Under the Wembley arch 12 months ago, Aston Villa secured promotion from the Championship after three years away from the Premier League for the first time in the club’s history.
Villa were plotting their assault on the Premier League with club owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens keen to quite literally prove their worth, and provide Dean Smith with the players necessary to not only make up the numbers in the Premier League but compete on all fronts.
It seems like an awful long time ago now, but as Villa were gearing up to go toe-to-toe with West Bromwich Albion in the play-off semi-finals, Fulham dropped out of the top-flight after spending over £100m, so when Villa followed suit last summer, knee-jerk presumptions were made.
Comparisons between the two club’s summer spending were lazy and Villa were in fact far from ‘doing a Fulham’ when NSWE opened the cheque book for last year.
Replacing key loanee’s Tammy Abraham and Axel Tuanzebe was never going to be easy, and certainly at a cost. Villa lost six players with contracts expiring and another 13 left on loan or permanent deals back to the division they’d helped Villa escape from – there was a lot of business to be done.
Villa would’ve had a similar rebuilding job on their hands if they’d experienced another play-off heartache. It just so happened to be a costly re-build to stay more competitive in the Premier League unlike the likes of Norwich City who opted for a different approach.
Perhaps many were keen to see another Villa demise with a new multi-billionaire ownership party vowing to disrupt the league’s upper echelons. Remaining in the league was the immediate priority as Villa built their first Premier League squad since 2015.
Dean Smith justifies spending spree
Villa, like Fulham the year before, spent over £100m to bulk up a thin squad that was not only in need of quality and experience, but after losing over half the players in Villa’s promotion bid, Smith was keen to identify suitable replacements.
“It was not a risk because it is what we had to do,” Smith told Birmingham Live.
“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.”
In contrast to Shahid Khan and Fulham’s reckless spending a year before, Villa were looking to make cut price deals with a number of positions requiring improvements. On average, Villa spent £11m per player, with Tyrone Mings returning after a loan deal and Wesley making up the two most expensive signings.
There was even a method to the presumed madness. Each of Villa’s news signings had played with at least one other new signing at previous clubs, which created a more comfortable environment for players to flourish. Even the more unexpected signings Douglas Luiz and Wesley knew each other from days in Brazil’s youth sides.
As Villa had experienced in 2015, an overhaul of players inexperienced to the rigours of Premier League football is a huge risk, but Villa’s chiefs knew they had to invest in young talent to spread the £100m layout across 12 new players that covered almost every position.
Promotion to the Premier League can often leave a club with a summer of rebuilding and often restructuring, and any side that comes up via the play-offs is at a disadvantage compared to their league rivals having missed a fortnight of pre-season preparations and transfer negotiations.
Villa this season became one the second side in Premier League history to survive the first season back in the top-flight, highlighting how a busy summer window was always going to be tricky to navigate.
Recruitment flaws or worthy risk taking
Where Villa don’t compare to Fulham’s spending in 2018, is that the players recruited were brought in on deals that were financially viable, with high resale values, or at least at a price that minimises risk of losses. Villa’s spending was also necessary to build a squad, without rendering Smith’s blueprint and tactical strategies useless.
Fulham cast aside Slaviša Jokanović’s hard work in a very impressive promotion campaign in 2018, where their play-off final victory of Villa was eventually undone by discarding a system in hope for some ‘Moneyball’ success.
Villa fans will need no introduction to the recruitment strategy that played a major part in the club’s worst season for a generation, and whilst many of the same practices were also used last summer, some key differences allowed Villa to profit this time round.
Now there’s no glossing over some recruitment shortcomings, but to balance out what has been a very one sided view on Aston Villa’s transfer activity this season, for all the money that has been spent and the many painful weekends fans have endured, the club have survived relegation and reached a League Cup final – all without the first choice goalkeeper and centre forward on the pitch.
It goes without saying that any side who must plough on through the rest of the season when two crucial injuries strike in January needs to add perspective to their final league standing, and so Villa can afford to wear a wry smile and toast to a successful campaign that has by hook or by crook ended in success.
Next season Villa will have to improve. Smith has developed a number of players this season, but whilst key positions need to be strengthened, Villa will delve into the transfer market to add goals, tighten the defensive ranks, and add a sprinkle of experience – something money couldn’t buy last summer.
Aston Villa remain a Premier League side, and will enjoy top-flight football at Villa Park next season. Last season’s disappointments will not be forgotten however, though understanding where recruitment can be adapted rather than purely criticised will go some way in building towards a brighter future for the club.