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Cross-sport analogy: how baseball can inform Aston Villa’s manager search

As Aston Villa search for a new boss, what can be learned from Major League Baseball coaches?

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As with any new managerial hire, speculation is rife around Villa Park. Bookies, fans, experts, and pundits have offered their takes. While picking a manager might be a fun thought experiment, it does have real concerns and consequences for the next cycle at Villa Park. Key questions emerge around this current squad, ambitions, and financial reality.

As a reminder, Steve Bruce took over for Robert Di Matteo who was a high profile signing to lead Aston Villa back to the Premier League. Sadly that did not work out, and Di Mateo picked up only ten points through his first 12 games on the touchline. To compare, through 11 games this year, Bruce has 15 points.

So then, while others have jumped in with their picks, this column wants to take a different direction. Primarily, what can Villa fans learn from Major League Baseball? While baseball is not football and the differences are too many to list, there are some interesting connections to the different managers under review. While there will not be a direct comparison, the styles of managerial hires on display in MLB offers fans a unique lens into what type of gaffer would be a good fit in the dugout at Villa Park.

The significant difference between baseball and football is that managers do not often get fired mid-season, or at least not to the same degree as in Europe. Typically a manager is hired in the offseason based on the goals from the front office and has little to no say in trades and such. And yet, there are always exceptions, the types of managers offer an excellent place to begin to think about Aston Villa and what the future might hold.

What is the challenge?

Before diving into the possible styles of managers that Aston Villa can and should contact, it is critical to understand what this new boss would be walking into.

First, and while this might be tough for Villa fans to hear, there is a good chance that Jack Grealish leaves the club this summer. Especially if the team does not get promoted. This is a double-edged sword for a new manager, in that, on the one hand, they would be losing one of their top players, but on the other, would be able to graft the team as they see fit.

Second, and this is more speculative, it seems that the club might still have some limits due to financial fair play. While the new owners might have reset that clock, it still would be good to imagine that there is both a cap on spending and perhaps some league-imposed limits. This means a gaffer who can act on a budget would be critical, or one without a past of free spending.

Third, with the high percentage of loan moves on the current roster the new manager will need to rebuild the team soon. For example, Tommy Abraham might be the team’s best striker, and he will undoubtedly be leaving at the end of the year. Add to that Axel Tuanzebe, Yannick Bolasie, and others, most of the key players on this team will not be in claret and blue to start next year.

Fourth, Bruce seemed to be popular in the clubhouse, and perhaps was one of the main reasons why Grealish stuck around this summer. While it is not uncommon for players to offer kind words as a manager leaves, this seems to be a bit different. Bruce connected well with his players, added many who he had worked with in the past, and trusted and protected his players from the media.

So then, in summary, the new manager needs to be able to: 1) replace Villa’s best player, 2) work on a semi-limited budget, 3) fix the loan turnover, and 4) replace a popular gaffer in the dressing room.

‘The Aaron Boone

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Aaron Boone comes from a baseball family, played in the Majors on his own, and offers a new look to the Yankees clubhouse. And yet, unlike others, he had little to no managerial experience before taking the gig. What he did have was time in the broadcasting booth on Sunday Night Baseball for ESPN. This kept Boone connected to the game, interviewing players, talking through plays, and other pieces that seem to have given him a nice framing as a manager. In his first year, Boone appears to have done an excellent job, with the Yankees winning the Wild Card last night, but also inherited a team full of stars and money.

The closest pick to this seems to be Thierry Henry, who, while a top player, has yet to manage. Some time with Belgium is not the same but offers a bit of connection to the touchline. At the same time, since his retirement, Henry has been working for Sky Sports. Does this seem familiar?

If this type of manager joined the club, it would make sense that they could continue to be popular with the players, knowing what it feels like and is like to be a player at a top club. This could be inspiring if done right, as many of Villa’s players got into football while Henry was dominating the globe. And yet, this move would also push the club to rebuild with its sporting team as opposed to manager’s lead. Henry has no experience in the transfer market and therefore would not be ideal to build this team.

Of the concerns listed above, this type of move would answer the fourth concern, but would also rely on the Director of Football taking a bigger role than so far under Bruce. This leaves some questions, but also there is a track record of this working in other sports.

‘The Tito Francona’

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Tito Francona could be a Hall of Famer if he ends up bringing home a World Series with my beloved Cleveland Indians, so full bias alert here. And yet, he also offers an exciting mix concerning success and failure that might make this style appealing. After taking the Boston Red Sox to the World Series, Francona lost the locker room later in his tenure for a variety of factors. Ownership lost interest in his player-first ways and ultimately cut him loose. After moving to Cleveland, Francona brought a manager with a winning background, a ton of baseball experience, and a local connection. Since his appointment, Cleveland has rebounded and emerged as one of the top teams over the past few seasons.

So then, the Francona is a manager with a track record but might be leaving a club with a bit of a cloud over his head. The fun connection to make here is Jose Mourinho who would add a level of excitement that no other manager could offer. Would he take the step down? Perhaps not, but why not imagine. The more realistic option would seem to be David Moyes, who after some rocky appointments has lost some of his gleam, but not to the point that the Villa would not be excited to add him.

This seems to be the buy-low option for Villa, or a chance to add a bit more value than it might appear on the surface. In some ways, this would be the second coming of Steve Bruce, or a manager with a reputation, who might be punching below his weight. To add this type of manager would also give the fan base an idea on how others think about the club. Is Villa a project that can be rebirthed into a European club as the fans want, or, in the new era of big money owners is Villa relegated to the second status of the Everton style clubs? The new owners have the capital to fund this rebirth, but the right skipper is needed.

In terms of the situation, this move seems to be the best to rebuild the club, replace Grealish, and all the rest. While this type of manager would need to gain the player’s support, a background in building clubs, with a track record of success should offer that alternative.

‘The David Ross’

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David Ross is taking the Aaron Boone route from recent player to the broadcast booth but offers an exciting connection to the team he has been linked with this week. As a former Chicago Cub, Ross was tied when rumors of Joe Maddon leaving first broke this week. A player who had just left the clubhouse after 2016, most of the those he played with would still be in the clubhouse, and offer a more direct connection to the players. So then, this would be another player without much experience, but a player connection that might hurt or help. The other piece is that as a former catcher, Ross “knew” more about strategy or was more involved than others might be. This might make the job easier, or perhaps harder based on the situation.

The clear connection to Villa here would be John Terry. While not officially retired, he has been linked by the bookies, without any experience. Playing on this team last year he knows the squad, perhaps is still in conversation with many of the players, and can offer that mentoring in real time. The only difference between him and Henry, other than the minimal experience that the later has, would be this connection.

The concerns would be the same regarding the transfer market, but with Terry being popular with the players this could be a play to jump-start the 2018-2019 campaign. While Henry might be the better fit long term, if the goal is promotion this year, Terry might be that kick without needing to play with tactics much. At the same time, Frank Lampard has not exactly been a smashing success, and there is a ton of risk with this move as well.

In terms of the club situation, this move would only provide a potentially popular coach, and in no way should be trusted with transfers and such. Over time perhaps, but a former player can only have so much control.

‘The Buck Showalter’

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Showalter was just let go by the Baltimore Orioles and will be deciding between retirement or taking a new gig elsewhere. What makes this type of manager different from the others on the list, is experience as that main selling point. No one else can offer 20 years of experience, and this sets the vet apart. Over his time with multiple teams, Showalter has had successes and failures in mostly even amounts. This type of hire would be an old-school appeal to experience, trading respect for excitement.

The best connection might be Sam Allardyce, who has his varied background but has experience that no others on the list can match. Allardyce would be exciting, perhaps for the wrong reasons, but no one would claim that would be out of his depth with this appointment. This type of hire would offer a steady hand to the club, and the goal would seemingly be to avoid relegation again. While this team seems to be “too good” to drop, there is always a risk with a transition.

In terms of club context, this move would mean that Grealish is gone, and the club is entering a three to five-year plan. The new gaffer would need to bring in their own players, would take most of the control from the front office, and build according to past success. The good news would be an idea on how youth players would be used, and a chance for those players to shine.

‘The Joe Maddon’

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This is the speculative pick, as Maddon is still in his current job, but has been linked elsewhere. Maddon would bring experience like Showalter, but leaving a job on top would be a different type of hire. Maddon would be leaving a cushy gig to attempt to rebuild, in this case the rumored Angels, and would offer a new kind of challenge. Maddon does have a background with the Angels, and this move makes sense concerning family and background connections, so not out of the blue.

The best connection here would be Brendan Rodgers, who would have to walk away from European football and a top club to take the job. And yet, Rodgers has been in the Championship, took a team to the Premier League, and offers that type of background. Like Maddon, Rodgers might think that he has taken his current club as far as they can go, and perhaps Villa provides a higher ceiling. While again this is coming from a biased Villa fan, if there was a bet to be made, Villa does seem to offer a better chance to win a European Trophy if the club can get back to that level. Rodgers would have to be pried away, but also seems to be a good risk to take.

Of all the options this is the best to meet the needs of the club, but also is perhaps the most unlikely based on other factors. This is the move that could see the club keep top players, play within a budget, and offer an exciting coach right away.

What does this mean?

Looking at the type of managers on this list there are different fits, and different backgrounds to meet the growing needs at Villa Park. Different managers offer different philosophies, but all of this depends on the goals, both short and long, for the club ownership.

If the team appoints a young coach, without much experience, the goal seems to b a push for this year, and perhaps then a longer-term appointment. It would seem a bit odd to trust Henry or Terry with the rebuild, especially when there are coaches who would jump at the chance to take the Villa back to the promised land.

The one thing to keep in mind is that the top candidates might not be there until the offseason, and therefore a shorter term appointment makes sense if the club thinks that the Championship will be where the team is playing next year.

Aston Villa Football Club seems to be a top job opportunity for the ambitious manager, and therefore should be an appealing move for almost all managers. And hey, at the least, in my Football Manager 2018 save file we are fighting for the Champions League, so if the club is reading this, I would be happy to sit down for an interview.