Player recruitment has often been a bugbear for Aston Villa fans, at least in previous Premier League campaigns where shoddy scouting and questionable transfer wish lists become the start of a drab campaign ahead.
Villa had spent around £240 million on transfer fees since their last European campaign in 2010 and up to when new owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens took control of the club eight years later. Since their first summer window, NSWE have supplied a war chest just shy of the amount of money handed down by other regimes to managers, Gerard Houllier, Alex McLeish, Paul Lambert, Tim Sherwood, Remi Garde, Roberto Di Matteo and finally Steve Bruce.
With every penny of a £230 million outlay passed through Dean Smith to form a squad he can implement his ideas on, the club have prescribed a forward-thinking, diligent head coach with the necessary tools to realise his and Villa’s lofty ambitions.
The life of a Premier League manager can often be a gilded existence – but Smith’s days in lower league football have ensured the high-flying Aston Villa boss won’t be taking anything for granted.
A lower league journeyman in his playing days, the Great Barr-born manager plied his trade at lower levels throughout a career that required a degree of resilience and determination for a player who’d often dream about playing in the Premier League as a teenager. To this day, the many lessons Smith had learned – from scrubbing the boots of Saddler’s seniors to recognising the person behind the footballer – has put Villa’s gaffer in good stead.
After leaving school as a teen, Smith struggled for his big break to fulfil his dream of becoming a professional footballer and so the humble beginnings of his story began by taking up a job at a local powder paint company. As fate would have it, a 16-year-old Smith would cycle around the Villa Park grounds on the way to the paint factory.
Now leading one of the more exciting projects in English football, Smith has been meticulous in his planning and preparations to transfer windows alongside Villa’s recruitment team. He’s simply unwilling to take risks on characters and personnel who could potentially derail the steady ship he steers.
80% of the £230 million Smith has spent on transfer fees since being appointed as head coach in 2018, was on players 25-years-old or younger, with only goalkeepers Tom Heaton and Emiliano Martinez, and the irreplaceable Tyrone Mings – having played a blinder during the back end of Villa’s promotion-winning campaign – accountable for expenditure on players 25 years and older.
With the luxury of choosing from the youngest squad in the Premier League this season, Smith has made sure his inexperienced, yet fearless squad remains in good nick. Villa’s head coach has made what could be a challenging situation for some gaffers into an advantage, by building a positive culture at Bodymoor Heath, where his infectious man-management skills rub off on a young crop of budding Premier League players.
“Teams normally train at 10:30 am but we train at 12 pm now,” Smith recently told The Times.
“Players, young men, they’re different. They don’t go to bed at 11 pm, they go to bed at 2 am. They’ve all got an Xbox, a PS4 and they’re up later.”
While running some of the biggest, most wealthiest companies in the world, Sawiris and Edens know a thing or two about autonomy and how investment can help yield results towards a desired outcome.
For Villa, savvy recruitment and backing from the top have done exactly that, as NSWE have put their money where their mouth is, by entrusting the resources that the club have at their disposal to make full use of player development and welfare – the club have made every penny of their large outlay count.
Aston Villa’s recruitment and scouting operations
This season, Villa have been lauded for an attacking brand of football, a watertight defence and indeed effective player recruitment – with every passing week we learn more about Smith’s intriguing side.
Little more needs to be said about Villa’s miraculous turnaround, from relegation certs to European hopefuls within the space of six months speaks volumes in itself. The finer details behind the club’s revival – and there’s no shortage of them – are revealing if not enthralling too.
While Smith was trusted to recruit Ollie Watkins last summer – his tried and trusted number nine from his days at Brentford – an attaching partner, as it were, was touted to be Callum Wilson, before links to Joshua King surfaced.
Behind the scenes, Villa are quickly becoming a more forward-thinking Premier League club with a long-term, thorough blueprint in place. Whilst only time will tell if Lange can replicate his youth recruitment successes or if Head of Recruitment, Robert Mackenzie can scout the next N’Golo Kanté, Riyad Mahrez or Son Heung-min, Villa are certainly investing in the right areas, and on the right profile of players in the market.
Ultimately, for every story of battling back from defeat and every chapter of courage through adversity, the likes of Watkins, Mings, John McGinn, Matty Cash… I could go on – they’ve all spent time on the muddy pitches of lower league football grounds up and down the country. In fact, McGinn was so nearly packing his bags for a career across the pond at one stage in his career, when Houston Dynamo were looking to make the most of a situation unfolding at St Mirren.
The Scot is your typical bargain buy, one that you’ll see tagged in social media comments underneath posts of seemingly ‘underrated’ £20 million players from the continent. Villa have never looked back since, and after Bruce left with his parting gift of a midfielder worth up to £3 million to help Villa realise their ambitions to end a three-year top-flight exodus, the club are always looking for the next rough diamond.
With the right people, practices, and infrastructures in place at Bodymoor Heath, Villa can maximise the potential of footballers with such encouraging profiles – but that’s only half the job. Newly appointed Head of Recruitment, MacKenzie and Head of Scouting Operations Bryn Davies have been working closely for the last 12 months with Lange and Frederic Leth too, to align recruitment operations.
Johan Lange was head-hunted from Copenhagen last summer, while his former right-hand man in Denmark, Frederic Leth was also prized to Villa Park in recent months. While Lange has proved an influential member of Villa’s resurgence in the Premier League by involving himself in most of the club’s operations, his partner, Leth has since undertaken a Head of Football Research role at the club.
Leth’s numerical expertise and experience in similar roles when working alongside Lange will prove beneficial to Villa’s approach to in-house operations, but with results on the pitch a matter of importance in their own right, Villa are now realising the knowledge and expertise of staff of whom were already within the building well before Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens took control of the club.
In a Q&A last year, Edens opined that football as a sport has “got a long way to go in terms of analytics data,” compared to the standards seen in the NBA.
“It’s something we have to make a big investment into,” he said. “If you have great information most of the decisions are pretty darn simple.”
Joining Lange as a Head of Recruitment was former Leicester City and Tottenham talent spotter Rob Mackenzie who has bolstered Villa’s ranks behind the scenes. Highly-rated Mackenzie joined from Belgian club OH Leuven after CEO Christian Purslow carried out a thorough review of the club’s recruitment department and the club saw his appointment crucial to improving their business in the transfer market.
Mackenzie’s biggest achievement to date in football was to help assemble Leicester’s 2016 Premier League winning side that included instrumental signings Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kanté. He worked as the club’s head of technical scouting from 2011 to 2015.
After an impressive four years in Leicester, Mackenzie has held roles as head of player identification at Tottenham Hotspur before returning to the East Midlands as director of recruitment at Derby County.
More recently, Mackenzie headed Leicester City’s sister club and Belgian side OL Leuven’s recruitment team by introducing a modern, data-driven approach that helped them win promotion to the Belgian Premier League last season.
Mackenzie also has a background in analytics and at Villa are keen to strengthen that aspect of their approach to scouting and profiling players.
Aston Villa’s transfer guru Robert Mackenzie
Working alongside Mackenzie and leading the club’s scouting operations is Bryn Davies, who was appointed in 2019.
Davies worked with Mackenzie as a technical scout at Leicester before joining him as a recruitment analyst at Spurs in May 2015 where he stayed for four years before joining Villa upon return to the Premier League.
As for Mackenzie, his feet are firmly underneath the table at Bodymoor Heath now as he looks to continue his relationship with Lange, Purslow, Smith and others to sign top-class talent with Villa’s ever-expanding scouting team burrowing away behind the scenes.
An economics graduate at Leeds Metropolitan University in 2011, Davies started his career as a performance analyst at Sheffield Wednesday before moving to Leicester City before joining Tottenham and working with Mackenzie, who himself has a broad background in scouring and recruitment.
Mackenzie joined Villa a year later than Davies, in August 2020 as head of recruitment following similar roles at OH Leuven, Derby, Tottenham and Leicester. Unearthing the next wave of Premier League stars is no easy job, and there’s no given strategy nor database that can predict the potential of players like Kanté or Son, Mackenzie described the process of identifying talent from outside of England to Sky Sports.
“The current make-up of a squad has to be considered before introducing a player unfamiliar with the existing culture,” Mackenzie said.
“When I arrived at Derby County from Tottenham Hotspur, one of the first conversations that I had with Nigel Pearson was about the make-up and composition of the Derby squad at that time. As a squad that was predominantly domestic-based, he was very open to the prospect of recruiting a couple of foreign players to supplement the British core that we already had.
“I think effective recruitment is all about finding the right balance and complementing what you already have while also being able to bring some additional qualities to the group.
“I think that British core actually contributed to us feeling that we could bring in some foreign players at that time – Anthony Knockaert, Marcin Wasilewski and Riyad Mahrez for example – as they could provide us with qualities that we were perhaps lacking.”
Villa lost 13 players from their 2018-19 Championship squad that gained promotion back to the Premier League. Six players left with contracts coming to end and another seven left on loan or permanent deals back to the division they’d helped Villa escape from.
Eleven new players were drafted in to help Villa survive by the skin of their teeth and last summer, rather than overseeing another rebuilding job, Villa’s chiefs handed Smith a £100 million bill to add ‘four to five’ quality players to the group.
When Mackenzie advised Leicester to sign Kanté and Mahrez back in 2015, he’d scoured the depths of French football and tailored his spotting to that of Leicester’s requirements. Mapping was a key tool for his team.
“I think that within recruitment you are constantly trying to minimise the risk associated with anyone that you bring into your club,” Mackenzie said.
“If you are able to identify clubs that have similar values and beliefs to your own and who play in a similar style to the way that you do then there may be a greater chance of a successful transition.
“A hard working and honest Caen side who themselves had experienced promotion to the French top flight in 2013/14 and who survived in their debut season, finishing 13th, probably represented a good fit for a Leicester side who won promotion in the same year as Caen and who finished 14th on their return to the Premier League.”
“At Tottenham, it was Bayer Leverkusen who were seen as a side adopting a similar style of play. Roger Schmidt’s commitment to a pressing game is well documented and that made the decision to bring in Heung-Min Son more straightforward than it might have been.
“From a very basic attacking output perspective, in both of Son’s two seasons at Bayer Leverkusen he scored 10+ goals but also importantly he only missed four match-day squads out of a possible 94. This suggested that he had successfully adapted to the new demands that had been placed upon him there.
“Given Roger Schmidt’s style of play it felt a good fit and Son’s statistical data was also stable across a three-year period when compared to other targets. His versatility was also important given the type of squad that we were trying to assemble at Tottenham.
“There are a whole host of things that are taken into account when evaluating if a player is suitable for the remit that you are recruiting against. You are constantly trying to build a picture of who the player actually is.”
Anticipating spikes in a player’s potential can also be a very tricky part of Mackenzie’s role, considering the abundance in external influences that can skew the observations of a player from simply watching them compete in competitive and non-competitive games.
Mackenzie has identified some of the Premier League’s best talents from their days in lower league European football, and whilst his informed observations on a player is critical, scouting away from the crowd is often the way to go.
Some players are late bloomers, their potential may not be recognised until the latter stages of their career and some have rediscovered their promise in different environments to where they have previously stalled, such as Serge Gnabry’s improbable rise from The Hawthorns to the Allianz.
It’s no secret that Villa are moving with the times, and overhauling their recruitment staff with proven track-records is a nod to exciting times, with modern, forward-thinking strategies in place to recruit and identify the correct profile of player for Aston Villa.
Before joining Villa, Mackenzie had prior dealings with Villa’s Sporting Director Lange, who at Copenhagen welcomed his recruitment partner to the FCK training facility on a couple of occasions before being courted as Villa’s new Head of Recruitment.
Lange and Mackenzie have since formed a relationship critical to the success of Villa in transfer windows upcoming, in the year’s Villa will not only attempt to re-establish their top-flight status but also compete around the upper echelons of English football once more.