‘Villa’s board have attempted to buy a team rather than build a team’.
In the build up to the playoff final, former Hull City and Fulham player Sone Aluko was asked by Sky Sports to explain how Steve Bruce and Slaviša Jokanović differed from each other as managers.
Aluko cited Jokanovic’s attention to detail and described how the Serbian manager would be reasonably quiet on match days, as his preparation had been done during the week.
In contrast, Aluko recalled that Steve Bruce would be amongst his players motivating, cajoling and firing them up in the run up to kick off.
Two different managers then, two different clubs and two very different approaches.
Aston Villa’s CEO Keith Wyness oversaw a transfer policy in the summer of 2016 which largely focused on bringing experienced players to the club who preferably had won promotion before.
During the winter transfer window, the strategy changed under Steve Bruce who concentrated on mainly signing players who had done well in the Championship that season. Conor Hourihane had made 11 assists and scored 6 goals for Barnsley, Scott Hogan had scored 14 goals for Brentford and Henri Lansbury had scored 6 goals and made 3 assists for Nottingham Forest.
In total, Mile Jedinak, Tommy Elphick, James Chester, Albert Adomah, Ross McCormack, Aaron Tshibola, Pierluigi Gollini, Jonathan Kodjia, Ritchie De Laet, Henri Lansbury, Conor Hourihane, Neil Taylor, Scott Hogan, James Bree, Sam Johnstone, Jacob Bedeau and Birkir Bjarnason all arrived at the club during the 2016/17 season.
Nine signings made by Roberto Di Matteo and eight signings made by Steve Bruce.
Aston Villa’s £88m transfer spend in the 2016/17 season (according to Swiss Ramble) was the most ever spent by a Championship club in one season. Out of 24 teams, Villa’s transfer spend was responsible for over 25% of all money spent that season in the Championship (according to Kieran Maguire, football finance expert).
In an interview held with the Birmingham Mail in February 2017, Wyness explained the thinking behind such an unprecedented outlay,
“Money has never been the key factor. We want to get the right squad balance. We did a lot more work in January than we expected to. The summer is going to be relatively quiet. There will be ins and outs but nowhere near as many as we have in the last two windows.”
Following Wyness’s assertion that the club would have a relatively quiet summer, stories then emerged in May 2017 (Neil Moxley, Sunday People) that manager Steve Bruce was stunned to learn that he only had a summer budget of £1m to spend because of Financial Fair Play (he spent £2.5m on transfers fees, excluding loan fees in summer 2017).
‘Throwing money at a team doesn’t work if you fail to build properly and fail to coach solutions rather than just spending and spending’
It was not altogether surprising that the club were looking to have a quiet summer after bringing 17 new players to the club in 2016/17. Nevertheless, the club then invested in eight more players after signing Glenn Whelan (34) from Stoke, Elmohamady (30) from Hull, loan signings Axel Tuanzebe (20), Robert Snodgrass (30), Sam Johnstone (25), Josh Onomah (20), Lewis Grabban (30) and the free agent signings of John Terry (37) and Chris Samba (34).
In two Championship seasons therefore, Villa have signed 25 different players and achieved a 13thplace and 4thplace finish (losing out in the play-off final to Fulham). Villa’s wage bill stood at £61m in 2016/17, which was only smaller than Newcastle United who had failed to insert relegation clauses into the contracts of players like Jonjo Shelvey.
Aston Villa’s new transfer strategy in the summer of 2017 was to focus on ‘experience and steel’ according to manager Steve Bruce. CEO Wyness further explained,
“We need ‘men’ in the team who understand what the Championship is about. We need that stability and fight and desire and the players we’re looking at this summer have that in abundance.”
Bruce also commented on the squad’s experience:
“I think we’ve got the right experience – we’ve certainly picked players who can handle playing for Aston Villa and hopefully their experience will get us over the line and where we want to be.”
Somewhat reminiscent of QPR’s Championship project under Tony Fernandes, a lot of Aston Villa’s money has been spent on a number of ageing players that have failed to deliver promotion – and who in many cases have negligible resale value.
Bruce was prickly ahead of the 2017/18 season following jibes from fans about ‘Dad’s Army’. He commented:
“I’d love to be signing 26-year-olds. People are saying we’re Dad’s Army. But players are £15m to sign and fortunes in wages. We have had to be a bit shrewd.”
The Aston Villa manager seemed to have forgotten that he had already bought several players in their mid-twenties in the January 2017 transfer window at a cost of £23m such as Hourihane, Lansbury, Neil Taylor and Hogan and was expected to get those signings going in pre-season.
Bruce either failed to get most of his January 2017 signings going in pre-season or seemed to lose trust in them after only a few months. Hourihane was the only permanent signing from Bruce’s January 2017 rebuild who started the playoff final against Fulham last week.
Furthermore, Kieran Maguire (football finance expert) explained this week that players like Hogan have been given “eye-watering contracts” (Hogan reportedly on £40k-a-week). Whilst Lansbury, Hogan, Neil Taylor and James Bree were all given four-and-half year contracts despite the fact that many of those players would have struggled to make the step up to the Premier League in the event of promotion.
Like Aston Villa, QPR went on a spending spree when Tony Fernandes bought the club and brought in 25 players in two seasons like Villa have done. QPR managed to limp up to the Premier League after a fourth-place finish in the Championship in the 2013/14 season, which Villa in contrast failed to do despite spending record sums.
QPR were subsequently relegated from the Premier League the following season after finishing in 20thplace. This demonstrates that just throwing money at a team doesn’t work if you fail to build properly and fail to coach solutions rather than just spending and spending and bringing in more and more players.
It’s not unfair to say therefore that Aston Villa’s Championship strategy has been even worse than QPR’s from 2012 – 2014 considering the club have failed to achieve promotion. Those of us who have been critical of Aston Villa’s Championship strategy have sadly been vindicated. Villa’s board have attempted to buy a team rather than build a team.
Bruce started the season as badly as Roberto Di Matteo had in the 2016/17 season. The team continued to lack an identity with Scott Hogan (a £9m signing of Bruce’s) in particular looking lost.
In the first match of the 2017/18 campaign against Hull, Bruce chose a line-up containing Gabby Agbonlahor, Alan Hutton and Leandro Bacuna. Conor Hourihane was on the bench and Albert Adomah was not in the squad and failed to start the first seven games of the season (despite finishing the season as top goal scorer).
From Bruce’s first line-up of the season, Agbonlahor ended the season with only two starts and four substitute appearances, Bacuna was sold to Reading, Neil Taylor was later dropped for Alan Hutton, Henri Lansbury only made five more starts and Elmohamady was moved from right-wing to right-back.
Pre-season, therefore, appeared to be something of a waste of time where no starting line-up was settled upon and no identity of play emerged.
Bruce’s experienced signings were expected to get the team ‘over the line’ and hold their nerve in crucial moments of the season but this also didn’t happen. Whenever the team encountered fixture congestion, results dipped and the older players struggled to cope. In the crucial run in after beating Wolves, bad form again emerged as players were not rotated regularly and Bruce admitted he had got his selections wrong, especially after losing at home 1-3 to Ian Holloway’s QPR.
In a bitter sense of irony, the playoff final saw Steve Bruce’s experienced Aston Villa team face Slaviša Jokanović’s more youthful Fulham side. The winning goal came from a teenager, Ryan Sessegnon, who created the goal for Tom Cairney (who Bruce had previously sold from Hull’s academy having never given Cairney a chance to play for Hull’s senior team).
A rethink is therefore needed ahead of the 2018/19 Championship season. A lot more should be expected from a club that spent £90m in the Championship than just an improved team spirit and players ‘wearing the shirt with pride’.
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