With the Championship season finally getting underway this weekend, there is still a fair amount of unrest amongst the Villa faithful regarding the assembling of our squad this summer. While I would also have liked to have seen a few more faces come in by now, the reality is that there is still a month left of the transfer window. Roberto Di Matteo was perhaps overly optimistic in saying that he would like his squad ready by the last pre-season game last weekend against Middlesbrough, a statement that may have contributed to the alarm. However, as is the case for most teams, the majority of transfers will probably come towards the end of the window as moves are forced through and a merry-go-round can truly begin.
One of the things I have noticed that seems to be a growing concern about our perceived lack of transfer activity is a comparison with Newcastle United. There seems to be a train of thought that the Magpies are our direct rivals to occupy one of the two automatic promotion spots. Some may say that we aren’t in a position to compete with them and for us to even be thinking that we are good enough to be battling for a top two spot is laughable.
Most people certainly seem to think they have the league wrapped up already. I do think there is a fallacy surrounding them. The bookies have them at an incredibly short 7/4 to win the league, which, to me, is ridiculous.
Let’s not forget that this team was shambolic last season. They had an inept manager in Steve McLaren for much of the season but even when Rafa Bentiez took over with ten games to go the Toon Army still couldn’t turn things around and avoid relegation. Indeed, in that final run in, they couldn’t even beat one of the worst teams in the Premier League history, taking only a point at Villa Park.
I do believe that Benitez will probably outmanoeuvre most of his counterparts in the Championship and feel that his experience gives Newcastle United an edge but, in reality, the Geordies are in a very similar position to ourselves and I don’t believe for one second that we should be looking jealously towards them as the panic about the lack of signings begins to set in.
They have some good players and they’ve spent a fair bit this summer, buying players from the Premier League yet I’m not convinced by the superiority complex that seems to surround them. A big bone of contention with our own supporters is the way that Benitez seems to have freely gone about his business, acting swiftly. However, I’m not overly convinced by some of those signings and splashing the cash certainly didn’t work for them in the January transfer window.
That said, I do think that Matt Ritchie will be a key player for them. I would have liked him at Villa. He did really well for AFC Bournemouth in the Premier League last season and during his time in the Championship he was a regular goal-scorer, which will be invaluable to his new side.
On the other hand, the hype around Dwight Gayle continues to baffle me. A striker who has only been prolific at non-league level, Crystal Palace paid the hefty sum of approximately £5 million at the time to Peterborough for him, a figure which has somehow doubled in a few years despite Gayle scoring just fifteen goals in sixty-three games.
Other signings such as defender Grant Hanley and goalkeeper Matz Sels can arguably be likened to our own Tommy Elphick and Pierluigi Gollini. I don’t think there is much between Hanley and Elphick. Both are similar, commanding centre backs comfortable at Championship level whilst the goalkeepers are both young and tasting English football for the first time, although Sels did have some Champions League experience with Gent last season.
Other signings are solid yet unspectacular. Isaac Hayden is a youngster who was on loan to Hull City last season from Arsenal and Jesus Gamez is a decent wing back, past his best at thirty-one, who has been signed from Atletico Madrid.
Prior to these signings, Newcastle United was already deemed the club with the strongest squad in the Championship. The fact remains that these are players who got the team relegated with very little fight, so how good are they really? Defensively, I don’t think they are particularly strong. Darryl Janmaat is decent going forwards but susceptible tracking back whereas Jamaal Lascelles began to stand out for them towards the end of last season. As I’ve said, Hanley is a good acquisition at this level, but this is a side with a defence that has still featured the likes of the average Paul Dummett during pre-season. Their midfield will feature the aforementioned Ritchie out wide and probably Jonjo Shelvey in the centre if he remains. Moussa Sissoko played out of his skin in Euro 2016 in an attempt to seal a move away from St James’ Park and the fact that he was anonymous last season suggests that he certainly won’t be up for the fight in the Championship if he somehow remains with the Magpies, which currently looks extremely unlikely. Up front, they have the very promising Ayoze Perez, who will probably be used out wide, is likely be a threat and always works hard and the temperamental Aleksandar Mitrovic as options. Both are decent players but, again, not outstanding ones. Add Gayle into this mix and I still do not see a team to be terrified of.
If we look at Villa, there are certainly signs of promise throughout the team. The return of Jordan Amavi is huge for us and Elphick adds some much needed leadership and discipline. Aaron Tshibola looks to be a strong and competitive player whilst Jack Grealish seems to be up for the fight more than last season and could be key. Jordan Ayew will surely excel at Championship level and with a new striker promised, strongly rumoured to be Ross McCormack, we could be lethal up front this season. Even the lesser spotted Adama Traore may sparkle should he manage to find a way off the treatment table and players such as Jores Okore should flourish at this level. With a stretch of the imagination, perhaps with a decent manager and renewed focus, even the likes of Gabby Agbonlahor and Micah Richards will prove useful. We all want new signings, but I do believe we have existing talents who, for one reason or another, have just completely underachieved.
Most of all, I don’t understand how the Villans have been labelled as a group of total no-hopers (which we may well be) but the Magpies have seemingly escaped being tagged as such despite being complete let downs and a disaster in their own right last season. Why are they seemingly primed to bounce straight back up? It doesn’t make sense to me. The only aspect I can think is the Benitez factor. He’s a successful manager, no doubt, but the Spaniard is untested at this level of football. Apparently, it mattered that Villa should have a manager experienced at this level, but this doesn’t apply to Benitez, presumably because he has managed Real Madrid. I have to admit I thought Benitez would steer Newcastle United clear of relegation. The fact that he couldn’t, despite having a quarter of the season to do so, shows that he is perhaps not quite the man for this particular job where the players at his disposal lack the quality that he is used to working with.
Benitez is also losing the better players. Georginio Wijnaldum has moved to Liverpool. Andros Townsend is now at Crystal Palace. As I mentioned, Moussa Sissoko will almost certainly be leaving. Fortunately, and with a massive slice of luck, we do not seem to be losing our jewels in the crown. Idrissa Gueye looks to be our main departure, but there actually appears to be little sleep lost over this amongst supporters. Amavi and Ayew seem to be our main concerns and it is so far so good in terms of them remaining at Villa. Both seem content to stay and the club has made it public knowledge that they aren’t for sale.
Benitez has apparently triggered a release sum of £5.1 million in Ciaran Clark’s contract. Clark is a player I have nothing against in terms of his commitment but for that money I doubt many Villans will be too upset to see him depart. Always susceptible to a rush of blood and unable to nail a regular first team spot in the poorest Aston Villa defence possibly in our history, the move symbolises the fairly average nature of the signings made by the Toon Army this summer.
Of course, it’s all ifs and buts at this point. The Magpies may snatch points left, right and centre and prove to be runaway leaders. I’m just not so sure about the hype surrounding them and I certainly don’t think we should be looking enviously at them – or anybody else.