Today is 6 July. Aston Villa’s last season ended with play-off final defeat 41 days ago at Wembley. Their next season will begin in 31 days, exactly one month from today on 6 August.
The extent of Villa’s transfer activity this summer is small — fullback Alan Hutton, who was out of contract, received a new deal to much fan fare and Twitter debate, while goalkeeper Mark Bunn is apparently back at the club, as he showed up to training the other day. For most clubs, a complete lack of activity would be concerning, especially so given the volume of loans the Claret and Blues depended on to achieve last season’s success: Lewis Grabban, Robert Snodgrass and Sam Johnstone all started; Josh Onomah came off the bench; John Terry was in the XI and might as well have been a one-year loanee.
Of course, as we’ve learned in the last 41 days, Aston Villa are not “most clubs.” We knew some of this going into the play-off final — complying with EFL Financial Fair Play restrictions was an immediate concern — but we didn’t know about the actual financial issues at the club. Villa run a large deficit every month and, per reports, the money flowing from Dr. Tony Xia that covered those deficits has largely dried up. Yet the owner seems reluctant to sell up, trying to avoid cutting his losses in a bid to turn the investment around. Reports of bids that have met Xia’s (overly high) valuation of the club, but have been turned down away, are disheartening given the current unknown status of the club.
Villa are not going to make expensive signings, and they may make no signings at all, but the club simply must sell players this summer in order to raise transfer funds and/or clear wages off the bill to meet FFP restrictions. They also should use the window to trim the wage bill best they can, in a bid to improve the financial well-being of the club, something ultimately more important than FFP (however dependent on ownership, be it Xia or someone else, feeling the same way).
This is why the radio silence coming out of the Villa camp has been particularly worrying and disheartening — aside from recent links about Jack Grealish and Spurs, we’ve heard very little about proposed moves for any of Villa’s high-value or high-earning players.
Many supporters’ vision for the summer (mine included) contained a desire to see the club sell some older senior players, using the FFP and financial cliff to re-organize the club and build for the future. If Villa are to get serious about getting their finances in shape, they must sell key players this summer, simply to get them off the wage bill. While a Grealish move will likely fulfill (or come close enough to fulfilling) FFP regulations, it would move the overall needle very little in truly improving the financial stability of the club — the cash injection will be nice and should help pay the bills for the next few months, eventually the problem will resurface once the full fee, likely in the £20 million range once Daniel Levy mostly gets his way, has been spent.
There was hope that at least one of Jonathan Kodjia or Scott Hogan could be sold for a decent fee, but little has been heard of interest on either front. There were some links last month concerning Albert Adomah, Birkir Bjarnason and James Chester, all very sellable assets, but nowhere near as much as would be expected. These are probably Villa’s five most-valuable non-Grealish players, and it will be hard for the club to meet financial targets if nobody remains interested.
Similarly, we’re yet to hear any official word on a pair of guys that have been reported to be off this summer, with Ritchie De Laet and Carles Gil’s reported moves still yet to be announced by the club.
This silence is the primary reason why a Grealish sale needs to happen, and it needs to happen before the Premier League’s transfer window closes in early August — for as little interest as there’s seemingly been in Villa’s top players, the club need to ensure they can comply with FFP before the January window opens. While it’s possible to keep Jack for half the season, then sell him, you’re taking a gamble on him staying healthy. An injury that derails a move could be devastating to the club in the long-term, with points deductions and transfer embargoes possible as a result of not meeting FFP requirements.
The primary issue that Villa seem have is not the calibre of the players “available” for sale, but their wages. James Nursey (yes, I know) reported that Henri Lansbury is on £40,000 per week, while Alan Nixon suggested on his private Twitter account that Sheffield United has interest in Hogan, but alluded to the striker’s high wages being a stumbling block in any move. Under Xia’s ownership, Villa have handed out Premier League wages to Championship talent. It’s a great way to assemble a really good Championship team, until you realize you’re a Championship team and can’t really pay for it all. The problem is that nobody else wants to pay these guys either, and unless Steve Bruce works Lansbury, Hogan and others into his plans, we’re just going to have a new generation of players like Gabby Agbonlahor and Micah Richards, providing little to the team while taking up a huge spot on the wage bill.
Yet even if you forget about the financials, Villa’s squad is hilariously unbalanced. Just look at the central midfield lineup, where there are 11 players that could fill any of the three roles in Bruce’s 4-3-3: Birkir Bjarnason, Jake Doyle-Hayes, Gary Gardner, Jack Grealish, Conor Hourihane, Mile Jedinak, Henri Lansbury, Jordan Lyden, Callum O’Hare, Aaron Tshibola and Glenn Whelan. Grealish is set to leave, and Bjarnason, Jedinak and likely O’Hare could both play other positions, this is still too big of a cohort for three slots in the XI. If Gardner and Tshibola are in the club’s plans for this season, they should try to move players like Hourihane, Lansbury and Whelan. If not, they should find takers for Gardner and Tshibola and move on, freeing up some wage.
The central midfield logjam perhaps stands out most, however, because of the general lack of depth at other positions. The striker position seems fine, with Keinan Davis and Rushian Hepburn-Murphy set to work into the first team this season alongside Scott Hogan and Jonathan Kodjia, but Villa seem a little light on the wings, at least with true wingers: André Green and Albert Adomah can start, but your next-best options are all players who’d be outside their natural position (Bjarnason, Ahmed Elmohamady, Kodjia and O’Hare). Similarly in defence, the full-back position seems well-stocked, with James Bree, Elmohamady, Alan Hutton and Neil Taylor set to contest two starting positions. Yet centre back is precariously short — James Chester and Tommy Elphick are the first-choice pairing, but your next-best options at the position are Mile Jedinak and Micah Richards, which I’d rather avoid, particularly if Chester is sold. Do we think Jacob Bedeau and Easah Suliman are good enough for the Championship right now?
In an ideal world, Villa would be moving some veterans to take a chance this summer on some young players with good promise — sell a guy like Chester for £10 million, then buy a pair of £4 million-rated youngsters to fill the gaps. Play them, build their value, sell for a profit, then repeat with a new class of youngsters. This is what smart football clubs do.
Villa are not that, unfortunately, and are not really in a position to afford spending too much on transfer fees. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t holes in the club that shouldn’t be plugged, at least in the loan market, where Villa should be able to take on some young talent. Yet that front has been quiet too — there were rumours that Axel Tuanzebe would be back at Villa for the upcoming season, but there hasn’t been a report on the versatile Manchester United youngster in a handful of weeks, either.
Given Villa’s financial situation, there will unavoidably be questions about the club’s future, specifically as it pertains to ownership. It’s fully possible that a deal is being worked out behind the scenes, and that those question marks are necessary to completing a sale. (I don’t think this is really true, mind you, but it’s at least a viable explanation.)
However, one month out from the first match of the season, there shouldn’t be this high degree of confusion around Villa’s squad that exists. Who will be the key player for Villa next season? We assume it’s not Grealish, but will Adomah be our engine? How about Hourihane? Will we return to the days of an attack dependent on Kodjia? If the club have an answer to this question, it’s certainly not evident to the public — sacking your Director of Football in July certainly doesn’t suggest a cohesive strategy exists.
Villa’s crisis this summer is entirely self-made, there’s no doubting that. Yet every day that goes by with further inaction, the problem gets compounded more and more.