Yesterday, we took a look at the rough outline, the feasibility of whether or not Villa can be pushing Europe in three years, as new CEO Tom Fox has stated as a goal. In short, through some scatterbrained, slightly-naïve thought processes, I determined that it’s at least worth exploring.
We’ll start with an easy one though — but one with a slightly complicated answer. How can Aston Villa improve the squad and its fortunes on the pitch?
(Note: I’m not going to entertain Paul Lambert getting sacked here. He’s signed with the club through 2018, by all accounts Fox and Lerner back him, and it’s not happening any time soon; especially if this "plan" is going to come off.)
I think most people would agree that talent-wise — when everybody’s healthy — this Villa side should finish in the mid-table positions, pushing for a top-half finish as a measure of success. It’s a goal that’s within reach for this season and that’s a good spot to be in considering the club’s injury record this term.
So it follows that with a minimal amount of investment — adding a couple of players — that this Villa side should be able to get to that "brink of Europe" position fairly seamlessly. We’ve seen West Ham United do it this year (bringing in four guys has taken them from mid-table to Champions League contenders) and Southampton did it last year, making the switch from relegation scrappers to fringe European contenders thanks to a few shrewd signings and some player progression.
In short, it seems like Villa shouldn’t need to put in too much effort to get into Europe.
But really, where should the club even look to improve, aside from adding depth at key positions (for reasons we saw this weekend)? I’d like to focus on those bona-fide potential game changers, not squad players that could weasel their way into the starting XI but would just be marginal improvements over what the Villans have now.
I look over it and see plenty of spots where Villa have the calibre of players capable of getting the team into Europe. Brad Guzan is a top goalkeeper while Ciaran Clark and Jores Okore have been a superb pairing as of late in front of him — that doesn’t even mention Ron Vlaar if they keep him around. Then you have the centre of the park, where Tom Cleverley looks set to join Carlos Sanchez, Ashley Westwood, and perhaps Fabian Delph as the long-term core of the club. Of course, up top, Villa have Christian Benteke. Whether or not the Belgian sticks around is a big "what if?" but there we have it.
So, after all of that, I’ve discerned that Villa look good moving forward with their spine, especially if key players sign long-term deals to stay at B6.
But the starting XI regulars that I’ve left out? We’ll get to Gabby Agbonlahor and Andi Weimann later; most Villa fans would prefer Lambert bring in replacements for them and I can’t quite blame them.
But I’ve also left out Alan Hutton and Aly Cissokho from Villa’s long-term plans. The reasoning? Paul Lambert’s current tactics for the Claret and Blues.
It doesn’t apply quite as much to Hutton as it does Cissokho, but neither of them are the best players going forward; neither of them the best at putting in that final ball or being a threat to score goals (though Hutton’s finish against Leicester was cool, calm, and collected). And in a system where the fullbacks are expected to generate attack? I’m not sure the two of them — especially Cissokho — will ever be quite good enough to help get Villa the necessary points to reach Europe. It’s hard to say for me because he’s been excellent for us this year, but if Villa really want to get into Europe, they should have a long think about selling the left back if there really is interest.
Then you have the rest of the attack sans Benteke, which always seems to find ways to oscillate between being horrible and having moments of brilliance. Both Agbonlahor and Weimann have their days and they look really, really good. I think both of them can be contributors on European sides but consistency must improve. Weimann too often gets left out to dry, a non-factor in the match, as he’s never really adjusted to playing wide.
Fundamentally though, Villa will have to get better, more consistent players to support Benteke — or Libor Kozak or whoever else plays as Lambert’s target man — up top if they are to mount a serious European challenge. Whether that comes from Weimann upping his game or the club going out and signing some combination of second strikers, attacking midfielders, and wingers (the more likely option), it doesn’t matter. The club have to do it.
Far too often, Villa are wasteful in the final third. Charles N’Zogbia and Agbonlahor have the decision-making abilities of a five-year old. Joe Cole is constantly broken and is not a long-term, viable option. Weimann’s play is too erratic and he finds himself stranded too often, looking like he’s lost for a majority of the game. Consistent playmakers that make good decisions — no matter the position — will help move the club forward.
So we’ve identified and somewhat established that Villa are really just two or three good players away from being able to mount a proper European challenge. Tomorrow, we’ll get into discussing the elephants in the room — can Villa keep Fabian Delph, Ron Vlaar, and Christian Benteke? And if not, can they adequately replace the trio?