All things considered, it seems it will be a quiet summer transfer window at Bodymoor Heath. The most common reports seem to indicate Aston Villa boss Steve Bruce is looking to just make four signings, and Financial Fair Play restrictions might keep him from even making that many if enough departures aren’t agreed.
And you know what? That’s quite fine.
No, really. Villa were far from the Championship’s best side in 2017, I’ll grant you that. While the club had an encouraging run of seven wins from eight, it suffered from poor bookends — the start to the year was utterly abysmal, and the close to the season was, in all honesty, far from inspirational.
But why weren’t Villa good for long stretches? In past years, it could be easy to blame the lack of quality in the squad; this certainly worked as an answer during the Alex McLeish or Paul Lambert tenures, where a few key players were surrounded by a decent amount of Championship-level talent. But can you really look at Villa’s squad list and argue that today?
Aside from the goalkeeper position, which should get settled soon enough, a quick look up and down the Villa squad will show the most talent available for selection in years.
Let’s start up top at the striker position, one where Villa spent big last summer and winter. One cannot look at this group of strikers and dismiss it as not good enough to win promotion; Ross McCormack, Jonathan Kodjia and Scott Hogan each entered Villa regarded as three of the top forwards in the division. Nobody would’ve batted an eye if each joined a Premier League side ahead of Villa.
Yet only Kodjia has worked out — and, I’d contest, one could make a good case that Bruce still hasn’t figured out how to best harness Kodjia’s skills to make the team around him better. One player shouldn’t fire 19 goals for a club that only scores 47. Especially when that club had another top-end striker available at any point during the season.
A view at the midfield poses a similar story. Let’s go back to January, when Villa were one of a number of clubs after the signatures of Conor Hourihane and Henri Lansbury. Ask any supporter of a Championship club, and they’d tell you these two were a couple of the top central midfielders in the league.
Lansbury joined Villa with six goals and three assists to his name at Nottingham Forest. He added none in a claret and blue shirt. Hourihane’s story is similar — he had six goals and 11 assists for Barnsley, but just a lone goal and three assists in 17 appearances for Villa to close the season.
And for everything you might say about the Villa defence, it really did enough this past season to be rewarded with a top-third finish. Only four sides surrendered fewer goals than Villa, and each of them finished up in the table; Newcastle United and Brighton & Hove Albion won automatic promotion, while Sheffield Wednesday (fourth) and Leeds United (seventh) each fought for that position. Neil Taylor was defensively solid at left back, and a competition for the starting spot at right back between Ritchie De Laet and Alan Hutton should actually be interesting — and puts Villa in a solid spot at the position.
We haven’t yet touched on Birkir Bjarnason, an ever-present for Iceland at Euro 2016, or Albert Adomah; haven’t chatted about Jack Grealish, who still has loads of potential, or Mile Jedinak, who’s the midfield rock Villa have needed for years; haven’t mentioned how Nathan Baker and James Chester turned into the most solid centre back pairing in what feels like ages at Villa.
This is a promotion-calibre side. As James opined in our 7500 writers’ Slack chat, this Villa team is good enough to finish 14th in the Premier League, not 13th in the Championship.
Steve Bruce’s first few months at Aston Villa simply weren’t good enough, and that comes down to a basic inability to get the best out of his players. You buy players like Hourihane and Lansbury to engage them in the attack, not to drop their involvement in the final third. You have players like Hogan and McCormack to get you goals, and Bruce needs to figure out how to get that out of each of them. You have talents like Grealish or Andre Green to develop into future stars.
Villa do need some depth, absolutely, and that’s what this summer’s signings should be focused on.
But assuming a major transfer shock, if Aston Villa do not at least make the play-off next season, it will be because of one reason: Steve Bruce couldn’t get enough out of a side that should be punching up at the top of the division.