On the face of it, Aston Villa don't look like a team with a dependable defence. In fact, only rock-bottom Norwich City have conceded more goals than Dean Smith's side this season.
However, since football returned for this cold, fan-less addendum to the Premier League campaign, Villa have had remarkably cool heads at the back.
The booming voice of Tyrone Mings marshalling his backline echoed around a cavernous London Stadium as Villa - with results going their way elsewhere - settled for a point against West Ham United on the season's final day.
For some, it may have seemed a risky strategy to simply protect a 0-0 scoreline for a side who were yet to record a single away clean sheet in the league. But when Jack Grealish fired in the opener with six minutes left, it seemed as if Smith's strategy had paid off.
Admittedly, Andriy Yarmolenko's deflected shot ensured Villa failed to leave an opponent's stadium without conceding, yet, the Midlands side hung on to secure the vital point they needed with a hard-fought 1-1 draw.
Congratulations to Aston Villa, ensuring their Premier League survival after the battle went right down to the very dying stages of the season! ? pic.twitter.com/kqqCxwAV3K— 90min (@90min_Football) July 26, 2020
Overall, their defensive record is shambolic, yet, in the ten games post-lockdown Villa have conceded just 11 times - only five clubs in the division can boast a better ratio. Going into the break, Villa were conceding more than two goals a game, since the restart this has practically been halved.
Smith has been able to rely upon the likes of Mings and Ezri Konsa to turn out impressive displays in his backline, but Villa's midfield has also been instrumental in tightening up what was once a leaky side.
Douglas Luiz has enjoyed a personal resurgence of his own post-lockdown, thriving as the side's defensive midfielder. The Brazilian - unlike his ever-changing haircut - has been remarkably consistent as the team's anchor in the middle, snuffing out attacks and neatly knitting play together.
In the last Premier League game before the three-month hiatus, Luiz was dispossessed four times against Leicester City. As Villa fought for their top flight status at West Ham, Luiz didn't squander possession once and in the ten games since that 4-0 Leicester drubbing, he has lost the ball just four times combined.
This added care on the ball extends to where he pops up on the pitch as Luiz has significantly reduced the number of touches he has in the opposition's penalty area in recent weeks, pointing to a greater focus on holding his position when Villa are on the attack.
However, with the holes in their back line somewhat plugged, their attack has suffered. To borrow Rafa Benítez's analogy, trying to strike a balance between the two sides of the game is like wrestling with a short blanket - if you cover your head, your feet are cold, if you cover your feet, your head is cold.
Benítez doesn't divulge whether the feet or head represent attack or defence but blankets aside, Villa have struggled to muster chances, let alone goals - only Crystal Palace and Norwich have scored fewer since June.
Grealish - who has operated from either the flanks or midfield - is the club's top scorer in the league with eight goals this season but the Villa captain netted his first since mid-January against West Ham on the final day.
Yet, Grealish is also one of the side's chief creators and - considering Villa spent close to £150m in the summer - the Birmingham-born 24-year-old can hardly be expected to do it all himself.
Even if Grealish does stay at Villa Park - which is far from a certainty - the club will need to improve their goal threat without completely sacrificing this newfound defensive solidity. Whether that involves dipping back into the transfer market or somewhat loosening the defensive restraints depends on the club's financial standing and Grealish's future.
In the end, Villa were perhaps slightly fortunate that their Premier League survival was ensured by Arsenal's resilience against Watford. However, Smith's radical improvements to his team's backline gave them a fighting chance after spending much of the campaign on the wrong side of the perforated line.
Now that the defence is sorted, all he needs to do is fix the attack. Easy, right?
Source : 90min