Aston Villa enjoyed their best Premier League finish in 10 years last season — now they have to build on that without £100million man Jack Grealish.
Despite losing their captain and talisman to Manchester City for a record fee, there is optimism around Villa Park.
Thanks to the shrewd nature of their summer transfer business, Dean Smith’s side are looking to kick on from finishing 11th last term.
Ahead of their curtain-raiser at Watford, we examine Villa's prospects for the 2021-22 league campaign.
A reliance on Grealish
Villa’s success last season was largely built upon Grealish’s impressive form.
With six league goals and 12 assists, predominantly from the left wing, the 25-year-old dazzled opponents and fans alike with his tricky footwork.
His importance to Smith’s outfit can be best summed up by two statistics.
In the league, Grealish had direct involvement in just under 33% of Villa’s goals. And when on the touchline due to injury, they only had a 27% win rate.
Offensively, Grealish’s contributions cannot be beaten.
He topped the club’s assist chart, created 81 chances — the third highest in the entire league — and also completed the most passes (494) into the final third for Villa.
After Manchester City announced the capture of Grealish, Villa CEO Christian Purslow took to social media to allay any fears the fans may have had.
He said: "We agreed to incorporate a so-called release clause into his contract, our board set this clause at £100million… Manchester City notified us that they would be willing to pay the amount it would take to trigger this clause."
But a plan of action had already been drawn up for how Villa would replace the England star.
Purslow added: "It was never our intention to replace Jack with one footballer, our strategy was to analyse and break down Jack’s key attributes... and to find these qualities and others in three forward players."
And that is exactly what the Midlands outfit have done.
Exciting attacking options
Villa wasted no time bringing in new recruits this summer.
Norwich star Emi Buendia was signed prior to Grealish’s departure, with the Villans beating numerous other sides to his signature.
Then came Bayer Leverkusen winger Leon Bailey, followed by Southampton striker Danny Ings.
The trio bring 36 goals and 31 assists from last season — dwarfing Grealish’s individual contribution.
A proven Premier League marksman, Ings reduces Villa’s reliance on Ollie Watkins for goals after scoring 55 times in 140 top-flight appearances.
Buendia, 24, will bring endless creativity. His vision, range of passing and flair make him a like-for-like Grealish replacement.
His 17 Championship assists for Norwich highlight his developing level of footballing intelligence and come against an expected goals assisted tally of 12.51.
Bailey, 24, is perhaps the most exciting signing of the three.
Long linked with a Premier League switch, the Jamaican is a wizard with the ball at his feet and can operate dynamically on either wing.
His 3.36 complete dribbles per 90 minutes put him in the 93rd percentile when compared to other wingers and attacking midfielders in Europe’s top five leagues.
The signings are likely to change Smith’s tactical set-up.
Last season, the Villa manager opted to use a 4-2-3-1 formation for the most part but he has already let slip that he may play two strikers.
After Bailey joined, he said: "Leon is a hugely exciting young striker with great pace and creativity."
If he sees the former Leverkusen man as more of a striker than a winger, he may opt to use his pace alongside Ings to unlock opposing defences.
But if pre-season is any indication of what is to come, Villa have used a 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 shape with two wide forwards and a pair of strikers.
What to expect
On paper at least, Villa will be a force to be reckoned with.
While expected, the loss of Grealish is a blow. But when it comes to replacing their former No10, the Midlands side have spread the load across three players instead of putting all their eggs in one basket.
And it is not just in attack where the Villans have strengthened.
Utility player Ashley Young and Manchester United centre-back Axel Tuanzebe have joined to help out defensively, while further arrivals are expected to reinforce the midfield.
If the new attacking trio of Ings, Buendia and Bailey gel, Villa could be in for an exciting campaign.