Aston Villa can continue bold push for Champions League football by landing dream free transfer

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Aston Villa have been linked with a bid for talented Spaniard Nico Williams next summer - could he help Unai Emery take the team up another notch?

These are good times to be an Aston Villa fan – after several years of indifference and even relegation to the Championship, the second city’s most successful side are on the up, back in Europe, and moving in the right direction to improve upon last season’s impressive display.

There really aren’t many criticisms that can be levelled at the current squad, or at Unai Emery’s management of it – but as results like the 5-1 opening-day thrashing at St. James’ Park suggested, there is still a gap between Villa and most of the other clubs competing for the top four, and they need to find ways to gradually close it.

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Nico Williams celebrates a pre-season goal against Manchester UnitedNico Williams celebrates a pre-season goal against Manchester United
Nico Williams celebrates a pre-season goal against Manchester United | Getty Images

The current squad is, perhaps, weakest out wide. Leon Bailey and John McGinn are fine professionals, but with the best will in the world would not make it into many Champions League squads – and while it may be mildly heretical to criticise the undeniably hard-working McGinn in particular, it shouldn’t be especially controversial to suggest that Villa could upgrade on the left flank, and they’ve been linked with a summer transfer which could do just that.

Nico Williams is the latest exciting young product of Athletic Bilbao’s youth academy, and at just 21 years of age is already an established regular in Athletic’s first team and a 10-cap Spain international. He also happens to be inside the last year of his contract, and Villa are among many teams who have been linked with an effort to sign him on a free transfer ahead of next season. It would be quite the coup if they can pull it off.

Williams and McGinn share some qualities – both are tireless runners with unquestionable work rates who have the ability to force turnovers for their team – but in most regards they are very different. Where McGinn spends a lot of time in midfield, chasing lost causes both down the flanks and inside, Williams is a more forward-thinking player who tends to hold positions higher up the field. Where McGinn is a good passer and a decent dribbler who prefers to move the ball on rather than run with it, Williams is an outstanding dribbler with incredible pace and the ability to beat his man on both sides of the ball. McGinn is an engine room in the heart of the park, but Williams is a huge attacking threat who stretches play on and off the ball.

Looking at the statistics side-by-side, McGinn’s positioning means he does win the ball more often, making more tackles and interceptions, but Williams’ turnover numbers are excellent for someone who presses so high up the pitch – there’s every chance that he would match McGinn tackle for tackle if he was asked to play a deeper role. And while McGinn is a more efficient passer of the ball, Williams is miles ahead as a runner, both with and without the ball, and gets in far more shooting positions as well as generating more xG.

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Which doesn’t mean that Williams is perfect, or the finished product. He doesn’t score as many as he could, and has just six goals in La Liga from 75 games for Athletic alongside two in his 10 international matches, which isn’t an improvement on McGinn – although his 10 goal contributions in the Spanish top flight last season compares favourably to McGinn’s four. Williams stretches the play incredibly well but looks to provide more than he looks to score. If he can add some finishing finesse to his game, he would be a much more well-rounded player. Given that he is only 21, there is no reason he can’t round out his game some more.

John McGinn celebrates his late winner against Zrinjski in the Europa Conference LeagueJohn McGinn celebrates his late winner against Zrinjski in the Europa Conference League
John McGinn celebrates his late winner against Zrinjski in the Europa Conference League | Getty Images

Williams is also naturally right-footed, which makes him a different kind of wide threat to the left-footed McGinn, but would allow him to mirror the inside wing play of Bailey on the right. It’s worth noting that Williams can play up front, too, so he could be a useful back-up in games when Ollie Watkins is unavailable – he doesn’t have Watkins’ goalscoring sense, but his running and pressing means he can still harry opposing defences effectively and create space for others around him.

The chance to sign Williams on a free isn’t one any team should be looking to pass up – and there have also been links to teams like Barcelona, whose economic lever-pulling means they are always on the hunt for a bargain. If Athletic can’t persuade one of their prized assets to agree a new deal, then plenty of other teams will get involved. There is no guarantee that Villa could persuade the Spaniard to make the move to Birmingham when other enticing options present themselves – but improving on their wide play is one of the ways Villa can close the gap to the bigger, richer teams who have dominated the top four in recent years, and if they get the chance to get their hands on Williams, it’s one they shouldn’t pass up.

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