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Forget the banter: Villa’s summer recruitment a smart gamble

Right now, Aston Villa need players who can win them promotion, and that’s why low-cost veteran signings like John Terry and Glenn Whelan make sense. But if promotion doesn’t happen soon, Villa could end up stuck in Championship purgatory.

Aston Villa Press Conference
Steve Bruce and John Terry chat in the Villa Park tunnel at the defender’s introductory press conference. Terry’s one of a few summer signings with a short-term view, a gamble worth taking for the Claret and Blues.
Photo by Barrington Coombs/Getty Images

As the Twitter banter kings (and Paddy Power) have noted, Aston Villa haven’t exactly gotten younger this transfer window; big signings Christopher Samba and Glenn Whelan are 33, while John Terry is 36. Even Ahmed Elmohamady, Villa’s other permanent signing, is 29, an age at which you don’t necessarily expect him to improve moving forward. That’s typically not what you want.

So, why are Villa going old this offseason?

The answer is actually pretty easy, and one only needs to look at Villa’s total outlay this summer to recognize why. Samba, Terry and loan signing Sam Johnstone were all free. Neither Whelan nor Elmohamady carried a fee that topped £2 million.

Aston Villa have signed five players this summer who will be significant contributors for little more than the wages they’ll be earning. In the short term, that’s fantastic business. And that’s exactly where Villa are living right now. It’s clear the board generally think Villa have a squad capable of promotion, and any Championship supporter should agree.

I’ll quickly introduce a baseball concept: that of the “Quadruple-A” player. In baseball, the highest level of minor league play is Triple-A, one step below the majors — and from time to time, you’ll have guys who come along that are really good at Triple-A, but not good enough in the majors.

This calibre of player is perfect for Villa, and it seems to be the calibre they’ve gone after with Elmohamady and Samba, especially. While Terry and Whelan could still cut it in the top flight, they’re bought to help fill that “Quad-A” role — guys you can rely on in the Championship, but players you won’t count on being key contributors on a mid-table Premier League side. It’s also why, well, age doesn’t matter if you’re successful.

Why spend £6 million on a 26-year-old “Quad-A” level player when you can sign a 33-year-old one for free? Neither will help you win at the next level, and the older player will help you win just as much at this one. You’re buying new players at the Premier League level anyway, so there’s little difference in replacing a player in his late-20s or a player in his 30s.

If Villa go up, their recruitment strategy will be seen as an incredibly inventive one, taking enough money for one or two players and suddenly turning it into five.

Of course, the problems could come down the road for Villa, which is why promotion this year or next will be so important. Not only are Samba, Terry (if he’d stay) and Whelan not likely to give you much from 2019/20 onward, but most Villa players are either entering or into their prime as we start this season; it’s unlikely to expect much progression from many players. It’s difficult to think of Nathan Baker as a player whose potential isn’t much higher than his current skill, but the defender’s already 26, as are Conor Hourihane and Henri Lansbury. Even Scott Hogan is 25. When these players progress moving forward, it’s more likely because of a change in tactics than a change in skill.

Of the current first-team players, in fact, it’s hard to argue that anyone outside of Jordan Amavi, James Bree, Jack Grealish and André Green are going to significantly improve over the next few years, and Villa would be lucky if two of those truly pan out (especially considering Amavi will likely be sold).

And that’s why this is a bit of a gamble — because if Villa find they aren’t good enough to get up now, a general lack of truly young talent could handcuff them into being the next Derby County, perennially good enough to compete for promotion, but never good enough to win it.

But at the end of the day, I don’t think Villa are the next Derby County, because if Steve Bruce gets the tactics right, he does have one of the most talented teams in this division, if not the best. Villa are gambling here, yes. They’re doing so, however, by betting on themselves.

That’s a chance worth taking.