With the end perhaps looking near for the controlling stake of Dr Tony Xia and Villa’s owner taking “lots of time to rethink about what we did, right or wrong things [sic]”, this got me thinking: what are those right things? What are those wrong things? We’ll may never know Tony’s view but I’ve given it a try and I’ll take a look at where that leaves Aston Villa in their current state.
Villa’s first choice of manager under the Xia regime, thanks to the glorious benefit of hindsight, could only be looked at as a bad decision, Roberto Di Matteo may have seemed the sexy Champions League winner Aston Villa will have wanted but not the culture and squad rebuilding manager Villa needed (he was not the Batman). The Steve Bruce appointment is almost the opposite, unsexy and pragmatic he has moved the culture on and made steps to make Villa the winning team that they needed to be, but fell one win short. His shortcomings are frustrating but his approach has shown more promise than the many managers before him. Following an initial hiccup Villa seem to have a settled on solid, if unspectacular option, to move the club forward with fresh/exciting foreign managers and seasoned pros (and unbelievably Neil Warnock!) who have surpassed Bruce in achieving promotion during his time.
Sustainable Football Management
Given the current predicament you could be forgiven to giving this one a straight fail and you have to question given Dr Tony’s public criticism of the Lerner era on this topic, when were Villa going to operate in a sustainable manner? After promotion? Tony most definitely bet on big or bust and this one looking to lean more to the latter.
I’ll dig a bit deeper into the financial situation and squad management issues below however I do want point out the one positive and only thing I find some comfort in the Xia era. That there seems to be slightly more emphasis on youth development and youth recruitment. The move to bring in Steve Round to develop the ‘Villa Engine’ was sensationalised and to be fair we probably won’t see the impact of these any those specific changes for years to come. What is clear though is Villa have taken a step forward to capitalising on a good academy system like the Lerner era never could.
The first thing is the scouting and bringing in talented cheaper teenagers from lower teams (e.g. Bedeau and Bree for example) and foreign leagues (Vassilev, Odutayo and Sea) to develop for the future, a shift from Villa’s previous focus from just paying moderate fees for talented 20-24 year old players (e.g. Tshibola, Gil, Veretout, Amavi) who are expected to deliver instantly and cast aside if they started slowly in favour of seasoned performers.
Secondly Dr Tony’s era has also seen an emphasis on bridging the gap between U23 football and the first team by ensuring those closest are included. Most recently seeing marked development in Keinan Davis and Callum O’Hare while further U23 players participated in cup football which is a step in the positive direction, while previously their involvement stopped at the end of preseason.
This one remains of my major frustrations with Villa under Xia. Following relegation and mass exodus Villa were left with serious holes across the whole squad. Di Matteo worked hard to bring in almost an entire new first team XI in one window. Putting aside each player’s ability to instantly perform in their roles, this made a lot of sense given the current state however, Villa’s urgency for success further reinforcements dominated brought in the following two windows to cover for previous failings, this has continued for all of Bruce’s tenure.
Covering for the few bad transfers and cutting losses on signings is nothing new for football clubs, but on the scale and speed Villa have moved has left the squad with gross overstocking in some positions and bareness in others. Currently the squad has no clear proven GK and only 2 senior CBs, 1 LB and 2 wingers, this is a bad place to be when you have 4 strikers, 5 CMs + 2 CDMs, 4 RBs and no transfer budget cash to spend.
Signing multiple players in the same position only works (barely) if you’re able to actively manage positions and cut losses on excess players before values drop significantly, which is made hard by paying significant championship wages and allowing players to sit on excessive wages despite contributing little to team success (looking at you Micah Richards). As a result, players who have struggled to adapt to instant success (including big money signings) are shut out or benched for extended periods resulting in dramatic losses in value. You only need to look at Ross McCormack and Aaron Tshibola as extreme examples, according to transfermarkt.com a total of £18.18M was outlaid in fees for both and combined now valued at only £5.85M, a £12.33M loss in 2 years! Bringing in Chris Samba and Axel Tuanzebe while a revitalised and in-form Tommy Elphick goes off on loan to Reading is bizarre, while Henri Lansbury and Scott Hogan being unable to breakthrough has impacted their values. While most clubs were worrying about player age and sustainable squad management, Villa continued to focus on winning now at all costs and that cost is serious financial losses.
Speaking of financials, upon taking the reigns at Villa Dr Tony dismissed all notions of poor financial backing by pulling out the chequebook to outlay £84.6M (£38.7M net) in signings during the 2016-2017 season to outspend some premier league clubs. Big money signings and wages have been outlaid and while the transfer budget dried up in 2017-2018 due to FFP concerns, the wage bill shot up due to big money incoming loans and free agents. Championship clubs rarely spend in this fashion as failure to produce will result in years of fighting against FFP. With almost certain liquidity problems and now no CEO at the helm Dr Tony now has a club on his hands purchased at a reported bargain £60M with decreased player asset value and limited spending allowed due to FFP concerns. No surprises there that mistakes were made on this one.
The one thing that many fans only care about, Villa’s output on the pitch. After big money signings were brought in fast and for every Mile Jedinak, Jonathan Kodjia and James Chester there was a Pierluigi Gollini, Tommy Elphick and Ross McCormack. With promotion all but ruled out mid season the holes in the squad were filled with more money spent and patchy form followed. With an established championship winning side on paper Villa made a strong promotion push, losing a few should of win matches and poor Wembley performance ultimately cost Villa a spot back in the Premier League. Where does that leave us for 2018/2019? The likelihood is that Villa will need to sell a couple of first team starters (likely 2-3 of Grealish, Chester, Hogan or Kodjia) to balance the books but realistically anyone could go if times get desperate. With loan players gone, my prediction would be a competitive squad relying on some players on the outer and youth players to step up when injuries inevitably occur and with some serious luck playoffs might not be out of the question. Some seriously frugal transfer work would need to happen to make this a reality though.
So where does that leave us? Villa have rolled the dice and got the wrong numbers, serious liquidity issues and serious FFP concerns to handle Xia looks have steered Villa into a sticky situation. he squad is likely going to have to take a hit resulting in a less competitive first team but luckily some exciting youth are hopefully ready to push into some obvious holes in the squad.