With only a handful of games left to play, Aston Villa’s return to the top-flight is under serious threat of becoming a second Premier League relegation season in four years.
Parallels to Villa’s worst campaign for a generation have surfaced with player identification and recruitment to blame for Villa’s leaky defence and over-reliance on Jack Grealish’s creativity in attack.
The famed trio Tom Fox, Paddy Reilly and Hendrik Almstadt all came under fire for using the ‘Moneyball’ recruitment strategy – an objective statistical approach to identify players – to spend wisely within the realms of Randy Lerner’s financial restraints.
Current Sporting Director, Jesus Garcia Pitarch has also received his fair share of flak following a reckless spending spree last summer. More worryingly, Pitarch spent more than double of what Reilly and Almstadt splashed to build Villa’s first Premier League side since 2016.
It’s been well publicised that the £140m ballpark figure was mainly spent through the advice of head coach Dean Smith but ultimately the final decision on transfers would be made elsewhere.
Kalvin Phillips, Saïd Benrahma and Neal Maupay were just three key signings Smith banked on for top-flight security this season. Two of those players look set to take their clubs up a division whilst the latter has contributed to Brighton’s strong survival chances this season.
Smith didn’t get what he wished for
Cheaper alternatives, Trezeguet and Marvelous Nakamba were instead brought to Villa Park whilst a lack of forward options until January meant Smith was left with compromises rather than first choices before the opening game of the season at Tottenham. Even midfielder Douglas Luiz joined the club only days before starting his first game in England – the window was too scattergun, too opportunistic.
Premier League experience was desired, but not for the cost required, Smith explained to the Express & Star.
He said: “It was not a risk because it is what we had to do. People can talk about risk because we brought in a number of players but we had to, otherwise, we wouldn’t have had a squad.
“We would have had to pay £30m-plus for Premier League experience and it is a vicious circle.
“If you want to go and get Premier League experience as a newly-promoted team, with a short period in which to get these players in which we had after winning the play-offs, you just get priced out of the game.
“We did what we had to do. We knew we were signing a lot of players with potential. There was no other way to do it.”
‘You’re doing a Fulham’ was the warning from many as Villa persisted on spending before their Premier League return. Smith lost up to ten first team players who played a crucial part in Championship promotion. 20 left in total, with a mix of loan expiries and releases from a group of players lacking in top-flight quality.
Tammy Abraham, Axel Tuanzebe and Tyrone Mings all returned to their parent clubs to leave Villa with a summer of surgery. As expected, Mings was one of the first to return and frankly, Villa’s cause for optimism was justified after the 6’5 defender excelled in the Championship.
Not learning from mistakes
Likewise, in the summer of 2015, Villa this season scoured the length and breadth of Europe in search for a bargain, or 13.
The rebuild started with Wesley as Villa broke their transfer record only a month after winning the play-off final at Wembley. As far as we understand, Suso and chief executive Christian Purslow will delegate with Smith to identify players that fit within his ideal criteria. Had Villa spent a further £5m or so, perhaps Aleksandar Mitrović would’ve been the B6 goal-getter but instead the untried Brazilian was the man for the job.
Injuries haven’t helped Villa’s cause this term, only hindering Smith’s side from back to front. Wesley and Tom Heaton picked up season-ending blows on New Year’s Day at Turf Moor, and for what it’s worth, Heaton looked assured and comfortable between the sticks whilst Wes was coming good after an early-season drought.
Jordan Veretout, Idrissa Gueye, Jordan Amavi and Adama Traoré have also come good. Very good. Even the ‘slow and lazy’ Jordan Ayew has been killing it for Crystal Palace this season, so let’s not write off Suso’s signings completely.
The arrival of 13 new players, mostly from abroad helped cover the losses of many experienced players used in last season’s play-off success and per player, Villa spent a measly £11m on average. Where does that get you in today’s market?
Villa had to buy shrewd and if the truth be told, we had to get lucky. Unfortunately, the buys of Jota, Trezeguet and Bjorn Engels amongst others haven’t really worked out…yet. These players need a period to acclimatise to the most competitive league in the world and Villa fans need no reminder of the players lost after 2016 and where they ended up after the club’s worst Premier League campaign.
Many Villa fans will be left scratching their heads at the prospect of falling out the top-flight for many of the same, well-publicised reasons, and lessons must now be learnt. Only in two of the past five seasons have Villa not failed with their recruitment which is a dire reality. Tony Xia’s bankroll method didn’t pay off in the Championship when Villa threw the dice at a cost of £75m.
Sustainability is crucial
Spending a total of £20m in the two Championship seasons both culminating in play-off finals was Villa’s most sustainable and effective four transfer windows for a long time. With this in mind, wherever Villa end up come August having been relegated or miraculously surviving, they must control spending and recruit smartly rather than impress demanding fans on social media.
Arguably, with the sheer amount of players Villa needed to recruit last summer, Villa’s chiefs were always going to come under pressure having set themselves up to fail after securing promotion a season too early according to Purslow.
Sustainability is a must for Villa, the overturn of players and managers has been all too frequent in seasons past and the looming possibility of another division swap is on the cards. A recent overhaul of the academy system is one strategy Villa are using to become more financially sustainable.
Speaking at the most recent Villa Supporters Trust AGM, Purslow said: “The signing of Louie Barry from Barcelona was… sometimes in business and in sport, sometimes you need a marquee development to signal to the rest of the marketplace that we’re back in business.
“Imagine what that does for our recruitment potential. It was a statement of intent, I’m very proud of it, but judge my actions in another year’s time.
“We wanted to signal to 14, 15 and 16-year-olds and their parents that Aston Villa is deadly serious about youth football. So we take the only British 16-year-old to ever be transferred to Spain.
“He didn’t settle. People have asked me this. His family are Villa mad, the kid’s Villa mad, but he went to Barcelona, joined their academy and all the management of Barcelona changed.
“Imagine, you’re 16, you’ve moved out to Barcelona and the three people who recruited you and talked you into the job aren’t there anymore – and you’re 16, away from home.
“He was very unsettled and we sensed an opportunity. I’m very grateful to Barcelona who acted incredibly professionally to basically facilitate Louie coming to Aston Villa.
“In a world of England youth football, they all know Louie because he’s the best 16-year-old in the country – and he’s just gone to Aston Villa.”