After a terrifying winter gave way to an encouraging spring, Aston Villa fans looked to the summer somewhat anxiously. Despite signs of real encouragement from the team over the final months of the season, Villa's squad was very far from being a finished product. But with lots of players out of Paul Lambert's plans and still making big wages, how active Villa would be in the window was very much an open question.
Thankfully, any fears that Villa would be inactive in the window were put to rest very early on; six players were brought into the fold before the end of June, giving them a full pre-season to become integrated into the squad. Much of the chatter the rest of the way was about players leaving, as it's clearly better to have big wages off the club's books if the players earning them aren't a part of the manager's plans.
So, with all that being said; how'd they do?
A lot of things go into making a good football team; coaching, training, the medical staff, the list goes on. But at the risk of going out on a limb, it could be argued that the quality of the players is the single most important factor. (Never let it be said that I'm not willing to court controversy.) For most teams, the summer transfer windows are where the core of the team is built. Players take time to settle and integrate into the squad and by bringing them into the fold early on, that process can go much more smoothly.
On that count, Lambert ought to be given full marks. With the exception of deadline day signing Libor Kozák, all of Villa's new recruits were with the team well before the pre-season's first friendly, a nearly ideal scenario in every sense. By the time Villa's trip to the Emirates to open the season rolled around Lambert had a very good sense of his new signings and preferred pecking order, and that's a huge advantage over the alternative.
Jores Okore is of course the marquee signing of the summer, and for good reason; central defense was arguably Villa's biggest area of need, and though it's not quite clear that Okore has worked his way into first-choice standing just yet it's also reasonable to conclude that he's very much in the discussion. That's impressive for a 21-year-old defender signed straight from the Danish Superliga, and there's every reason to believe that he is going to develop into a powerhouse in the middle of Villa's back line, hopefully for years to come.
The signing of Antonio Luna is another that's paid immediate dividends, with the 22-year-old left back surpassing Joe Bennett on the depth chart and showing well in Villa's first three league games. That Luna is an upgrade at the position is more than enough in its own right, but the fact that his arrival takes some of the pressure off of Bennett is a nice side benefit. Bennett is clearly a young player with a lot of talent, but he was just as clearly in over his head being asked to start in the Premier League straight away. He'll now have the opportunity to develop without having to be "the guy" before he's ready, and his presence means that Luna doesn't have to suffer the same kind of trial-by-fire should he hit a rough patch of his own, which he almost certainly will.
With the exception of Jed Steer who is only likely to feature in early-round cup competitions (and did so quite competently in his first go-around) the remainder of Villa's signings were more focused on the attack. Leandro Bacuna is a player that impressed quite a bit during pre-season--including, somewhat surprisingly, as a right back--but his only showing in a starting role so far in league play offered some hints as to why he's not yet considered by Paul Lambert to be a first-choice player. Bacuna is obviously talented and should settle nicely despite looking a bit jittery against Liverpool, and his apparent versatility is a massive benefit in its own right. Aleksandar Tonev was likewise impressive in the pre-season but has been given little chance to show what he can do in the Premier League thus far; still, to have an attacking midfielder with his skill-set that can push Andreas Weimann and provide a very different look from what Villa typically offer is a pretty massive benefit. Nicklas Helenius is perhaps the most intriguing signing of the summer, a massive striker that seems to be very comfortable with the ball at his feet and playing in a much deeper position than might be expected of a forward of his size. He also looks to be the rawest of Villa's summer signings, but he could very well end up being a huge addition before the year is out.
All-in-all, Lambert's signings this summer have addressed some significant needs and appear to provide some quality depth that can provide different looks and abilities than the players already in-house. Still, as the close of the window drew closer, there was still a sense that Villa could very much do with some manner of creative midfielder as well as another natural right back to help push/provide cover for Lowton. These weren't necessarily must-haves; almost every team in the world could use a playmaking midfielder but plenty of them get along just fine without one, and though Bacuna isn't ever going to offer a serious challenge to Lowton's place he does at least provide a decent option in the case of injury or the need to give him a breather. What very few people would have offered as a real need for Villa is another forward; between Benteke, Weimann, Agbonlahor, Helenius and Jordan Bowery, that's pretty adequate depth for a team that tends to play with just one real out-and-out striker.
So it was to say the least quite a surprise to learn that Lambert decided to make Libor Kozák, he of 14 goals in 88 Serie A appearances, his biggest-money signing of the summer. At 24, Kozák certainly isn't washed up by any stretch but it's difficult to think of him as a potential diamond-in-the-rough in the same way Benteke was last season. And though it's unlikely that there was ever a real binary, either/or choice between signing Kozák or some manner of creative midfielder, it's also a bit puzzling that Villa chose to target another striker when more pressing needs exist elsewhere. Still, Lambert has to a large extent earned the benefit of the doubt. That's not to say that the Kozák move can't be questioned, but it is to say that it's not likely something getting up in arms about.
Incoming Transfers Grade: B
All in all, not a bad window. It would have been quite nice to land a player like Younès Belhanda (remember that whole thing?) but ultimately, Aston Villa addressed all of their most pressing needs and adding some very exciting young talent. When the biggest concern of a transfer window is that a club may have paid a bit too much for a 24-year-old that led last season's Europa League in scoring, it's hard to complain.
Typically, fans are most concerned about losing key players during transfer windows, not unloading unwanted players. Until Christian Benteke unexpectedly changed course and re-joined the fold in mid-July, that was true of Villa as well. Once the big Belgian had his change of heart, however, the attention turned squarely to the efforts to unload Darren Bent, Stephen Ireland, Barry Bannan, Alan Hutton and Shay Given, senior players on not-insignificant wages that did not figure in Paul Lambert's plans.
For the majority of them, it was those wages that were a stumbling block; Ireland, Given and Hutton never should have been given such rich contracts to begin with, and though Bent's was likely justified at the time, the prospect of taking on a player that barely featured for an entire season at such a significant salary was not something very many clubs were lining up for.
Bent was clearly the most important to move, partially because his wages were the highest but perhaps just as importantly because he's the one with the most right to feeling as though he were treated unfairly. The Darren Bent that got injured and upon return found himself relegated to the kids table was largely the same Darren Bent that was signed for a club record sum by Gerard Houllier, resurrected his England career, and scored 21 goals in 54 games for Villa. That he isn't the kind of player Lambert wanted to build around isn't exactly his fault, nor is the fact that Benteke ended up being significantly better than anyone had any right to expect. That's not to say that Lambert was wrong, exactly, in his actions but the fact does remain that for Bent to be a Villa player come the close of the transfer window would have been something of a nightmare.
Luckily, Fulham stepped in and signed Bent on a season-long loan deal the day before the season began. Though there's no option to buy included, that could easily work out in Villa's favor; Bent's market value was about as low as conceivably possible, but if he's able to produce for the Cottagers (and he probably will) he'll have plenty of suitors next season and will likely end up moving permanently for a higher fee than was on offer in this window. If he doesn't, it would make accepting a lowball offer significantly more palatable.
Interest in Bannan was healthy for much of the summer, with his wages being manageable for most clubs in both the Championship and the Premier League. Bannan is also young enough that it's perfectly reasonable to believe that he'll continue to grow, and it was Crystal Palace that ended up being the club willing to take the chance, signing the midfielder to a three-year deal for an undisclosed fee. Bannan's departure is somewhat bittersweet; he's clearly got talent, and as an academy developed player it's difficult to watch his Villa career flame out. But it just wasn't going to work out for him under Paul Lambert, and if his career is going to progress it's likely that a change is scenery was necessary.
Next to leave was Stephen Ireland, and the less said about his time in a Villa shirt the better. Accepting Ireland as a make weight in the James Milner sale was a mistake, and though he managed to find his way into Alex McLeish's good graces it's hard to see that as much of a compliment. Stoke City did Villa huge favor in taking Ireland on loan, and with his contract up at the end of the year his time with the club is mercifully at an end. Ireland may well thrive under Mark Hughes just as he did all those years ago with Manchester City, and if he does then that's wonderful. He seems like a nice enough fellow. But Villa fans will likely be less than bothered if that turns out to be the case, because his time in Birmingham was an unmitigated disaster.
That leaves Given and Hutton, and unfortunately they won't be going anywhere. After putting in three-quarters of a sterling season with Villa, Given began a pretty steep decline towards the end of the 2011-12 season and was replaced by Brad Guzan almost straight away upon Lambert's arrival. Exactly why Villa felt as though giving a 35-year-old a five year contract was a good idea is anyone's guess, but it's a bit late to do anything about it now. Given is under contract for another three seasons, and though there was rumored interest in a loan deal with Liverpool, nothing came of it. It's easy to feel for Given; he was once one of the best keepers in England and when he first arrived at Villa Park he was one of the only positives in a brutal season. But time catches up with everyone, and Given is no exception. Considering his wages and the length of time since he last appeared to be a starting-quality keeper, it's unlikely he's going anywhere unless Villa pay him to do so. At some point, that seems inevitable.
It's not easy to feel bad for Alan Hutton, however. Hutton probably has some value to someone somewhere, but apparently not enough value for anyone to willingly pay his wages. He's a nasty reminder of the McLeish era, and one of the nicest things Lambert's ever done is allowing us to at least momentarily forget that he still exists. Hopefully some team or another gets desperate and takes him on loan in the winter, but it's tough to see any scenario in which Villa isn't stuck with him until the end of next season.
Also moving elsewhere were Brett Holman and Jean Makoun. Makoun was a Villa player mostly in theory, while Holman saw the writing on the wall and joined Al Nasr with the promise of first team football ahead of what will likely be his last World Cup. Villa also did quite well in arranging loan deals for Graham Burke and Samir Carruthers, who have reached the point where youth football stops paying dividends and regular first-team action is needed in order to progress to the next level. It's quite likely that similar moves for other youngsters happen once the loan window re-opens on September 8th.
Outgoing Transfers Grade: B
There's not much Lambert could have done to bump this grade up other than moving Given and Hutton, and doing so was always going to be next to impossible. It would be nice to have Eric Lichaj around to provide a bit more cover at fullback, but with his contract up it would have been a very tough sell to keep him on the fringes of the squad with first team football on offer elsewhere. Much like the incoming moves, all of the primary objectives seem to have been accomplished and to be critical of the things that didn't work out seems like nitpicking.
Fans always want more, and to be sure it would have been lovely to sign that playmaking midfielder Villa's been needing since...ever, or perhaps some more depth at the back. But overall, it's tough to feel anything but good about the way this window turned out. Maybe all of Lambert's signings bust and the whole thing ends up a missed opportunity, but that seems incredibly unlikely. There's a lot to like about this team right now, and it's easy to see what Lambert's plan was for this window (aside from Kozák, maybe.) If the way Villa played in their first three games is sustainable, things are coming along quite nicely and all of the major serious holes have been plugged.
Taking the longer view, perhaps addressing the depth concerns now and giving the full squad time to come together will allow Lambert to concentrate his resources on bigger signings in future windows. Or perhaps not. In any case, Villa signed quite a few promising young players that look more than capable of contributing at the Premier League level right away, they cleared a pretty hefty chunk of money from the wage bill, and they managed to do so without losing any key players. It's tough to hope for more than that.