In our modern, online world, there’s not much room for nuance. Tweets are 280 characters long; memes and banter spread like wildfire through split-second decisions to share. In this world, perception and reality are often two different things — it’s more about getting your hot take in than thoughtfully considering issues. You can’t come back and laugh at people months later because of thoughtful consideration.
Pretty frequently, subsets of this world generate perceptions about Aston Villa. A few years ago, everyone decided Villa were employing “moneyball” tactics just because they’d hired a guy who liked to use statistics and suggested young, developing transfer targets. The characterization, though, missed a key part of what makes the tactic work: the money part. The central takeaway from Moneyball isn’t that the Oakland Athletics were successful because they used statistics, rather that they were successful because they found a market inefficiency: that players with high on-base percentages were undervalued.
If you want a true Moneyball parallel in football, it comes via FC Midtjylland from Denmark, who won the 2014/15 Superliga by scoring 25 set-piece goals in 33 matches (no other club that season scored more than 11). Today, like in baseball, the market has caught up with the inefficiency, with most Danish clubs now heavily focusing on set pieces.
Anyway, back to Villa.
Today, the take-based world has decided a couple things:
- Jack Grealish is a diver, though he’s never been booked for simulation in his career
- Aston Villa are “doing a Fulham”
The rebuttal to the first one writes itself and, truly, requires little nuance. A player who’s often hacked wins a lot of free kicks. Neat, let’s move on.
The latter is more difficult, and more nuanced — similar to the “moneyball” example above, many are focusing on just one element of the term. Like how so many focused on the numbers-based approach to proclaim Villa were employing “moneyball,” plenty have now zeroed in on Villa’s large net-spend to proclaim that they’re “doing a Fulham” and will drop straight back into the Championship.
Relegation is, of course, a possibility. And yes, Villa are spending a lot of money right now, more than anyone else in the Premier League this window to date. They’ll surely spend more in the coming weeks, with holes still left to fill at nearly every position — striker, winger, midfielder, centre back and goalkeeper.
Consider this: Last year, Fulham spent around £100 million in the summer transfer market, largely on five or six key players and added a few more guys through the loan market. The same summer, Wolverhampton Wanderers spent around £80 million in the summer transfer market, largely on five or six key players. They, too, added guys through the loan market — though their loanees like Raúl Jiménez, Leander Dendoncker and Jonny Otto funcitoned more like permanent signings; all three have now joined for combined transfer fees around £65 million.
Fulham finished dead last. Wolves are playing in the Europa League. If Villa’s high spending means they’re “doing a Fulham” after winning promotion, aren’t they “doing a Wolves” at the same time? Of course not; that’d be silly. How can you be on your way to relegation and Europe* at the same time?
*Through a league position; we ain’t talking about some Birmingham City or Wigan Athletic crap over here.
There’s a distinction, then, between Fulham and Wolves that goes beyond the final .
When Fulham went up, aside from Aleksandar Mitrović, they brought in a brand-new crop of players. Crucially, two things were true about these signings — (1) many of them came late in the transfer window, and (2), they weren’t purchased with Slaviša Jokanović’s system in mind. The manager was given a bunch of players at the last minute who didn’t fit his plans; of course they weren’t going to succeed.
In contrast, Wolves brought back several loanees from their promotion-winning side on permanent deals. The new guys into Wolves’ setup fit their manager’s system well — it’s clear that Nuno Espírito Santo’s fingerprint was all over their 2018/19 summer signings (a trend that’s continued forward into future windows).
Which sounds more like Villa?
Of the Claret and Blues’ seven summer signings to date, three — Anwar El Ghazi, Kortney Hause and Tyrone Mings — are returnees signing on a permanent basis. Another two — Jota and Ezri Konsa — previously worked under Dean Smith at Brentford. Matt Targett’s crossing ability fits how Dean Smith likes his fullbacks to play perfectly.
If you actually think about Villa’s transfer business, it sounds a lot more like Wolves’ summer 2018 business than Fulham’s. There’s a clear plan in place to keep some continuity while improving the squad, and to do that in a way that fits the manager’s system and plans. All of those things line up with Villa’s West Midlands neighbours, not the club that beat them at Wembley.
Of course, we all know Villa aren’t “doing a Wolves” right now — Wolves are signing guys who could easily play in a Champions League knockout match, while Villa have largely signed players who spent last season in the Championship. That’s OK and totally fine!
But if we agree Villa aren’t “doing a Wolves,” we should also be able to agree they aren’t “doing a Fulham.”
Maybe Villa are just doing their own thing here.