If you’re a Premier League club and you’re not owned by a ludicrously wealthy magnate, you’re not going to come close to winning the title.
Like it or not, this is the reality of today’s football.
Once championed as the game of the working-class, it’s now difficult to see how running a football club can be at all profitable when you see the sort of fees flying around. Villa CEO Christian Purslow said in an in-depth interview with Dean Smith after promotion that John McGinn is a ‘model signing for Aston Villa’. It’s hard to argue against that given how influential he was over the course of the promotion-winning campaign and the fact he was purchased for merely £2.75 million from Hibernian. Incredible value in a market that is currently swamped by paying over the odds for fairly mediocre talent.
Just take a look at Alexis Sanchez – signed by Manchester United in a swap deal with Arsenal, but is still being paid astronomical wages of £350,000 a week. Do his performances justify that sort of money being spent? Absolutely not. He’s barely come close to recapturing his Arsenal form leaving United fans and hierarchy alike scratching their heads and wondering if they kept the receipt. So where do we find more of these McGinn-type bargains?
The first place to look is abroad. It’s always a bit of a risk when you scout a player from the continent as so many former Premier League players will tell you that the pace is so much faster here than anywhere else. I’ve always been sceptical of this cliché but in some cases it might just ring true. Serie A has always been traditionally known as a ‘slower’ league, where you get more time on the ball so a technician can flourish. However, with more and more international transfers being processed each year, particular styles within leagues seem to be a thing of the past. I think adaptability is arguably the most important attribute any scout is looking for in a player these days. Will they be able to suit any system depending on the circumstances of the game? Take N’Golo Kante; when Claudio Ranieri first brought him in to the equation at Leicester, he was played out on the left wing - not that he’s a natural there. Eventually, he was moved in as a defensive midfielder where he redefined the position. Since moving to Chelsea, he’s even played in a more advanced role at the top of a midfield diamond. The Foxes paid Caen a reported €8 million for the combative midfielder, a fee that seems like pocket change given his quality. Chelsea then went on to buy him for around £32 million which is far closer to today’s going rate. It makes you wonder how many other outstanding talents are out there, hidden under the surface just waiting to burst on to the scene.
This leads me to the ongoing rumours surrounding a potential Villa target: Kalvin Phillips. Leeds supporters will wax lyrical about this guy’s ability. He ranked in the top ten for tackles and passes per game in the 2018-19 Championship season. Truly a stalwart in what was a decent team, but does that mean Leeds can justify asking for £30 million for his services? It might seem a mad fee on the face of it, but they value him so highly that losing him would mean a huge drop in quality in the middle of the park for them. Replacing Phillips looks like it will be a challenging task as well with an ever-inflating market. Plus, there’s also the significant fact that he’s one of their own - the ‘Yorkshire Pirlo’ as he’s affectionately known - making the club even less likely to sell as it cuts off an important bond the fans have with a local lad. Unfortunately, it seems that Villa will have to empty the coin jar if they want their man. I don’t blame Leeds in the slightest, it’s their prerogative.
Back overseas we go, to the fantastically named Marvelous Nakamba of Club Brugge. Now, like most in our country I’ve never seen him play before. It might surprise you to read that I’ve never caught a Zimbabwe match before. It feels like one of those links that has been ignited by his agent, smelling Premier League money for himself and his client. Nonetheless, he’s a Champions League player who has been the subject of a bid from Cologne in the last few days. The bid was rejected, with Club Brugge supposedly holding out for £6.5 million. Whether the interest is legitimate or not, it would certainly free up capital for other transfers - even though it poses a risk.
Do we even know what a decent value for money looks like anymore? It’s hard to tell when you have speculation that Manchester United are willing to bid £50 million for John McGinn floating around. Now, I like McGinn as much as the next Villa fan. His industry and dynamism is special. But let’s take a step back and remember that this is a man who has only played one year in the second tier of England, never in the top flight. I know Aaron Wan-Bissaka was just sold for roughly the same fee but at least AWB played a whole season in the Premier League with Palace. I don’t for a second think that United would actually bid that amount for Super John but it does make you wonder when you see these figures bandied about for just about anybody.
We’ve freed ourselves of the shackles of obscene wages being paid to the likes of Micah Richards, Ross McCormack etc. for sitting on the bench, if they ever got the gates open to get that far. It’s important to remember that paying players a lot of money doesn’t guarantee success. They’re often less driven to reach for further achievements as their payment isn’t performance based so the extra incentive isn’t there. Feeling sorry for someone like Scott Hogan is natural though. Yes, we paid Brentford a lot of money for him and he promised so much. Not for lack of effort, it never worked out in the claret and blue for him. But it raises the point that we need to be careful with what we spend. No more statement signings. No more fear of FFP taking its hold on us. A sensible approach is what’s required so we’re not bowing down to sellers holding us ransom for their assets. A lot of areas need addressing in the Villa squad this summer, some already filled, but we’ve got to be careful. If other clubs see us over-spend once, you’re likely to get an extra £5m or £10m attached to the valuation of the next player you’re chasing.
A friend of mine has just said that ten years ago, £70m would have got you Cristiano Ronaldo entering his prime. Now, it won’t even get you Harry Maguire. Values mean a lot less to the big clubs than they do to the smaller ones, partly because there’s way more chance that Sheffield United are going to be in the Championship the following season than Liverpool meaning they can’t keep paying outrageous salaries in a lower division. This is what Villa fans need to bear in mind. This season won’t be easy, it’s about trying to stay up and establish ourselves in the top flight and build from there. In reality, a player is only really worth what a manager/director values him at but as we know, those in charge have often been wrong previously. Let’s just hope we’re not bullied by other clubs into coughing up.