By Kevin Hughes
Here we are, again. The conclusion of an interrupted Premier League season draws near, and Villa are at the wrong end of the table, contemplating another relegation.
The euphoria of that joyous May afternoon, when Villa overcame Derby in the play-off final, may soon become a more wistful memory; the excitement and hope of last summer’s recruitment already feels misplaced. Villa have time, and plenty of games, to pull clear of the bottom three yet but on the field, the team are showing few signs of being able to do that.
‘unless Villa find another gear to move up to, we’ll be facing a return to Championship football’”””
The club hasn’t won once in the last six league fixtures, not since that chaotic, rousing, injury time victory over Watford in January. In that sequence of matches, in fact, Villa have only taken a single point, and that came in the first game of the league’s re-start, against Sheffield United.
We all know that the result shouldn’t have been 0-0, and can only speculate how Villa would have reacted to going a goal behind just before half-time had any of goal-line technology, video referee or human referee done its job and detected Orjand Nyland crouching behind his own line, nestled into the back of the net, holding the ball, for several long moments. Aside from that incident, Villa created a couple of decent chances but didn’t really push hard for a win against a Blades side that looked a shadow of its usual selves.
Days later, against Chelsea, to say Villa were outplayed for long spells of the game could qualify as one of the understatements of the season. At times, the match resembled a training exercise between a first team and an U23 team. True, Chelsea’s squad is at least a level above Villa’s – highlighted when the Blues introduced Pulisic, Barkley and Abraham as substitutes – but it was chastening to watch. Even then, hopes of a surprise win were raised when Villa took a lead into half-time, only to concede two goals within as many minutes in the second half.
Losing games has been a horrible habit Villa have never shaken this season. The club has now led in both matches against Spurs, twice away at Arsenal, at home to Liverpool and Chelsea, and taken zero points.
So, while there is hope to hold onto yet, clear-minded logic suggests that unless Villa find another gear to move up to, we’ll be facing a return to Championship football next season. If that happens, there will rightly be some discussions over the late summer and, naturally, the future of Dean Smith as Head Coach will be towards the top of the agenda.
I’ve previously said, during the course of the season, that you won’t see me calling for Dean Smith to be dismissed, and I stand by that. I don’t want to see him go, and my thoughts at the start of the season were that the only circumstances I’d be inclined to change the coach would be if we witnessed the kind of shambolic results and performances – a consequence, in part, of a divided dressing room and squad – that blighted the catastrophic 2015-16 relegation campaign. We haven’t plunged to those miserable depths, and we’ve largely been competitive throughout the season.
Of course, Smith hasn’t been flawless. He has made errors, I would say, which shouldn’t have been a total surprise given this is his first season as a Premier League coach, and he’s supported by a staff also new to the top-flight.
He’s lost his way, at times, having tried to move away from his preferred style of play to adapt a more pragmatic approach in an attempt to counter Villa’s defensive issues (not to mention to try to stifle some of the world-class attacking players we’ve faced).
He’s switched mid-season from a 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3 and back again, and while there has been some defensive improvement in certain games, that seems to have come at the cost of sacrificing attacking play. That balance, for a newly promoted club in particular, is hard to find, and lengthy injuries to key players haven’t helped with the continuity of the game plan.
There has also been a reluctance to try playing two strikers together, which has frustrated some supporters (including myself), particularly as the need for victories becomes all the more acute. That may still change before the season’s end, but the unwillingness to experiment even as the situation turns urgent is disheartening.
Still, find a coach who has presided over relegation and not been at fault, to some extent. Smith will need to shoulder some of the responsibility – not all of it, there are other mitigating circumstances – but that doesn’t mean he should be replaced by reflex. I wonder whether Bournemouth and Norwich supporters will demand the dismissals of Eddie Howe and Daniel Farke.
If Villa have learned anything from Premier League relegation, it’s that turmoil should be avoided. What I dread more than the drop itself is a panic-induced fall-out. In 2016, the club crash-landed into the close season with no manager, a disparate squad, and a temporary board in the midst of a takeover. Signings were made relatively late in the transfer window, and some of those were expensive with no regard for sell-on value or longevity.
What soon followed was another change of coach, more pick and mix transfer signings, further player turnover, and so on. Villa’s strategy was to flail around, looking for quick hits and instant solutions – bringing in pricey loan deals, too – and gambled with hitting the promotion jackpot. Smith’s arrival delivered that record-breaking ten successive wins and ultimately play-off success; had Villa not nudged over the line, the consequences of those first two reckless seasons, where planning and strategy were thrown to the wall, could have been severe.
Instead, Villa dodged disaster and, if we go down again, the club gets a chance to do relegation properly this time. That might sound absurd, but there is a better option to dumping the coach, shredding the squad and starting all over again. There will obviously be player movement out but also significant transfer fees coming in which should allow for effective recruitment – and I’d much rather Smith, a coach who knows the fabric of the club and has been successful in the Championship, oversees any recrafting of the squad.
Villa’s Transfer Window Recruitment
Why have I raised Villa’s transfer ‘policy’ during the three seasons in the Championship? To give some context to the situation the club found itself in last summer, post-promotion, and the huge undertaking it faced regarding recruitment.
The club spent a lot of money in the transfer market last summer and, if Villa are relegated, we’d better brace ourselves for a good deal of finger-pointing, blame, and the amused laughter of rival supporters. Look at how much Villa spent – and they still went down! They’ve done a Fulham! It’s going to happen, so we need to let it bounce off us and remember why the club made so many signings.
Promoted clubs need to strengthen, but while Norwich, who won the Championship in 2018-19, and runners-up Sheffield United, spent comparatively little, Villa (5th in the league that season, let’s not forget) went the other way. It was obvious why. Norwich and Sheffield United had more or less fully formed squads, Villa did not. The short-term transfer policy of 2016-19 came back to bite the club firmly, post-promotion, with several key players coming to the end of contracts and others, on loan, returning to parent clubs.
In truth, Villa weren’t left with much of a squad. In terms of the decisions made not to offer new contracts to the free agents, I still maintain the club were right. Alan Hutton, Mile Jedinak, Glenn Whelan, Albert Adomah and Tommy Elphick all made good contributions during those three years in the Championship, but could any of them made effective transitions to the Premier League? I’d say not. It’s interesting that Hutton and Jedinak have since effectively retired (Jedinak not officially but has been without a club all season), while Whelan spent half a season at Hearts and is now at Fleetwood. Adomah and Elphick remained in the Championship.
Another handful of players – central to Villa’s success – didn’t belong to the club. Tyrone Mings, Axel Tuanzebe, Tammy Abraham, Anwar El Ghazi and Kourtney Hause were all on loan.
That left a gaping hole in not just the squad, but the promotion-winning team, leaving Smith and the recruitment department at Villa with a huge job to do. There was little prospect of retaining Tuanzebe or Abraham, who were both wanted by Manchester United and Chelsea (there were suggestions that any transfer fee for Abraham would top the £40m mark in any case).
So, when the post-mortem of the season takes place, let’s remember that Villa didn’t choose to tear up a promotion-winning team; it was all about a rebuilding process pushed upon the management due to the failings of the previous regime (and I include previous coaches as well as owners when I say this).
Premier League Rebuild Issues
Mings, El Ghazi and Hause all signed on permanent deals, of course, which at least provided some semblance of continuity. The challenge then was to bring in as much quality as possible while getting the numbers needed to register a Premier League squad.
It sounds much easier on paper than in reality.
It’s more than highly likely that Villa didn’t get all their first-choice targets. An educated guess is that Marvelous Nakamba and Trezeguet were further down the list; reserves, perhaps, for Kalvin Phillips and Said Benrahma – both of whom would probably have cost at least double what Villa did pay for the former two.
Could Villa have done anything differently? The depth wasn’t there to go without many of the newcomers, or reduce quantity to bring in greater quality. Did Villa have a couple of young defenders excelling in the U23 squad, able to hit the Premier League running, to negate the need to sign Hause and Ezri Konsa? No. Could we have passed on signing Bjorn Engels and gambled on James Chester to recover fitness and be available for the majority of the season? That would have been a risk.
In hindsight, I think Villa could have kept Andre Green with the squad, instead of loaning the winger out, and saved the reported £9m spent on Trezeguet. The club could also have skipped the £11m on Nakamba, and with the best part of £20m to use, devoted that to one top-class (or at least Premier League class) central midfield player. Possibly, we could have stepped out of a move for Jota, who has been a peripheral figure throughout the season, and leaned more on the versatile attacking midfield talent of Callum O’Hare.
Villa can also feel particularly aggrieved at the twists of fate that not only denied them first choice goalkeeper Tom Heaton and £22m striker Wesley for half a season, but the impact that had on any January transfer window activity. Rather than being able to add that extra touch of quality, the strategy switched to urgent gap-filling, with emergency loan moves for Pepe Reina and Danny Drinkwater (to replace the injured John McGinn) and a £9.5m transfer for Samatta, to cover for Wesley. These would not perhaps have been transfer deals Villa had planned for six months previously.
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Still, in the event of relegation, the club’s transfer activity will come under intense scrutiny, and there will be criticism of both Sporting Director Suso and CEO Christian Purslow. It could be harder for Suso, especially, to escape any action than Smith.
On Purslow’s part, the deliberate plan to sign younger, inexperienced players with sell-on value was sound in theory – investing in the playing squad for the longer term – but may have backfired disastrously in the short-term. His confidence looks, right now, to be misplaced.
The only way to salvage that recruitment plan is to stick with the plan. Relegation means many of Villa’s best players will leave, though the positive spin on that is that, for the first time in a long, long time, the club should receive decent transfer fees for outgoing talent such as Grealish, Mings and McGinn (there could also be strong interest in Luiz and Targett).
Villa, and Smith, leant heavily on the trio – perhaps too heavily, considering this is McGinn’s debut PL season, and neither Grealish nor Mings have played extensively at this level – but it seems unlikely they won’t attract serious interest from elsewhere.
However, there could still be a core of the squad in place for a new Championship campaign, albeit lacking in on-field leadership. It wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see three-quarters of a back four still present in Guilbert, Konsa and Hause, and some of the sizeable fees received for the ‘star’ players should reduce the ‘need’ to sell other senior players who may be content to stay in the Championship and won’t be too affronted by what they will hope to be just a season out of the top flight.
I’d much rather have Smith in charge, who won’t be deterred by a return to the Championship or with the prospect of recrafting a squad he helped to put together, than appointing someone new and knocking the whole model down, right to its roots, and starting all over again.
That is the cycle of failure Villa need to stop.
Follow Kevin on Twitter here – @KevHughesie