Three years ago, a young Aston Villa team pulled off an improbable bit of survival, fighting back from an 8-0 thrashing and a spot in the bottom three late in the season to secure survival.
Irrespective of what one thinks of Paul Lambert, that campaign turned out to be a massive success — namely because it was done on the shoulders of a very, very young Villa side.
It was a Villa side that started Ciaran Clark 30 times and Nathan Baker 25. One where Matthew Lowton was a mainstay at right back and a platoon of Joe Bennett, Enda Stevens and Eric Lichaj kept Villa somehow afloat at left back. Barry Bannan started a majority of games in midfield, and Andi Weimann made 25 starts and scored seven goals, while a guy by the name of Christian Benteke emerged to keep the Claret and Blues up with a fantastic campaign.
The future ultimately didn’t show much for a lot of these guys, but it was an encouraging time, one that saw Villa get praise for staying afloat with one of the youngest clubs in England.
This summer, the club spent a lot of money on young players — Jordan Ayew and Jordan Veretout both cost a lot of money, while Adama Traoré and Tiago Ilori both came in later in the window to further boost Villa’s already-strong youth contingent.
That contingent, of course, still includes a player in Clark who experienced that campaign three years back, as well as fellow centre-half Jores Okore, new signing Jordan Amavi and everyone’s favorite attacking midfielders — Jack Grealish and Carles Gil.
This is where the money in the club is invested — and where the overarching summer philosophy stems from.
So why don’t we use these guys?
Jordan Ayew has hardly been given a chance at a preferred position — he was played too wide Saturday against Chelsea — while Jordan Veretout was left out of the squad entirely on the trip to Stamford Bridge. Okore and Clark have been injured, but it’s not hard to see a scenario in which Joleon Lescott stays on the pitch ahead of them, despite turning in repeated poor performances. And even then, it’s really hard to see how Ilori, the Liverpool loanee, is going to get much playing time.
Through everything, I’ve got a proposal:
Villa should play the youth, and live and die by them.
That’s not to say the entire squad should be 22 years old, but that the majority of our players should be high-potential guys — one that can take the team forward. By playing Alan Hutton, Micah Richards, Lescott and Kieran Richardson together as a back four (one already very prone to errors), you’re getting effectively no long-term development out of your defensive unit; Hutton, Lescott and Richardson are, at this point, what they are as players, and you’re never going to get better than lower-half production (or a low-quality transfer fee) out of any of them. It is what it is.
Let’s say everyone’s healthy. Why not try to move Richards back to his natural position, right back, and play him with Clark, Okore and Amavi across the back line? Now you’ve got two natural leaders in the ranks, Clark and Richards, but also a line full of guys who will get better as time goes on. Getting them that experience is huge for that.
The defense is an easy microcosm of a natural idea: Villa are a club that need to improve from where they are right now, and playing young, high-potential players offers an escape route.
Villa have now shifted into a world where they’re locked in a survival battle, not even 10 matches into the season. Given the upcoming fixtures, a result looks unlikely, and it could leave Villa anywhere from six to 10 points astray by the middle of December, depending on other results. It’s terrifying.
But playing "safe" guys like Gabby Agbonlahor or Lescott does a disservice to the club in the long-run. Sure, maybe they’re better suited for the current survival run, but they’re not better suited for the long run. You waste a year of Adama’s development by playing Gabby ahead of him, and you’re not getting a particularly high level of production from him anyway.
Look. Playing a veteran-laden team keeps Villa in the cycle of relegation battle after relegation battle, and eventually, the bottom’s going to fall out whether we like it or not — and that may be this year.
So why not try to escape it? Play the youth you so boldly bought this summer, and if Tim Sherwood won’t play it, bring someone in who will.
Why not try this?:
Guzan; Amavi, Clark, Okore, Richards; Gana, Veretout; Grealish, Gil, Adama; Ayew
It’s an XI that aligns Villa’s spending with its play on the pitch — it includes north of £40 million in value spent this summer alone — but one where it’s reasonable to see improvement at every single position. Richards and Idrissa Gana provide the veteran leadership, where you need it, and everyone else provides some of that youthful flair.
The current setup isn’t getting it done.
Playing another squad where the average age is in the early 20s could go particularly terribly. It’s obviously a concern, especially when dealing with the TV money.
But do any of us really want Villa in a constant relegation battle? The club deserve to be somewhere else, higher in the table, playing at a higher calibre than it is now.
If you’d give me a 50/50 chance between Villa spending next year in the Championship and Villa spending it in the top eight in the Premier League, I’d take that gamble.
As it sits now, however, Villa are spiraling toward where they’ve consistently been since 2010 — fighting at the bottom, trying just to survive every year.
So let’s properly give our youth — and our club — a chance. Maybe they turn it around, maybe they don’t.
But damnit, at least you’d have tried.