Aston Villa play Southampton tonight. Southampton are good. Aston Villa are not.
This is probably something that should not be occurring. But if Villa are to return to the ways of their "proud history," well, what can they learn from the South Coast club's success over the last two years?
Play the youth
This seems simple enough. From a purely financial standpoint, Southampton made upwards of £40 million this summer just by selling a pair of young defenders in Luke Shaw and Calum Chambers. And while the latter only made 21 appearances in the Premier League for Saints, he was nonetheless given a look-in for the first team — and that's a huge amount of money for a pair of defenders.
Granted, Villa likely have nobody that's going to fetch the club £30 million from Manchester United in a few years time but then again, how can we know for sure if they're never played? We hear enough about how good and how solid the Aston Villa youth academy is — the club won the NextGen tournament two years ago — but it seems like time and time again, players are simply deemed to not be good enough.
Jack Grealish has looked superb when he's been on the pitch this year and he's the guy most likely to turn out a Premier League star. But he can't start helping you push up the table if he doesn't get time in the XI. Then you've got Callum Robinson, who's bagging goals left and right on loan at Preston North End. And looking away from the academy kids, what the hell happened with Jores Okore?
Play these guys. The club already isn't getting results but all three of these guys have ceilings higher than most of the starting XI that Villa have. Why not dump underperforming guys like Ciaran Clark and Gabby Agbonlahor for youth? It can't be worse.
Cash in when your players hit full value
Southampton (well, Southampton and Bournemouth) got around £25 million this summer for the transfer of Adam Lallana to Liverpool. Lallana's a really, really good player, yeah, but he's far from being a great player. Realistically, Liverpool's probably going to get rid of him for fewer than £10 million in three years or so. It's a classic case of cashing in when a player is at full value and in turn, it helped Southampton bring in some players this summer.
Also, Dejan Lovren, who is far from being worth £20 million as a player. But he had a good year last term and Southampton made the smart business decision to move him on, knowing that his value was only going to drop. Look for Liverpool to sell him to West Ham in two or three years for £5 million.
Unfortunately for Villa? I fear that they've already missed the boat here with Ron Vlaar. Coming off of Holland's World Cup success, Vlaar may very well have been at the highest value he's ever going to be at. He kept Diego Costa at bay, he kept Lionel Messi at bay, and he kept Joel Campbell at bay. (Okay, I know I'm not funny.) It was probably the best the injury-prone defender's ever been.
And while I'll admit that I was adamant that Villa should hold out for a high price tag for Vlaar, I also felt that if the club could have landed £10-12 million for Vlaar that they should have sold, precisely because his value was unlikely to be higher. Granted, it's tough to say how much Southampton and Ronald Koeman or Manchester United and Louis van Gaal really wanted Vlaar but looking back, it seems like Villa might have missed their chance to cash in.
Now granted, this doesn't mean you have to sell everyone. Morgan Schneiderlin is still at Saints after a move to Spurs fell through — and I would venture to say that he's not at his full value yet. This would be a great model for Villa to follow with Fabian Delph. Keep him around for a couple of years, hope he continues to get better and cement himself in the England squad, and then sell him when one of the big clubs float £20 million towards you.
Hire the right manager
The can of worms has been opened, I suppose. I'm not quite ready to give up on Paul Lambert yet but after the next two months, I might be.
But fundamentally — no matter how much of a dick he might be — Ronald Koeman's been the right manager for Southampton. He made the right personnel decisions in the transfer window (more on that later) and he's made the right tactical decisions so far this season (more on that later).
I'm not sure that Paul Lambert is capable of both of those things — and if Villa are to sack him, the last thing they need to do is hire Tony Pulis. I'm also probably quitting Villa if that happens. He's the worst.
Make good decisions in the transfer windows
Southampton sold a lot of their side this summer and, thus, had a lot to spend in the window. But more so than the volume of cash matters, the quality of players matters more. And that's where Southampton have had success.
Granted, the jury's still out on a lot of these guys but Graziano Pellè, Shane Long, Saido Mané, and Fraser Forster have all looked good — and that doesn't even talk about Dušan Tadić, who's been great for them. The point is? They made solid decisions and got contributing players.
Villa? Meh. They aren't spending enough right now to make an excess of good signings. And granted, this is somewhat dependent on the previous point, but Villa need to get some solid players in one way or another — especially at the attacking midfield spot where Villa apparently still don't have an answer.
Attack the 'bottom' sides
Coming into this season, there was a very clear gap between the top seven sides in last year's Premier League and the bottom 13. That top group of clubs — joined by Everton this year with their fee played for Romelu Lukaku — can spend insane amounts of money on players and are the guys that year-in, year-out have success determined based on whether or not they quality for the Champions League.
The reason I still don't have Southampton in that top group? They've only played two of those seven teams so far — and lost to them both. Further, those results came against Liverpool and Spurs, arguably the two most in-turmoil of the "big seven."
Southampton's success? It's come against the rest of the league — and they've been clinical. Since a draw with West Brom on Matchday 2, Saints have rolled off eight straight victories over clubs that can't just drop £25 million on players. It's where Koeman's got it right.
I talked a bit about it in the offseason but the major difference between a relegated side, a mid-table one, and one challenging Europe? Results against the other teams you're fighting for those spots about. Southampton are 8-1-0 against said clubs this year. Villa are 2-2-1. It's the easiest way towards the top. Getting that attacking player that helps you take the game to clubs like Palace or Sunderland? Necessary.