With less than a week to go until the transfer window “slams shut”, it’s hard to know what to make of the events of the past month. The turnover in playing staff at Villa Park almost defies belief, with a large number of first-team squad members leaving and a similarly high number – so far – having signed.
Opinion remains divided, however, on whether the changes will destabilise the club too much and invite a season of toil and struggle, or whether they will galvanise a club already making progress and inspire greater things than mere survival in the Premier League.
It’s easy to get carried away with the media narrative that Villa have spent to the tune of some £140m and have been among the top European spenders this window, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus.
At the same time, we have been accused of panic buying, throwing together any number of disparate individuals in the vain hope they form a cohesive team of challengers, but failing miserably as Fulham did last season. For all the wheeling and dealing, Villa are still as short as 2/1 to be relegated.
These kinds of claims fail to see not only the bigger picture but also the smaller, more relevant details. For instance, three of the ‘new’ signings – Mings, Hause and El Ghazi – were with us last season and were, in effect, making permanent the loan deals they had previously been.
As for the rest, they have been like-for-like replacements for players who were either out-of-contract, ageing, surplus to Dean Smith’s plans, or perhaps all three. Tom Heaton has replaced Mark Bunn; Frédéric Guilbert, Ezri Konsa and Bjorn Engels have replaced Alan Hutton, Tommy Elphick and Micah Richards; Jota has replaced Albert Adomah; Wesley Moræs has replaced Ross McCormack. The list goes on.
It also should be noted that Villa have conducted their business relatively early in the curtailed window, compared with Fulham’s scattergun, kid-in-a-sweet-shop approach on the last day of last summer’s window. Half of the signings have either played for us already or have previously worked under Dean Smith and Richard O’Kelly. Wesley and Marvelous Nakamba played together at Club Brugge last season. There is method in this madness.
No one can surely question that Tom Heaton is an upgrade on Bunn, or that – on the evidence of pre-season at least – Guilbert will prove to be a more than able replacement for Hutton. Douglas Luiz (still TBC) and Marvelous ought to at least provide more pace and energy than Glenn Whelan or Mile Jedinak – there is no reason to think that given time, the coaching staff won’t improve all other aspects of their game as well.
The team lining up at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in 8 days’ time will be radically different from the disjointed rabble which limped meekly into oblivion at The Emirates last time we played Premier League football. If you can bear to look, this was the best we had to offer (according to Eric Black at least – I’m convinced that he was trolling the club and the fans by that stage):
Bunn, Lyden, Toner, Lescott, Cissokho, Bacuna, Sanchez, Westwood, Gueye, Ayew, Sinclair. Among the substitutes were Brad Guzan, Micah Richards (yes, really!) and Rudy Gestede. And a certain Jack Grealish in what must surely rank as the lowest watermark in his career to date. To see a team like that still makes my blood run cold.
Thankfully, not a single one of those aforementioned players (Grealish apart) remains at the club. Incidentally, the others on the bench were Carles Gil, Adama Traore and Rushian Hepburn-Murphy. RHM is the only other ‘survivor’ at the club from that ignominious day, yet even he remains little more than a bit-part player at this stage.
Compare that rabble (a generous and flattering description, I concede) with the XI who might potentially kick off against Tottenham next Saturday tea-time, live on Sky (which in itself points to a horror show – live TV and good Villa performances still rarely go together):
Heaton, Guilbert, Engels, Mings, Targett, Marvelous, McGinn, Grealish, Jota, Wesley, El Ghazi. A bench of Steer, Konsa, Hause, Hourihane, Kodjia, Trezeguet and Douglas Luiz or Davis is infinitely more exciting and inspiring, is it not?
Almost anything could happen this season. The grand plan could go hideously pear-shaped within weeks, as the new players fail to integrate and perform badly, results simply non-existent. The talking heads and the media smell victory and Villa sink into a relegation battle they probably won’t win.
Or, everything might click and we could replicate the achievements of Wolves – dish out a few bloodied noses and secure a ‘best-of-the-rest’ finish, with the Europa League hell of July qualifiers and a Thursday/Sunday regular season schedule.
More likely, we will make solid progress. While never seriously flirting with relegation, we won’t cause many sleepless nights for the ‘Sky Six’. We should expect to beat the lower hanging fruit – the clubs in relative turmoil through lack of investment, selling key players or perhaps a change of manager (Brighton, Newcastle, Norwich spring readily to mind) – but seeing off bigger hitters may prove more challenging.
Conventional wisdom is that the goal of newly-promoted teams should be to survive and 17thplace is good enough: plus or minus 40-42 points. Three seasons ago, I would have been inclined to agree.
But the insane amounts of money generated from TV rights ‘auctions’ and the subsequent obscene transfer fees of the past couple of summers mean we must aspire to a higher goal. Mere survival is not good enough. Such a huge outlay should deliver on a regular and consistent basis.
We need to take points from everyone, save the top three or four who’ve had at least a four-year start in terms of investment. Manchester City and Liverpool are in a league of their own. Spurs rarely give it large in the transfer market under Daniel Levy (and have a shiny, costly new stadium to pay for), while Arsenal remain strangely parsimonious compared with their peers.
Chelsea are currently under a transfer embargo, while the self-appointed ‘Biggest Club in the World ‘ – Manchester United – remain hugely enigmatic. United enjoy mind-boggling revenue, consistently massive support and they continue to sign top-drawer players. Yet they have a coach with less experience than Dean Smith and are punching well below their weight.
Whatever happens this coming season, the ‘Sky’ really is the limit for Aston Villa. Of course, relegation is a possibility, as it is for all but six or seven of the competing clubs. But Villa now have infrastructure and funding on a scale not previously seen in the B6 postcode.
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