Welcome to Expected Villa (xV), a column about the numbers behind Aston Villa! This week, we think about the money Villa flushed down the drain three seasons ago, and how the effects are still being felt today.
I hate Twitter.
I mean, I love it — it’s crucial to how I support Villa and to some of the relationships I have with other Villans — but it’s exhausting. “Villa are doing a Fulham,” people cry, ignoring that André Green was Villa’s only senior winger at the end of last year, or that both starting centre backs in the play-off final were loanees. “Dean Smith doesn’t know what he’s doing,” others plead, forgetting the enormity of the task at hand and how close Villa are to 17th.
Everything necessarily devolves into “hot take” culture, where we perpetually argue and have to take a side. A new signing can’t be solid or a little disappointing, it has to be great or awful. Those are the rules.
Hell, the way some are thinking, Villa should drop their interest in a striker because they won’t be able to get him in for Saturday’s trip to the South Coast.
As I’ve written before in this space, nuance is important — and in the spirit of this column, I want to posit a couple numerical observations:
In their first Championship season, Transfermarkt estimates Aston Villa spent around £77 million in transfer expenditures. Of the players purchased with that outlay (no fee was paid for Neil Taylor), only three have played for Villa in the Premier League, and only one (Conor Hourihane) has had any sort of significant role. Hourihane cost around £3 million.
Everything that Aston Villa did under Tony Xia’s ownership and Keith Wyness’ leadership was hastily arranged and short-term. Players were only signed on their current talent level, with neither their future prospects or fit in the team considered. Ross McCormack became the biggest example of Villa’s waste, but there were plenty of others.
Generally speaking, when a team wins promotion, it’s because they have a well-built and developed side, tailored to a specific tactical style and with guys they can carry forward into the Premier League. Look no further than the two clubs that accompanied Villa into the top flight this season — both Norwich City and Sheffield United entered the Premier League with a clear identity, and a core of players they could move forward with.
Xia and Wyness’ short-termism, though, rendered that prudent “best practice” unavailable to Villa; among other things, FFP issues meant the club had to turn to loans and bargain veteran signings in their last two Championship seasons. At Wembley in May, when the Claret and Blues won a vital promotion back to the Premier League, their entire front three and the starting centre back duo weren’t contracted to the club for 2019/20, as four loanees plus a struggling, out-of-contract Albert Adomah started the final. Villa’s goalkeeper that day was a guy they loaned out at the start of the season and who really hadn’t been part of their plans until injury thrusted him into the role.
That Villa couldn’t take their Championship team forward and build on it in the Premier League wasn’t Smith or the current ownership’s issue, it was a relic of the prior regime’s unsustainable errors. And literally, they couldn’t. When Villa were officially promoted to the top flight, they had zero fit first-team centre backs at the club, zero first-team defensive midfielders, one quasi-first-team winger, and two first-team strikers who were, at best, fringe Premier League players.
Which means Villa spent this summer. They had to. And that brings me to this…
Aston Villa bought 10 players this summer for fees between £7.2 million and £22.5 million. Nine of those 10 signings have played at least 50 percent of Villa’s league minutes. Across the other 19 PL clubs, only seven players who were signed for a fee in that range have played at least 50 percent of their club’s league minutes.
Generally speaking, when you sign a guy for under £30-40 million in this division, you’re signing him for one of three purposes:
- He’s a veteran on the back end of his career, who still has something strong to offer, but whose transfer value is deflated by his age
- He’s a youngster just starting his career, who you’re not necessarily counting on today, but whose transfer value is inflated by his age
- He’s a perfectly complementary player, who fits into your well-established team and will help plug one of maybe a couple holes you have
By and large, Villa’s summer signings meet none of those criteria, with all of them being immediately thrown into a constantly evolving team with the expectation of performance. Villa weren’t crying out for a Douglas Luiz or Marvelous Nakamba to fill a hole in their system; they were crying out for literally anyone to plug that hole in the XI. Ditto for plenty of other guys around the lineup.
It’s no surprise, then, that Villa are a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde team, something driven both by lingering unfamiliarity and by simple inconsistent performances. These guys are young, and most of them are being asked to do larger and more important roles than about any other Premier League sides would ask of them. That Villa have enough wins to be within touching distance of safety, with plenty of the season left to play, is a success in and of itself.
In an ideal world, Villa could’ve come up and spent their £130 million on three or four impact signings. But that still would’ve left holes at other places, which would’ve doomed Villa just as much. If the club wanted to move forward, they had to take this risk and sign a class of high-risk, high-upside players.
This nuance will forever be lost on the “hot take” culture, particularly if Villa don’t survive. What Villa have done is not reckless or without a plan, it’s largely been calculated and was the club’s only chance at success. So what if it doesn’t work out? They’ve overcome a large enough hole to get here in the first place.