Among the many summer signings Aston Villa made was Zimbabwe midfielder Marvelous Nakamba – one of two arrivals from Belgian side Club Bruges. Some observers were worried that, if anything, Dean Smith had too many new faces to integrate into the first team at Villa Park. Nakamba is one of 17 signings made either permanently or on loan in the two transfer windows of this season.
As Villa reached the Premier League via the play-offs last term, they were always among the favourites to go straight back down before a ball was kicked. The bookies were wrong about fellow promoted side Sheffield United though, who have been one of the stories of the season, but nearer the mark with Norwich City and the Birmingham-based club.
Nakamba’s journey from growing up in Zimbabwe close to iconic African landmark Victoria Falls, to becoming a Premier League player is some story in its own right.
How the current chapter of his career unfolds is still to be decided. After 25 games of the season, Villa are just a point and one place above the relegation zone. That is why, as of February 13, they are evens with Betway to be relegated. Villa fought hard and spent plenty of money to get back into the Premier League for three years before Nakamba joined the club. After again backing head coach Smith in the market, survival remains in their own hands.
Shipping (not scoring) goals the problem
There are some worrying stats, however, that strongly suggests the boss has some things to address. Villa have the joint-worst defensive record in the division with 47 goals conceded. On average, they are almost shipping two goals for every Premier League game played since getting promoted. As Villa have kept just three clean sheets, all at home but none since November, the defence really does need tightening up.
Scoring goals hasn’t been too much of a problem, meanwhile. Smith has only seen his side draw a blank in five of their first 25 Premier League matches. Villa’s goal tally of 32 is the joint best in the bottom half of the table. To date, they have in fact scored the same number of goals as Arsenal. While that probably says more about how disappointing the campaign has been for Gunners fans, it also underlines that creativity isn’t an issue at Villa Park.
Club captain Jack Grealish is a polarising figure, but leads the way in goals and assists for the team this season. However, it is only because of players like Hwange native Nakamba behind him that he has the freedom to support the forwards even if these players don’t receive the plaudits in the news headlines.
Key players sitting out rest of season on treatment table
And yet, Villa have only been out of the bottom six at the end of a Premier League matchday once all season. Their survival prospects haven’t been helped by injuries to some key players either. In midfield, Nakamba was striking up a useful partnership with Scotland counterpart John McGinn but he could miss the rest of the campaign due to a broken angle.
Old Bruges teammate Wesley had led Villa’s attack until damaging his knee ended his season. In the very same game on New Year’s Day, England goalkeeper Tom Heaton sustained a similar injury. There are a lot of players missing from the spine of Smith’s side around Nakamba now. It really puts Villa up against it as they try to stave off immediate relegation back to the EFL Championship. Their run-in isn’t particularly kind either. Villa play Liverpool, Manchester United, Everton and Arsenal in their last six Premier League matches.
They could have had an easier end to the season than that run of fixtures. Smith has must-win games against Southampton and Newcastle United before playing Crystal Palace and West Ham United. Maximum points from those matches would give Villa at least 37 points. That total was enough to stay up in all but one season since 2010-11.
Whether Villa survive or not, they have reached the Carabao Cup final but face the daunting prospect of facing Manchester City, although that could give Nakamba a chance of placing at Wembley – the home of football.