villa struck first, scoring just before halftime to take the lead.
They added another goal with about 30 minutes to go, and seemed on their way back to the Premier League. A late score from Derby made things interesting for the final 10+ minutes, but the Rams were unable to find the equalizer and Villa held on for the 2-1 victory. They would be returning to the Premier League for the first time in three seasons.
Here’s a quick look at how Villa ended up in this position:
What Went Right
Let’s talk about Villa’s late season, ten-match winning streak that secured their place in the playoffs. When it began with a 4-0 win against Derby County, Villa was in 11th place and fighting against a half dozen clubs for one of three remaining playoff spots. When it ended with a 1-0 victory against Millwall ten matches later, Villa was in 5th place and clinched a playoff spot.
It wasn’t exactly a murderer’s row of clubs that they beat during the streak – the 10 clubs averaged a 14th-place finish to the season – but for a club that dropped points against lesser clubs earlier in the season (more on this in a moment), it was a sign of things to come.
Tammy Abraham, the striker on loan from Chelsea that joined the club late in the offseason, was the star of the season, scoring 25 goals over 37 matches in league play. Then, when the playoffs came around, he scored the winner in leg one of the semifinal against West Brom, before converting the final penalty kick that sent them to Wembley. Barring a miracle signing, he’s unlikely to be back, but his season was magical nonetheless.
What Went Wrong
Immediately prior to that playoff-clinching winning streak, Villa had ten match stretch that saw them win only once (1-6-3) and drop points unnecessarily to clubs that would finish beneath them. They drew, at home no less, to Queens Park Rangers (19th) and Hull City (13th), and had an ugly 3-0 loss at Wigan Athletic (18th). Another road loss, this time to Brentford (11th), saw the clubs locked in a scoreless for 90 minutes, only for Brentford to come through with a game-winning goal just after the 90 minute mark.
Assuming that those results went a little better for Villa – wins in the two draws and draws in the two losses – they would have found an extra six points at a critical juncture of the season. Ultimately, that poor stretch didn’t end up affecting them negatively, but had they come up a little short, it likely would have been the stretch of the season that they would have talked about the entire offseason.
Recent English Football League History
This was Aston Villa’s third consecutive season in the Championship after their 24-season run in the Premier League (they were an inaugural member when the Premier League launched back in 1992) ended with a last place finish during the 2015-16 season. During that run, they averaged a mid-table finish, with their best finish (2nd) coming in that inaugural 1992-93 season.
They scored only 17 points during the 2015-16 season, resulting in their relegation. Their first Championship season wasn’t great and resulted in a 13th place finish, but they qualified for the playoffs as the 4th-place club last season, falling to Fulham in the playoff final. Their second consecutive trip to Wembley this season had a better result, and they are on their way back to the Premier League.
The recent run of Championship playoff winners in the Premier League has not been that great. Only one club – Huddersfield Town, the 2017 playoff winner – lasted more than one season in the Premier League, and they only lasted two and will be back in the Championship next season. The other four most recent playoff winners – Fulham (2018), Hull City (2016), Norwich City (2015), and Queens Park Rangers (2014) – were one-and-done and back in the Championship the following season. All but Norwich City, who won the Championship this season, will be playing in the Championship again this season, with Hull City and QPR coming off lower-table finishes – 13th and 19th, respectively – in the league this season.
Who’s Playing Elsewhere Next Season?
It’s likely that Abraham is a goner, but the club seems willing to make him a top off-season priority (even if he doesn’t seem as keen on the idea). Perhaps to alleviate the pain of his loss, the club has already added the attacking midfielder Jota from Birmingham City, though he scored only three goals last season.
The club has also moved on from nine other players at the end of their contracts, with Alan Hutton (33 appearances and two goals), Albert Adomah (36 appearances; 22 starts), and Glenn Whelan (35 appearances; 23 starts) the biggest names on the way out. Despite the seemingly deep pockets of the ownership group – they spent nearly $20M last season to chase promotion – the club may take a slow approach to the offseason and focus on finding longevity back in the Premier League, and not repeating what has happened to recent playoff winners.
Chances of a One-and-Done?
Recent history is working against them, at least when it comes to finding some staying power from the Championship playoff winners; you have to go back to 2013 winner Crystal Palace to find a club that has stayed in the Premier League for more than two seasons after promotion. But with Villa’s long-term prior “success” in the Premier League, maybe they are different than all those other clubs mentioned a couple paragraphs up.
We are still at least a month away from knowing what squad will be starting the season for the club, but we can kind of slot them in to the Premier League next season based on their SPI (61.0) relative to the other 19 clubs in the top flight of English football. Currently, only Brighton & Hove Albion (57.8) trails Aston Villa, placing Aston Villa in 19th position at this early point in the offseason. We’ll take another look at this closer to the season, but it would appear that Villa will be fighting to avoid relegation with Brighton, Norwich City (61.9), and Sheffield United (62.6).
Regardless of the ultimate outcome next season, the supporters at Villa Park have to be pleased that their club is playing Premier League football once again. Anything better than an 18th place finish should be considered a good season, and anything approaching the top half of the standings should be celebrated. With the recent history of playoff winners not going so well – you have to go back to 2103 playoff winner Crystal Palace to find one that has stayed in the Premier League longer than two seasons – Villa has to be hoping to buck the trend, at least for a couple of seasons. We’ll see what they do in the offseason to make a longer stay a reality.
Until next time…