In the summer of 2019, Aston Villa reached a net spend of £144.5 million. Twelve new faces arrived into the dressing room – fusing various cultures, languages and personalities.
Sporting director, Jesus Garcia Pitarch (Suso), had been tasked with replacing 18 senior players who were departing the club in the summer.
A mammoth recruitment scheme was given the green light by club owners, Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens, as Chief Executive Christian Purslow loosened the purse strings.
Villa were back in the Premier League and after three years away, we’re ready to prove their might.
Spending Spree of 2019
Returning on permanent deals, Anwar El Ghazi and Tyrone Mings cost a combined £28 million in initial fees whilst outlays from abroad included big-money moves for the Club Brugge pair – Wesley and Marvelous Nakamba.
Assembly costs of Smith’s new squad were the second-highest in England and comparisons were made to the previous years spending’s of Fulham, who’s signatures failed to starve off relegation.
In what turned out to be the longest Premier League season to date, Villa survived on the final day of the season and justified the need for such spending 12 months earlier – or did they?
Relegation had been a distinct possibility for the Villans all season and although it was eventually avoided, Suso’s head was on the line. Less than 24 hours after survival was secured, the axe fell.
Of the twelve arrivals in the summer, few had impressed the Villa faithful over the course of the 2019/20 season.
Nakamba and Jota failed to cement positions in the XI – the latter has since seen his contracted terminated.
Whilst they have since played contrasting roles in the fortunes of the football club, Bjorn Engels and Douglas Luiz were error-prone and often liable for defensive mistakes throughout the pre-lockdown season.
Taking a closer look at the signing of Douglas Luiz, Suso’s entire market strategy is encapsulated. A player of immense potential and high re-sale value, however (at the time) completely unproven in the Premier League. Despite arriving from Manchester City, Luiz had never played a Premier League minute.
The form of the Brazilian this year only strengthens the argument. With a full Premier League season of experience, Luiz has evolved into a player bringing immense quality to the team. Suso was building a team for the future, almost neglecting fears of immediate relegation.
The footballing equivalent of trying to run before you can walk.
What Changed this Summer?
The easy answer would be the arrival of the new Sporting Director, Johan Lange – former technical director of FC Copenhagen.
However, a key factor that cannot be overlooked is experience.
Heading into the 2020/21 season, Villa bolstered a squad brimming with fresh Premier League experience. In fact, 23 players that started the current campaign with Villa had experienced topflight English football before. Compared to just 9 of these players the season before, the experience was clearly a key factor in Villa’s struggles.
Despite this, it’s impossible to dismiss the accusations made by Lange this summer. Although his job was made easier due to 18 players not needing replacing, as Smith had asked for, he added a handful of exceptional quality.
“I think if you look at last season we spent an awful lot of money but we had to get 12 to 13 players in. It was a big turnaround for the club.”
“Any team who has that happen is going to find it difficult. I always felt if we got over the line the players we brought in last summer would be better for the 12 months and we could then go and add quality rather than quantity.”
“We have added quality with the players we are bringing in now”
The Fabulous Five
The scouting department – led by Lange- deserves high praise. Heading towards the midpoint in the season, Villa are on course to double last seasons points tally at the very least.
The fundamentals of such improvements have been through the very foundations of the team.
Emiliano Martínez arrived after impressing – post lockdown – in goal for Arsenal in place of injured Bernd Leno. On his debut, he saved a penalty and kept a clean sheet; the first of his eight in the league so far.
Added to the ever-improving defensive unit, Matty Cash was acquired from Nottingham Forest. a player who has started in all 12 league games that he has been available for.
These two signings, in particular, have propelled Villa to top of the table in terms of clean sheets – yet having played two games fewer than the rest of the competition!
In attack, eyebrows were raised when Championship player of the season – Ollie Watkins – was signed for a fee of up to £33 million. However, 8 goals in all competitions for Watkins – including two goals at the Emirates Stadium and a hat-trick against title holders Liverpool – show the former Brentford man is more than capable of leading the line in the Premier League.
After the 3-0 victory over Crystal Palace on Boxing day, Dean Smith labelled the centre-forward as ‘unbelievable’ and ‘outstanding’.
Completing the five, a pair closely linked to Smith’s assistant coach, John Terry. Whilst Ross Barkley never overlapped Terry’s time at Chelsea, the vast array of contacts held by the former blues captain proved invaluable in signing the midfielder on loan for the season.
Although out injured in the present, Barkley brings immense quality to the team. Having been around the England national team since 2013, his quality on the ball compliments Grealish and adds to the attacking manpower.
A former teammate of Terry at the London club, Bertrand Traore was signed from Champions League semi-finalists Olympique Lyon. Even though a goal on his debut kicked off his Villa career in style, weeks went by were the Burkinabe failed to make an impact on the team. Despite this, after a mesmerizing performance against West Bromwich Albion followed by another goal against Crystal Palace in the same week, the fifth signing of the 2020 summer window is beginning to establish himself as a Villa mainstay.
With the January window fast approaching, it remains to be seen who (if anyone) Villa decide to sign in the winter window.
The squad has an average age of 26 years old meaning that, on the whole, players are yet to reach what is considered their prime age.
As well as this, key players such as Grealish (25) Watkins (24) and Luiz (22) are far from the latter stages in their careers, whilst all being capable of improving for years to come.
Upon arrival, owners Sawiris and Edens outlined their plans to restore Villa to Europe’s elite. At the time of writing, Villa sits 6th in the Premier League – a position that would guarantee a Europa League campaign next season.
We cannot get carried away though. Villa are still to play 25 league games before the season is out, and more importantly, I would argue that the second season in the league should be used for no more than consolidation.
For every victory over Liverpool and Arsenal, there have been defeats against Southampton and Brighton. Without trying to spoil the excitement, the club – fans included – must keep feet firmly on the ground.
In a season unlike any other, this Aston Villa side must continue to learn, grow, and develop to become a force in the future.
Recruitment will play a major role but in 2020, on the face of things, we have got it spot on.