The Steve Bruce debate is dominating the column inches on all things Aston Villa right now. The team is underperforming massively and the fans unrest is growing with each passing day. So, you’ll probably be glad to hear that this isn’t another piece which is going to focus on that particular avenue of despair. Instead, I am going to turn my focus to our scouting setup.
I’ll be taking a wander down another less-well trodden path which has seemingly avoided really being investigated. But the consequences of it could be just as damning in the long run.
Last week, it was reported that chief European scout Ian Atkins had been relieved of his duties. Not only this, it is believed that a further six members of the scouting team had also been let go.
The scouting network at Villa has been a problem for many, many years now. It’s been neglected for one thing. But the transparency about who we have working as part of the network is always, for some reason, shrouded in mystery and nigh on impossible to find good information on.
It’s bizarre. I can go on pretty much any other club’s website and find information on at least names and job titles in relation to player recruitment. And it isn’t just the likes of Manchester City that I’m talking about. Others I checked at random include Derby County and Charlton Athletic.
It isn’t a complete surprise that Atkins and others have been released. They were bought in by former Technical Director Steve Round who was himself relieved of his duties back at the start of July when the club was in financial meltdown.
New Chief Executive
Christian Purslow’s arrival as Chief Executive was clearly the catalyst for this review. Now we can only hope he has identified personnel to create a new network. It absolutely needs to be done right this time and utilised.
Villa’s player recruitment has been all over the place for a long time now. Ever since Randy Lerner pulled the plug on providing funds we have seen a new recruitment policy almost every single summer.
Different Scouting Plans
First, there was Paul Lambert’s attempt at scouring the lower leagues for talent. He procured the likes of Jordan Bowery, Ashley Westwood and Joe Bennett. When this didn’t work, we switched tack the following year. This time attempting to pick up bargains on the continent which yielded Antonio Luna, Aleksandar Tonev, Nicklas Helenius, and Leandro Bacuna. The year after, the policy changed once again. This meant that the club was on the lookout for cheap yet experienced players. This resulted in signing Joe Cole, Phillipe Senderos and Kieran Richardson.
Ironically, a number of the players then acquired by Tim Sherwood in our relegation year and under the much lamented chief scout at the time Paddy Reilly have gone on to show some promise. Jordan Amavi is excelling now at Marseille. Jordan Veretout is blossoming at Fiorentina. Idrissa Gueye was snapped up by Everton at the first opportunity, and Adama Traore, for all his faults, this summer made a £18 million move to an exciting and ambitious Wolverhampton Wanderers side.
As a side note, a serious case could be made for Reilly actually not being as half-witted and out of his depth as a scout as was made out at the time. After all, it was Sherwood himself that picked out the disaster that is/was Micah Richards and Joleon Lescott. Whilst we didn’t necessarily see it at the time for a multitude of reasons, Reilly’s continental picks have, by and large, proven themselves away from Villa Park in some of Europe’s top leagues and club competitions.
Under-used Scouting System
Without wanting to get sidetracked into that particular debate, it’s fair to say that since then, the scouting network has largely been underused. Both in Roberto Di Matteo and Steve Bruce’s reign. The likes of Ross McCormack, Jonathan Kodjia and Scott Hogan were all cherry-picked at overinflated prices due to being standout performers at this level.
It was clear that there was no structure for scouting at the club when Dr Tony Xia took over the club. It was clear that splurging cash at players was preferred as an option. And that sums up the problems at Villa, especially over the last few years. There is no strategy. There is no long-term plan or aims or goals. It’s been a case of short-term fixes. Even when Bruce was forced to shop on the cheap last summer, the scouting network was still not utilised. Glenn Whelan, Robert Snodgrass and of course John Terry were all useful performers but where has it gotten us?
There is never any balance. Yes, we need those sort of players as well, the experienced pro’s. But we always seem to go heavy one way or the other. There never seems to be any unearthing of talent. I don’t want us to be a selling club of course, but the reality is that we aren’t a big fish anymore and haven’t been for years. Jack Grealish is obviously our prized asset right now but really, we’re lucky he was born on our doorstep and came to us as a Villa fan. He hasn’t been scouted or found.
Despite the new owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens stepping in, the club is still a financial mess. Player sales are crucial and part and parcel of how a successful club operates and posts profits. Villa record losses year upon year. It’s a wonder we’re still solvent. We’re incredibly lucky. The last player we sold who pulled in a really decent transfer fee? Christian Benteke.
In fact, since Benteke left in 2015, Villa have made a profit on barely a handful of players. According to transfermarkt.co.uk, everyone with the exception of just Scott Sinclair, Ashley Westwood, Ciaran Clarke and Nathan Baker has been sold at a loss. When you consider the turnover of personnel during that time, its staggering that even we have been that incompetent.
We may never know whether Atkins was contributing a great deal in his role as Chief European scout. Or the other nameless few who have departed. Media reports suggest that Purslow has wielded the axe as part of a cost-cutting exercise. Which is all very well, but having a successful scouting network in place is absolutely crucial. Especially in the position, the club finds itself in nowadays.
As I mentioned, no one wants to lose their best players. But it shouldn’t be looked upon in that way. Porto, for example, are the absolute masters of buying relatively unknown talent and selling for huge profit. James Rodriguez, Hulk, Danilo, Radamel Falcao (who Martin O’Neill allegedly turned down the chance to sign in preference to Emile Heskey) and Jackson Martinez have all been sold for more than £30 million since 2011. But they have also sold a clutch of homegrown household names such as Andre Silva, Joao Moutinho, Diogo Dalot and many others all for over £20 million.
Of course its easier for a team like Porto who are guaranteed to be competitive in their league each season. But there are others, such as Udinese who are another good example of a team that extensively scouts and sells to remain competitive. The ‘Zebrette’ are not one of the elite Serie A outfits, yet can boast discovering talents such as Alexis Sanchez and Juan Cuadrado and even Watford’s current hot property Roberto Pereyra.
The point is that transfers are part of the game and as a club, we are not set up to cope with losing our best players. At the moment, we’re not even making a profit on player sales which is the first step. It’s such a vital part of growing as a club again and we’ve neglected it for such a long time.
It’s easy to look at the league you’re operating in and to see who is scoring loads of goals and deciding to just buy them. But we’ve even messed up that approach because as we’ve seen, it doesn’t work like that. There is no plan for how to use players, no system. Most of all no identity. Getting rid of Bruce would be the first step in helping with that (sorry, couldn’t resist).
The worry is that if Purslow has axed Atkins and his colleagues as part of a cost-cutting exercise. Then it’s unlikely that he will then, in turn, implement a strong and structured scouting network. And if that’s the case, then the club is going to continue failing with a scattergun transfer policy. That is deficient both on the pitch and financially. We’ll continue to buy at overinflated prices and probably end up selling at a loss.
With the amount of money the club has wasted, there is no reason that now can’t be the time that we invest in a system that allows us to scan not only Europe for players. But also parts of Africa and of course, South America where talent is clearly abundant. Other clubs are doing it. We need to be sustainable and this is the way to do it. Skimping on this part of the club’s structure is unacceptable any longer.
And above all, make reference on the official website as to exactly what the nature of the clubs scouting system actually is and who does what. It’s been veiled and clandestine for long enough. It isn’t so much to ask.