Leeds and Aston Villa taking different routes as both bid to gatecrash top 6

Aston Villa have just smashed their transfer record to sign Emi Buendia from Norwich whilst Leeds are looking to tie Marcelo Bielsa down for another year.

Both clubs enjoyed impressive seasons in 2020-21 and the question for both now turns to how they build on that momentum.

Villa benefitted from investing in the playing squad whilst the Whites continue to reap the rewards of appointing one of the managerial pioneers of the modern age.

The two methods have thus far paid dividends but they are a means to an end, not an end in itself. Mid-table finishes are signs of progress but the respective clubs owners will understandably want more.

Villa are still enjoying the last laugh having been accused of ‘doing a Fulham ‘ when they spent north of £100m upon their return to the top flight only to survive on the last day.

Ollie Watkins has been an excellent signing whilst Jack Grealish continues to star

But they backed up their earlier investment 12 months later with signings like Ollie Watkins, Matty Cash and Emiliano Martinez.

The latter of those claimed he left Arsenal for Villa to take a “step up” in his career. Many chuckled but Martinez kept two clean sheets against his former club as the Midlands outfit secured a first top flight double over the Gunners in 28 years and was arguably the best ‘keeper in the division last term.

Dean Smith’s outfit are very much a club in the ascendancy.

Some may say there’s an over reliance on Jack Grealish with his absence directly correlating to a dip in form in the latter half of the year; that said any club would miss a player of his ilk.

The playmaker scored twice in the 7-2 victory over Liverpool back in September, a season high. There is no doubt he remains key.

“We have carried on the momentum from the end of last season but we have added quality to that,” said Smith.

He isn’t wrong.

Villa started with eight players signed since returning to the Premier League. The club-record signing of Buendia shows they’re looking to kick on again ahead of next term.

In contrast, when Leeds ended Villa’s 100 per cent start to the season in September they started with nine players who’d helped them secure promotion in 2020.

Notable wins at Manchester City and Leicester were also achieved starting with nine men who’d enjoyed Championship success.

Marcelo Bielsa has kept faith with the players who won him promotion from the Championship
Marcelo Bielsa has kept faith with the players who won him promotion from the Championship

Ultimately the Premier League will always be survival of the fittest.

But Villa and Leeds are more than surviving, they’re thriving, albeit in very different ways.

The Yorkshire side continue to benefit from their perceived gamble in Bielsa, who is poised to begin a fourth year at the helm.

This is the longest spell he’s had at any club during his career and any fears of dreaded burnout have surely been put to bed.

Leeds owner Andrea Radrizzani is willing and able to invest in the playing group – witness the signings of Rodrigo and Raphinha – but he is fully aware that doing so does not guarantee progress.

Leeds secured several big away wins en route to a top-half finish
Leeds secured several big away wins en route to a top-half finish

Villa, nailed their recruitment last term and proved that shrewd investment will almost always pay off.

But despite Leeds’ impressive top-half finish Radrizzani is still viewing the upcoming season as one where consolidation is again key before he gears up for a top six push.

“For sure we can invest more,” he said last month. “But I think we need to be sensitive how to go because it’s not always guaranteed that money brings results.

“I hope we can stay in the Premier League for two years. After that first cycle of two years, I think we will be ready to step up and close the gap with the bigger teams.

“Obviously, my objective, if I look at a period of three, five years, is to be just behind the top six.”

For both Leeds and Villa it may be a case of seizing the moment with the top six no longer an exclusive club.

Leicester gatecrashed it again last year and appear to have got their feet under the table. West Ham were surprise guests this year.

Arsenal and Tottenham are very much in rebuild phases with the latter potentially losing their prized asset and the former struggling for funds and seeing players actively choose to go elsewhere.

Villa are a year ahead of Leeds in their development and could be ready to go again. Links of a move for Southampton’s James Ward-Prowse underlined their ambition.

The Whites though, according to the league table at least, are ahead of Villa having finished four points better off.

Inevitable doubts of second-season syndrome will exist but it is up to Bielsa and co to ensure that the only way is up.

For both sides, the opportunity to rise higher is right there.

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