Aston Villa have enjoyed a flying start to the season

Credit: AP

This time last year Aston Villa were struggling to integrate 12 summer signings recruited at the cost of more than £120 million but are now reaping the benefits of being the most settled team in the division. 

Dean Smith’s team are just three points off the top of the table in sixth and deservedly so according to some of their underlying metrics: they boast the fifth best expected goals difference in the Premier League after eight games. 

In stark contrast to the start of last season when Villa spent months searching for the right combinations across the pitch, they have so far made the fewest starting XI changes of any team with just three. 

In a campaign bound to be affected by coronavirus-forced absences and soft tissue injuries, picking the same team on a regular basis could prove a significant advantage. Provided those players do not run out of gas of course. 

Smith favours a 4-2-3-1 with a front six of Douglas Luiz, John McGinn, Trézéguet, Ross Barkley, Jack Grealish and Ollie Watkins establishing themselves as a terrifically well-balanced unit after big victories against Liverpool and Arsenal. Matty Cash is an upgrade on previous right-back options, Tyrone Mings their defensive leader and summer signing Emiliano Martinez has put an end to their troublesome goalkeeping problem. 

West Ham United, who have also exceeded expectations during a tough run of fixtures, have made the second fewest starting XI changes with just four. Southampton are another team flying high, and they have made the joint-third fewest changes with just nine. 

The fact in-form Tottenham have made 17 changes is proof there is not a perfect, straight-line correlation between success and using a small number of players, though of course the biggest clubs have the squads to cope with this level of rotation.

Jose Mourinho’s team’s early involvement in the Europa League made changes a necessity. Chelsea have settled down, but Frank Lampard also tinkered plenty in the season’s formative weeks as he searched for the right formula for his new attacking talent. 

With this Premier League season shaping up to be survival of the fittest, clubs are faced with a fascinating dilemma. Do they rotate heavily in an effort to be fresher than their opponents or gamble on continuity in the hope a familiar team will prove more cohesive than those subjected to chopping and changing? It only adds to the air of uncertainty hanging over this period.