Two summers ago, Dr. Tony Xia purchased a recently relegated Aston Villa side. Between the toxic dressing room that brought the team down in that awful 2015–16 campaign and the fact that the few valuable players were bound to move on with top-flight interest, Dr. Tony had to make a huge first decision as soon as he assumed his new role. If he wanted stability, he could’ve opted for a slower, longer rebuild, with a complete dismantling of the team, bringing in younger players to grow at Villa and set the club up for an extended period of Championship contention. The Claret and Blues might not have contended at the first couple times of asking, but they’d be well set for a few years.
Instead, he opted to pursue an immediate return to the Premier League, no matter the cost. Villa spent, spent and spent some more on an unbalanced team in Dr. Tony’s first summer, putting themselves in a position where they effectively had two seasons in which to win promotion before running head-first into serious Financial Fair Play issues. If Villa would’ve won promotion last year or this one, it would’ve all paid off — the influx of cash from the Premier League television contracts would’ve quelled all FFP concerns, and the club would’ve been able to move forward in the top flight.
Unfortunately, Villa haven’t gone up, and now, they face the awful situation of needing to balance the books while seeing £19 million in Premier League TV money go out the door between this season and next.
The sad thing is, it should’ve worked. While the tactic itself should now be criticized for its short-sightedness, given the amount of money the club spent, they should’ve had no issue getting out of the division. The real problem was that Villa spent it extremely unwisely.
Ross McCormack has been banished to Steve Bruce’s version of the Bomb Squad, just two years after Roberto Di Matteo signed the striker for north of £12 million. Di Matteo also signed Aaron Tshibola for around £5 million, and like McCormack, the defensive midfielder was already out on loan mere months into his Villa career. Bruce himself signed Scott Hogan for a fee pushing £10 million, but aside from a brief run of form this season, the former Brentford man has largely been a disappointment. There was Pierluigi Gollini, who was shipped back to Italy after six months at the club, and Henri Lansbury and James Bree, two Bruce signees the current gaffer’s gotten very little out of.
During the match, the commentator on the international broadcast noted that Villa’s starting XI only cost the club £24 million, and while that’s influenced by the fact that Villa paid no transfer fee to acquire nearly half the XI (Lewis Grabban, Robert Snodgrass and Sam Johnstone were all loan signings; John Terry was a free arrival; Jack Grealish was promoted from the academy), the fact remains that you could easily build a more expensive team of disappointing signings from Dr. Tony’s two years.
When you spend the kind of money Villa spent on McCormack and Hogan; Tshibola and Lansbury; Gollini and Bree and then only play one in the play-off final for about 15 unimpressive minutes. Villa didn’t only make poor purchases, they made purchases without a clear tactical aim for the club. When Di Matteo spent, he forgot to buy a midfield. When Bruce spent, he wasted what little money he had on vanity players that were never given a real opportunity to be key players.
But it all circles back to the owner, who approved the gamble with the clear opinion that it wouldn’t be too difficult to simply spend your way out of the Championship. Villa are only in this league because of mismanagement from the previous regime, but Dr. Tony now has his hallmark one. He took the chance that it would work, that there’d be no repercussions for the dangerous risk he took with this football club. Yet the team failed, and here we are.
Most likely, Aston Villa will spend this summer starting a rebuild and an overhaul, tightly controlled by FFP constraints in preparing the team for another chance at promotion. It’s a process that should’ve started in 2016, not today.