I wrote about hope around this time last year, that there was method to Steve Bruce’s madness, that I could see a system emerging and the importance of Jack Grealish to it. Well it’s been twelve months and not to get all biblical about it but Job 38:11 sums up last season “thus far and yet no further”.
It has been an interesting summer for Aston Villa fans, I’m sure you will all agree. The Play-Off final was maybe the most personally depressing day in football of my lifetime. It did however; rip the paper off the cracks in Dr Tony Xia’s regime. Whether the following financial collapse was caused by the legislation change in China or the result of some of the more nefarious rumours about Xia’s finances we will probably never know, but it laid open for all to see how much of a gamble Xia and the rest of the hierarchy had taken with the club’s future. This of course led to the majority buy-out and probable eventual full takeover by Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens. I try to ever be the optimist so perhaps, just perhaps May 26th might have been the best possible thing to happen to Villa in the long run.
Hear me out: Xia, it seems was relying on the Premier League money to cover the day-to-day running costs of the club and if promotion had been secured it is likely that investment in the team would have drawn from this sum without Xia adding to it himself. The much needed investment in Villa Park and other infrastructure plans would likely have been put on hold as well. This gamble has now resulted in control of the club falling to the NSWE group for whom no such cash flow restriction would apply. If and when Villa achieve promotion I would expect the type of investment seen to be both more shrewd and more dramatic than if Xia were in control under this new regime.
That being said, Financial Fair Play is still going to be a huge factor in what Steve Bruce – now confirmed to have the *ahem* ‘full backing’ of the new owners – can do. Does a ‘Vote of Confidence’ still carry the same ominous undertone if it happens before the season begins? We shall see. Anyway, FFP our favourite three letters; does mean that we are unlikely to see much spending this season unless the remainder of the spine of the 2017/18 team is sold to balance the books…. But if the new investment means that Grealish and James Chester remain at the club for one more season the clouds may not be as dark as we thought six weeks or even a week ago. An argument can be made that Villa need to hit the market hard in the remaining few days of the window in order to simply replace the bodies lost to the end of contracts or loans. Seven players, who regularly made the match day 18, have left the club. This is a huge turnover for a close season in which stability has been a buzz word. However, Villa have a number of players returning to the fold to redress the balance.
These returning players are for want of a better phrase; ‘like new signings’. We should not forget that it was Andre Green, not Jack Grealish, who many were tipping to be the stand out star of 2017/18. That Jonathan Kodjia has never actually had a pre season with Villa and that Ritchie De Laet and Tommy Elphick are more than competent at this level and yet haven’t really had a chance to play for various reasons. As you can see, the holes become less apparent when these players are added back to the squad. Gary Gardner offers capable cover for CM and DM positions, but I would expect him to leave, as Central Midfield is not an area where Villa are short on numbers.
The new owners have expressed a desire to develop players from within. Youth development is the golden goose of modern football; we need only look at the business models of teams like Southampton, Arsenal, Liverpool or Chelsea to highlight how developing players from within, even if they do not make the first team of the parent club can be used to finance building the squad. Just last season Chelsea made £42.8m from selling players under the age of 22. This is of course helped by Chelsea’s ability to loan into the Championship or the effective second tier of the Premier League without strengthening their direct rivals. Nonetheless, Villa have invested heavily in the academy for a number of years and the U23 team has enjoyed success. The short-termism of Xia’s and indeed Lerner’s regimes has however seen the pressure for immediate success curtail the opportunities offered to Villa’s youth players. The need for Villa to cut their cloth more frugally coupled with the owners’ express desire to develop youth might lead to some of the U23/18 making the step up this season.
There are a number of players who are on the fringes of the first team who should be given an opportunity. I am not talking wholesale inclusion, but 20 minutes here and there coupled with the odd start will do a lot more for them than playing 40 games in the Development Leagues: The current favourites to make the step up being Jake Doyle-Hayes (CM, 19), Rushian Hepburn-Murphy (ST, 19), Callum O’Hare (AM, 20) and Mitchell Clark (RB, 19). Hindsight is 20-20 but it is hard to argue with the assertion that giving O’Hare at least some of the minutes played by Onomah last season would have been of greater value to the club than the loan from Spurs. Doyle-Hayes is a player who could prove to be invaluable this season, old beyond his years, he looked comfortable and composed in the West Ham game and is highly regarded within the club. Clark is a versatile defender who is most at home at RB. However, due to the abundance of players Villa currently have in this position (Bree, Hutton, Elmo, RDL) Clark and the club might be best served by him going out on loan, at least until Christmas. Hepburn-Murphy made his debut under Tim Sherwood in 2015 and yet due to injury and circumstance has not featured for the team in a long while. A lot has been made of his potential and his form for the u23’s at the back end of last season only highlights this. Sadly both his and O’Hare’s pre seasons have been curtailed by injury yet we can hopefully expect to see a lot more of the exciting forward duo this season.
Another player who deserves a mention is Jordan Lyden, having enjoyed a stand out campaign for the U23s last season. He is however, 22 and needs to think about his career. If he is not going to feature heavily for Villa this season, he needs to consider moving on either on loan or permanently. Other players such as; Easah Suliman, Keinan Davis, Jacob Bedeau, Jacob Ramsey, Harvey Knibbs and Corey Blackett-Taylor can all expect to make the bench at some point this year and perhaps find the field and the more minutes that can be offered the better for the long term health of the club.
Villa are going to be lighter in central defence than last season. Which is why the experiment with 352 seems strange to me. There may be method to the madness as Bruce has only just been confirmed as the manager and may have transfers ready to go. One which would make sense would be Axel Tuanzebe, returning on loan from United. Played at FB when he featured last season, Tuanzebe would provide a mobile ball carrying CB who if played on the left would have a more defensive minded WB to cover in the form of Taylor – Think the relationship between Harry Maguire and Ashley Young during the World Cup. Speaking of Taylor, questions remain over his form, confidence and indeed quality. Alan Hutton, the versatile Mitchell Clark and Bjarnason can do a job in this position, but it is a shame that Villa don’t seem to be interested in or cannot afford to bid for Barry Douglas. Jed Steer has big gloves to fill this season and it may come to pass that Villa’s financial meltdown, which allowed Sam Johnstone to slip through our fingers and into the hands of a rival will be the most damaging of all the player losses this summer.
There are reasons to be concerned as a Villa fan at the minute, but there are also bright sparks of hope. If the club commits to developing the young players and by hook or by crook can hang onto Grealish, Chester and Kodjia then we may have more to look forward to this season than we thought. Sparks are fragile things and young players will make mistakes, mistakes which may cost the team points. Nevertheless, it is incumbent on us as fans to support them. Last year Villa Park was a positive place, lets keep it that way. The poisonous atmospheres of old will do nothing for the young shoulders on which we hope to rebuild the club. I just hope that if the youth players are going to be part of the first team then Bruce embraces the way they have grown up playing rather than attempts to stifle their attacking instincts or forces square pegs into round holes. Andre Green playing at LWB is not the best use of his talents. Unless there are transfers incoming Bruce should revert to the 4141 or perhaps a 4231 as it suits the squad he has.