If anyone is to profit from the enforced break, then, perhaps, it is Aston Villa. What began as a rousing return to the Premier League, bolstered by a glamorous intake of players, had spiralled distressingly into a grim run of four successive defeats against Bournemouth, Tottenham, Southampton and Leicester before the season ground to a halt.
Much of the time, the damage has been self-inflicted – and often in catastrophic fashion. Take Bjorn Engels error against Tottenham in February, for example. Villa had been exhilarating in attack, willing to throw men forwards and take risks to reap rewards. But their defence has rarely been able to absorb the countering blow, prone to lapses in concentration and costly mistakes. Their 56 goals conceded this season – averaging at two per game – is the worst record in the division. For assistant manager John Terry, it has been infuriating to watch, and summarised the vast majority of their season.
Fulham’s headless slump towards relegation last season was a forewarning that investing £100m into a new squad, and shredding much of its foundations in the process, is as much a recipe for disaster as success. Villa’s arrivals, at least, seemed to bring more coherency. Tyrone Mings had already spent the previous season on loan at the club, and become a leader within the dressing room, as had winger Anwar El Ghazi. Investment in a new striker – Wesley Moraes – was vital after Tammy Abraham’s loan deal expired. Douglas Luiz has impressed in spurts since joining from Manchester City while Marvelous Nakamba had begun to flourish prior to the lockdown. The approach was far from scattergun. Yet, for all the recruitment departments best efforts, Villa’s success – and now survival – has always orbited around two players: Jack Grealish and John McGinn.
Grealish – lockdown indiscretion aside – has been spectacular this season, scoring seven goals and adding six assists. He is a galvanising leader, capable of shouldering pressure and lifting those around him. But without McGinn, who too was brilliant before suffering a fractured ankle in December, there has simply been too much weight to bear alone. The season-ending injuries to goalkeeper Tom Heaton and Wesley – forcing the club to pursue Mwamba Samatta in January – was another cruel blow of misfortune.
They currently sit in 19th, yet are only two points short of 15th-placed Brighton in a relegation battle that will come down to the finest of margins. For Villa, the prospect of McGinn’s return and his dovetailing with Grealish will give them a new, clinical edge, with all the potency to outplay opponents. But whether the defence behind them is capable of standing firm remains the biggest question mark. That will ultimately decide whether a side with all the necessary frill and skill for the top flight has the mettle and discipline required to earn its stay.