Guardian writers' predicted position: 10th (NB: this is not necessarily Stuart James's prediction, but the average of our writers' tips)
Last season's position: 15th
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 2,000-1
For the first time since 2009 Aston Villa will start a season with the same manager that finished the previous campaign, which means it has been an unusually low-key summer at the club, give or take six new signings, seven senior-contract renewals, a transfer request from Christian Benteke that was withdrawn 11 days after it was submitted, and a high-profile addition to the "Bomb squad".
If that makes the close-season sound a little chaotic the reality is that, with the exception of the Premier League shoehorning a trip to Chelsea in between a visit to Arsenal on the opening day and a home game against Liverpool the following Saturday (it could be a long 21 days until the fourth league game), pretty much everything has gone to plan for Paul Lambert, the Villa manager, especially now that Benteke has signed a new contract.
To put Villa's dependency on Benteke last season into context, the Belgium striker scored or created 49% of the club's Premier League goals – a higher proportion than any other top-flight player. Raw and profligate early on, Benteke was almost unplayable come the end of the season, his innate physical strength and much-improved hold-up play, allied to an ability to score goals of every description, making him the focal point for a team who would almost certainly have been relegated without him.
In the end Villa survived by five points, with some vastly improved performances across an eight-game spell between March and May yielding five crucial victories. The less said about what went before the better. At times, in particular during that miserable period in December and January, when they conceded 15 goals without reply against Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Wigan, and suffered the ignominy of losing to Bradford in the League Cup semi-final and Millwall in the FA Cup, it was bleak.
Throughout it all, however, Lambert's faith in his players never wavered.
Just as importantly, the Villa fans remained hugely supportive of their manager. In many ways Lambert was on to a winner from the start, simply by virtue of the fact that he was not Alex McLeish, his much-maligned predecessor. But he also won admiration from inside and outside of Villa for the way that he went about changing the philosophy of a club that had been overspending off the pitch and underachieving on it.
In Lambert's eyes the solution was to give an opportunity to younger and, in many cases, unproven players who would be highly motivated and desperate to seize a chance. That approach, which could easily have backfired, is clearly here to stay judging by the half a dozen new (and, it has to be said, largely unknown) faces that arrived this summer – Jores Okore, Antonio Luna, Leandro Bacuna, Aleksandar Tonev, Nicklas Helenius and Jed Steer – all of whom are aged 23 or under.
Okore, a 20-year-old Danish international signed for £4m from Nordsjaelland, can be the pick of the bunch. Strong and with a decent turn of pace, the central defender could have joined Chelsea earlier in the year but turned them down as he wanted to play regular first-team football. His signing strengthens competition for places in the area where Villa need to improve most: defence.
Villa conceded 69 goals last season – their worst defensive record since 1987 – and failed to keep a clean sheet in 22 league matches, going back to the goalless draw against Stoke in December. The damage would have been worse but for the performances of Brad Guzan, the American goalkeeper who swept the board at the club's end-of-season awards and who was deservedly rewarded with a new four-year deal in the summer.
With the exception of Guzan and Matthew Lowton, who flourished at right-back and has the potential to break into the England squad, the defensive personnel struggled. Joe Bennett, the left-back signed from Middlesbrough last summer, looked out of his depth and is likely lose his place to Luna. Ron Vlaar, another new recruit last summer – albeit one with much more experience than Bennett – was also a disappointment, with the Villa captain honest enough to admit near the end of last season that his performances "have to be better". As for Ciaran Clark and Nathan Baker, neither of the academy graduates looked totally convincing.
Things are rosier at the opposite end of the pitch, where it is difficult to see much changing this season. Gabriel Agbonlahor, who enjoyed his best season since Martin O'Neill departed in 2010, and Andreas Weimann, a burgeoning presence on the right, weighed in with 16 Premier League goals between them, to go with the 19 Benteke scored. Agbonlahor and Weimann will once again be expected to provide support for Benteke from wide positions.
Helenius, a striker who was regarded as a decent finisher in Denmark but lacking a little when it comes to the physical side, is likely to be an option from the bench, along with Bacuna, whose move has caused a little surprise in the Netherlands, where he was not exactly tearing up trees at Groningen, and Tonev, a promising Bulgarian with an eye for goal. It will also be interesting to see whether Jack Grealish, a prodigiously talented 17-year-old winger, is given the odd outing.
Both Agbonlahor and Weimann have spent much of their careers playing as orthodox strikers, which means there is a natural inclination to come in off the flank rather than get to the byline (all the more so in the case of Agbonlahor because he is right-footed and deployed on the left). While this gives Villa an additional goal threat at times, it also helps to explain why Lambert's side produced fewer crosses than any other Premier League club last season (a remarkable 338 – nine per game). With Benteke's formidable aerial strength, it seems like they are missing a trick here.
Lambert is an advocate of attacking football but Villa are not a team who take control of matches by monopolising possession – their opponents had more of the ball in all but 10 league games last season. Villa, however, carry a constant goal threat because of the way that they break with such alacrity, especially away from home, where they gained a reputation for being one of the best counter-attacking teams in the league. It is interesting to note that in the four matches where Villa had the lowest possession last season – Everton away, Swansea away, Manchester United at home and Liverpool away – they scored 10 times and lost only once.
However, when the onus is on them to seize the initiative, usually the case at home, they tend to find it difficult – five league victories in front of their own supporters last season and four the campaign before says it all. At times, it seem as though Villa lack that little bit of imagination required in midfield to break teams down.
Although Ashley Westwood was highly impressive in his first season at the club, and Fabian Delph produced by far his best form since arriving from Leeds four years ago, both are essentially defensive players, leaving Villa short of the sort of attacking central midfielder who can provide a creative spark and weigh in with a few goals.
The return from midfield was dismal. Westwood, Delph, Barry Bannan, Karim El-Ahmadi, Brett Holman, Stephen Ireland, Charles N'Zogbia and Yacouba Sylla played 170 Premier League games for the club but contributed only four goals between them — and two of those came from N'Zogbia, who is more of a winger.
Indeed Darren Bent finished up as Villa's fourth highest scorer in the league despite starting only eight matches. While it is clear that Lambert favours a more powerful centre forward (and he was vindicated in terms of his decision to entrust Benteke with that task), it still seems odd that Bent was marginalised to the extent that he was unable to get on the bench ahead of Jordan Bowery, a 21-year-old forward signed from Chesterfield.
Bent, after all, cost a club-record £18m rising to £24m when he arrived from Sunderland in January 2011, he played a significant role in keeping Gérard Houllier's side up that season, and is one of the most prolific Premier League strikers of recent times, averaging a goal every 181 minutes over the past eight seasons (his record of one every 193 minutes in a Villa shirt is not too shabby, especially given the mess the club have been in during that time).
Lambert has never explained his reasons for jettisoning Bent, who has been made to train away from the first team (with what has become known as the "Bomb squad") during pre-season, weakening Villa's negotiating position with potential purchasers, with his likely price now so low that a sizeable chunk of the money received is likely to be swallowed up by making up the player's wages at his new club. Curious, in a word.
For Lambert, however, it is a case of onwards and upwards. He has an unshakable belief that he is on the right path at Villa, where he enjoys the complete support of the owner, Randy Lerner, as well as the backing of the fans, whose regard for him has only been enhanced by the way that he convinced Benteke to stay when the striker's departure seemed inevitable. That was some U-turn.
Villa, as Lambert pointed out in May, remain a club "in transition", and it would be naive to think that a callow squad, which is still developing and will almost certainly be the youngest in the league, is capable of reproducing the form that they showed towards the end of last season over the course of 38 games. But if there is a minimum requirement it must surely be that Villa's supporters, after seeing their club flirt with the drop zone in the past three years, are spared another relegation battle. If Benteke is among the goals again and the defence is tightened up, that comfortable mid-table position should not be beyond them.