Aston Villa’s season took another nosedive toward midtable mediocrity at the weekend with a 2-0 defeat to near-neighbours West Bromwich Albion. Dean Smith’s promising start has given way to performances lacking in confidence and uncertainty and there is plenty of unrest amongst supporters right now.
There are those that are already questioning Smith’s appointment. And whilst he isn’t immune from criticism, calling for his head at this early stage is quite frankly, ludicrous.
Smith cannot be fairly judged until next season. Any real grumbles shouldn’t be taken seriously until the end of this calendar year the earliest if improvements aren’t clear to see. For me, there are signs of what Smith is trying to implement. It is clear that previous incumbent Steve Bruce left an unbalanced squad. With a group of players that are the antithesis to what Smith needs for his high pressing game to be effective. But he might be lucky in getting the chance to rectify that in a major way.
As we’ve seen over the last several years, shifting certain players on and bringing in fresh replacements isn’t always that easy. Finding buyers for players who nobody really wants is extremely difficult. However, sculpting the squad this summer may be a more ideal time than most other years.
Several members of the first team will see their contracts expire in June. For the most part, they are players that Smith is unlikely to be looking to offer extensions to.
Most noticeably, Glenn Whelan, Mile Jedinak and Alan Hutton will all be free to leave Villa Park. These three players are also the oldest members of the squad. Letting them go instantly shaves years off the average age of the squad which is one of Smith’s main objectives.
Whelan has found game time under Smith recently, but you’d imagine it would be unlikely for a club that is looking to play in a more dynamic fashion to offer a 35-year-old even a one-year extension. The same goes for Jedinak who also has a history of injury struggles which goes against retaining him any further.
Hutton, who has doggedly survived the bleakest of situations before, must now surely be on the last of his nine lives. The signing of Caen’s promising right-back Frederic Guilbert is due to arrive in the summer. James Bree will hopefully be able to provide competition for that position upon his return from being loaned out to Ipswich, the Scottish Cafu days appear to be numbered.
In addition to this, we can finally say goodbye to the catastrophe that has been Micah Richards. It seems a long time since Tom Fox handed him that bumper four-year contract. After a horrendous relegation season, Richards made just two further appearances during our three years in the Championship. It’s safe to say the ex-Manchester City man has been a financial disaster for the club.
This does raise another significant point though. Not only will Smith have the luxury of not having to find suitors for the men who do not fit into his plans, but the club will also be saving a king’s ransom each week. Accurate figures for wages are difficult to come by, however, with Jedinak, Whelan and Richards rumoured to be on £40k a week minimum (with some reports increasing this to even £50k, certainly for Jedinak and Richards). Hutton taking home around £15k-20k a week, it’s likely that anywhere in the region of £150k a week will be saved. That is a huge amount for a club in the Championship.
Decisions also have to be made on the futures of Albert Adomah, Tommy Elphick and also Ritchie De Laet, who is bizarrely being used as a striker with Melbourne City at the moment and to good effect! Adomah’s contract includes the option of a further year, which will undoubtedly be utilised. For me, Elphick is certainly worth giving a one or two year deal at present and certainly rather than allowing to depart for free and join another team at this level where he will perform well. As for De Laet, it just doesn’t feel that he will ever get the chance to prove himself at Villa unfortunately after his injury problems and looks likely to be a free agent.
Further to this, Mark Bunn is also likely to be let go at the end of this season. Despite being retained at the beginning of this season due to a shortage of keepers, Smith now has Lovre Kalinic and, when fit again Orjan Nyland as a backup. However, there could also be a twist here, as fellow keeper Jed Steer is also out of contract come June. It will be interesting to see how Smith plays this out; at 26, Steer will surely want more game time and may even be reluctant to sign a new deal on that basis. If so, Bunn may be retained. Personally, I’d like to see Matija Sarkic elevated to the first team. Either way, instead of four first-team keepers on the books, we should be down to the standard three.
Whilst the task of rebuilding Villa is still a monumental one, Smith will, in some ways, be in a fortunate position to start next season without many of the players that would otherwise be locked into big money contracts and impossible to shift. This should allow some sort of leeway with funds to allow him to bring in some of the players he and sporting director Jesus Garcia Pitarch are no doubt underway in identifying.
Whilst the aforementioned elder statesmen of the squad won’t necessarily be missed in terms of how Smith wants to play football, the flipside is that the squad is also currently heavily reliant on loan players. With promotion currently looking an unlikely proposition, the chances are retaining the services of any of them seem slim. Especially standout performers Tammy Abraham and Axel Tuanzebe. Similarly, a deal for Anwar El Ghazi to join permanently will probably need to be shelved. The futures of Tyrone Mings, Kortney Hause and Tom Carroll are very much dependent on their form in the coming weeks. Mings, in particular, has made an impressive start and at this point would be a welcome addition on a permanent basis.
Perhaps most importantly, Smith also has to factor in the inevitable sale of Jack Grealish. Without promotion, no one could reasonably expect him to stay at the club when it cannot offer the platform his talent deserves. Offers will be tabled for our crown jewel and despite the club being much more financially sound, it would be wrong to not allow Grealish’s potential to flourish.
In one way or another, the squad the Smith is currently presiding over is going to be decimated. A summer of rebuilding an upheaval isn’t ideal, especially as every single year that seems to be the requirement. But this summer it will be a necessity with potentially just a handful of players left which actually belong to the club. It’s pretty much going to be a blank canvas for Smith to work with. Whether that’s a good or bad thing will remain to be seen.