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xV: Dean Smith will need time and patience to overcome Villa’s decade of mismanagement

The 3-0 defeat at Wigan Athletic on Saturday underscored that Dean Smith inherited a complete mess of a squad. He’ll likely need a couple transfer windows to get Villa playing his way.

Wigan Athletic v Aston Villa - Sky Bet Championship
WIGAN, ENGLAND - JANUARY 12: Dean Smith manager of Aston Villa looks on during the Sky Bet Championship match between Wigan Athletic and Aston Villa at DW Stadium on January 12, 2019 in Wigan, England.
Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Welcome to Expected Villa (xV), a column about the numbers behind Villa’s results. After a shocking 3-0 defeat at Wigan Athletic, we’re looking at numbers from a different perspective: a financial one.

You know that Talking Heads song, Once in a Lifetime, right? When David Byrne sings, “And you may ask yourself, well … how did I get here?”

How did Villa get here? I mean, we know the answer, but still … how?

Since dropping down to the Championship, per Transfermarkt, Aston Villa have spent more than £90 million on incoming transfers. That’s more than double what any other club that’s played the last three years in the Championship has spent. Leeds United, one of those clubs, are top of the league, having spent nearly £50 million less than Villa in that span.

The absurd thing about that £90 million figure? It really undersells Villa’s volume of transfers — as it doesn’t include the expensive free transfer of John Terry or Villa’s several high-wage loan moves (think Robert Snodgrass and Yannick Bolasie), and downplays the amount of money Villa have directed toward older players like Glenn Whelan, who signed for cheap but have taken significant wages.

Yet here we are, at a spot where Villa have maybe, like, five senior players worth a damn right now who aren’t loanees? Jack Grealish, John McGinn; probably Jonathan Kodjia; maybe Conor Hourihane?

Villa have set themselves up to fail in the Championship

When Villa came down to the Championship in 2016, they had two options: build quickly to go back up ASAP, or build for the future, targeting promotion in 2018 or 2019. Villa chose the former. It’s now 2019, and they’re in a much worse position than they should be because of that decision.

Villa’s transfer policy since dropping down to this division has been to cobble together talent, with nearly every move about now and never later (or even why). Steve Bruce broke up a good, potential long-term partnership between Chester and Nathan Baker to sign John Terry for one year. He consistently moved to bring in multiple high-wage loanees instead of focusing on one or two good, quality permanent signings. When Villa did think about the later, they didn’t think about the why — both James Bree and Scott Hogan were clearly brought in with no idea how they’d be utilized.

Aston Villa v Swansea City - FA Cup Third Round Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

It’s very possible to overcome a lack of talent in this division and go up — Huddersfield Town and Cardiff City the last two years are clear examples. But both those teams were built with clear visions of what they want to be, with a strong, consistent style of play. You can’t overcome both bad talent and an incoherent squad.

The last three years don’t tell the whole story, though

Villa’s mismanagement, of course, goes back to well before Bruce or Roberto Di Matteo’s days, and remains fully on display if you follow the latest transfer rumours.

A handful of years ago, Villa actually did something right — they made a great purchase, spending £8 million on deadline day to bring in a striker from Belgium. Christian Benteke would leave a few years later for a transfer fee north of £30 million, and Villa turned that money around into three developmental prospects — Jordan Amavi, Idrissa Gueye and Jordan Veretout.

Aston Villa v Liverpool - Premier League Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Fast forward to today, and Gueye has been linked for months with a move to Paris Saint-Germain, his club asking for £40 million. Veretout is linked with a summer move to Inter Milan or Napoli, and could move for north of £25 or £30 million. There were rumblings last month that Amavi, who’s already started in a European final for Marseille, was also drawing PSG’s interest.

Villa identified the right guys, but they’re not the club that’s going to be cashing in this summer and moving up the totem pole — because their great, stats-minded scouting was the only thing Villa did right that year.

You can keep going back further in time if you’d like, though

If I had to identify one moment that started Villa’s slide, it’s probably James Milner’s transfer to Manchester City. Well, not really the Milner part — the Stephen Ireland part. The Irish midfielder came back as an £8 million-rated part of the deal, but within six months, Villa were trying to pawn him off to Newcastle United. By the time he was done at Villa, he moved on a free transfer to Stoke City.

Starting with that transfer, Villa have mismanaged the majority of their activity in the transfer market. In the summer that they sold Stewart Downing and Ashley Young, they made one big signing — Charles N’Zogbia, for nearly £10 million. Later, they spent a summer buying a bunch of lottery tickets, producing Leandro Bacuna and, uh … Jores Okore? Libor Kozák had injury issues that plagued him, but Aleksandar Tonev, Antonio Luna and Nicklas Helenius were all complete flops.

Then, you had the departures. Villa let Marc Albrighton (who still loves the club!) leave for nothing, then watched him win the league with Leicester City. When Villa bungled Fabian Delph’s contract renewal, they probably threw away £15 or £20 million in transfer revenue when he left.

Bolton Wanderers v Aston Villa - Premier League Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Ultimately, Dean Smith will need a lot of time to fix this

Saturday’s embarrassing result highlighted the problems that have plagued this club for the whole decade. First, Villa didn’t spend money, and spent whatever they did spend poorly. Then, once they had cash to blow, they also spent it poorly!

As a result, Dean Smith has a fatally flawed squad — one that’s neither talented enough top to bottom, nor one that has any coherent identity, let alone one that fits his style of play.

You have to trust that Smith knows what he’s doing, and you have to place your faith in him and give him time — because there’s no other real alternative for Villa right now. He might need several windows to get this team to where it needs to be, and we’ll probably need to say goodbye to Jack Grealish. It sucks, yeah.

If you’re looking for a bright spot now, though, look to Norwich City. Daniel Farke’s first season was disappointing and met with some unrest. In year two, with more of his vision built-out, his Canaries are challenging at the top of the table.

Right now, Villa may be 2017/18 Norwich. The club needs time, consistency and a vision. It’s time to completely buy into Dean Smith’s vision, back him for the long haul, and hope that his team next year can make a charge to the top.