Saturday marks the two-year anniversary of Dean Smith’s arrival at Villa Park. Few clubs anywhere in Europe have enjoyed such a rapid ascent in that time.

Fast forward two years and Villa sit second in the Premier League table with three wins from three, floating on air after a scarcely believable 7-2 victory over Liverpool in which new signings Ollie Watkins, Ross Barkley, Emiliano Martinez and Matty Cash all starred.

And yet despite their on-field success, the most significant moment of Smith’s tenure so far came on September 15 of this year when Jack Grealish signed a new five-year contract, despite interest from Manchester United, who were considering bringing him to Old Trafford only to be put off by the £70 million ($90m) asking price.

It’s no wonder Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wanted Grealish, though. He is an extraordinary talent. Once-in-a-generation doesn’t go far enough. This is a player with the close control, first touch, and head-up vision of David Silva; the weaving dribbles and foul-drawing of Eden Hazard; the swaggering charisma and omnipresence that, to Villa fans at least, recalls George Best.

He is the kind of player you build a team around, as Smith acknowledged after the contract was signed and as Gareth Southgate, perhaps, will soon come to realise following his man-of-the-match performance against Wales on Thursday night.

That is why committing his future to Aston Villa is such an important achievement for a club with genuine hopes of becoming a force in Europe once again.

Villa have spent over £200m ($260m) on players in the last two years – a testament to the aspirations of chairman and owner Nassef Sawiris– and having bought well this summer, it is noteworthy that Grealish repeatedly mentioned the club’s ambition as the main factor in his decision to sign on.

“It’s my club, my home,” he said after signing the deal. “There are exciting times ahead and I am very glad to be part of it.”

And there is reason for Villa supporters to be optimistic that their old place in the top 10 – a position held consistently for the first two decades of the Premier League – is within grasp. Not since Martin O’Neill took the club to within a few wins of the Champions League have Villa been in such a position of strength.

Grealish remains the focal point of the team but, unlike last season, he is no longer the solitary threat.

John McGinn, who was winning plaudits at the beginning of last season before a serious injury derailed his progress, is now back to his best and set to become one of the most prized midfielders outside the ‘Big Six’, while Douglas Luiz continues to develop at the speed Manchester City and Pep Guardiola had long anticipated.

If the Liverpool win is anything to go by, Barkley completes a Europe-ready central midfield three for Villa, while Watkins’ movement and finishing givethe club the goalscoring potential they badly lacked last season.

Remarkably, Aston Villa created the sixth most chances in the Premier League in 2019-20, thanks almost entirely to the brilliance of captain Grealish.

With Watkins there to finish more of these opportunities, and with the likes of Barkley, McGinn, and Cash drawing attention away from an over-marked (and constantly fouled) Grealish, Smith’s side ought to win considerably more games in 2020-21.

However, it would be naive to assume it’ll be plain sailing for Villa this season. Smith faces the challenge of combining this new attacking prowess with the defensive resolve that formed the foundation of their narrow escape from relegation last season.

The manager’s instincts, and indeed the tactical philosophy he was hired to implement, are towards a progressive style of possession football, but as he learned the hard way – and almost too late in 2019-20 – an expansive system is too idealistic for relegation candidates in the Premier League.

On July 11, Villa were 19th in the table and seven points from safety with four matches remaining. The fans were beginning to accept their fate, but Smith and his players still believed – because they could feel their post-lockdown tactical work starting to come together.

Smith and John Terry had spent the period prior to Project Restart working on a sunken defensive shape, more or less abandoning their attacking football for a deep block and counterattacking system: an admission their previous efforts were failing.

It was this new-found steeliness, led by Ezri Konsa in particular, that won Villa eight points from their final four, including a famous 1-0 victory over Arsenal with just 31 per cent possession.

Clearly, Villa have reverted to a more proactive game. You don’t score seven against Liverpool with conservative instincts, and despite Villa also recording 31% possession last weekend they were notably less cautious; more open to being counter-countered.

Smith must work out how to re-establish his attacking vision for the club without sacrificing the defensive resolve that kept them up. It’s a conundrum that could take some time to solve.

But it is precisely Smith’s bold attacking vision – his desire to bring glamorous football back to a club whose rich history he experienced first-hand – that has inspired fellow Villa fan Grealish to sign up until 2025.

Grealish has described Smith as a father figure and no doubt the Villa manager tells stories of standing in the Holte End as Villa won the old First Division, of travelling to Rotterdam to watch them lift the European Cup.

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