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xV: Villa’s issues in recruitment are more nuanced than the narrative suggests

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Those who criticize Villa for their net spend or for the quality of player they bought are largely ignoring important context.

Aston Villa v Chelsea FC - Premier League
JUNE 21: Ezri Konsa of Aston Villa reacts after the Premier League match between Aston Villa and Chelsea FC at Villa Park on June 21, 2020 in Birmingham, England.
Photo by Molly Darlington/Pool via Getty Images

Welcome to Expected Villa (xV), a numbers-based look at Aston Villa! We’re mostly financial this time around, as we try to contextualize Villa’s summer spending after the most recent 2-1 defeat to Chelsea.

An axiom: Teams that win survive, teams that draw drop.

It’s why I’m a big fan of teams that play attacking football in relegation battles — the added value of the third point means I’d rather my team win twice than draw five times. It’s also why you may expect me to criticize Dean Smith’s tactics in the 2-1 defeat to Chelsea on Sunday.

I won’t say you’re wrong, because Villa must surely show more attacking intent in their remaining eight matches (perhaps except at Anfield) if they’re going to survive, but I also think his tactical decisions Sunday are emblematic of the challenges Dean Smith is juggling at this point in the season.

We’ve seen Villa play open, attacking football against some of the “better” sides in the league this season and grab a lead (Arsenal away and Spurs home). We’ve also seen Villa focus on the counter and grab a lead (Spurs away, Liverpool home and now Chelsea home). Both approaches have one thing in common: Villa’s defence melted down, and they lost all five of those matches.

What do you do with a broken side? This is the fundamental issue at Aston Villa right now, and it’s something you can notice at every position on the pitch. It seems like in every match against talented teams, a Villa player commits a major individual error at the back that leads directly to a goal. Doesn’t matter the tactics, doesn’t matter the setup.

Against the better sides, Conor Hourihane often gets caught in the wash and doesn’t play much of a part. But who’s available to replace him in the team? Marvelous Nakamba was no better Sunday than Hourihane, if not worse. Starting Jota or Trézéguet on the wing and sliding Jack Grealish into midfield could help get Villa’s key man involved, but neither winger is better for the team than Hourihane. Are you going to argue that replacing Hourihane with Ahmed Elmohamady as a wing-back in a 5-3-2 is a better system?

This leads to, I think, the core issue of Villa’s squad: There aren’t 11 guys in it who are really good enough to start in the Premier League. There probably aren’t more than three or four who’d start at any club outside the relegation fight — and those guys is still trying to get back to match sharpness after a lengthy injury lay-off.

This is to say: At the moment, Villa neither have good depth, nor good talent. That’s probably because...

Villa neither committed to depth nor talent last summer

I fear for my sanity every time I hear someone quote Villa’s net spend this season as if it’s a sign of increased failure. It’s not, because that’s a bad, over-simplified media narrative that was designed to make the club look bad before they stepped on the pitch. It doesn’t consider that Villa won promotion largely on the backs of loanees and veterans, nor does it consider that the club had zero first-team centre halves before the summer business.

I don’t want to dwell on the failures of Tony Xia’s ownership for too long — because you can’t perpetually keep blaming other people for your mistakes — but those failures meant Villa had to sign a bunch of guys to even have a team this season. Of course they had to spend a lot of money! And when that lot of money is spread over a bunch of signings, that also doesn’t mean that anyone Villa signed was particularly good.

That we’re seeing that play out isn’t necessarily a failure of recruitment — because in this day and age, how many players are signed for £10-15 million and immediately start in the Premier League? Not many, unless you play at Villa.

When it’s made, a signing for this transfer fee generally falls into one of three categories:

  1. A young player with high potential, who’s not expected to play straightaway and may be loaned to a lower league to build skill
  2. A player in or coming into his prime who fills a specific role in the squad, likely as a backup
  3. A veteran on the back end of his career who will start, but who the club is not intending to turn a profit on

By and large, Villa’s summer signings don’t fall into any of these buckets. You’re relying on guys signed to fall under 1 or 2, but asking them to carry the responsibility of 3. It’s really tough, and again, it’s something Villa were probably going to be forced into one way or another. That’s why any complaints I have about Villa’s transfer business aren’t really focused on individual recruitment, nor really on the overall strategy, but more on the details of the approach employed by the club.

Villa should’ve signed a veteran or three last summer

Full context: I’m a numbers guy. I believe the best way to improve a football club’s standing is to get in the habit of buying young players, developing them well, selling them on for profit, and continuing the cycle. It’s why I was happy with the overall direction of Villa’s business this season. I also, though, think there’s a potential market inefficiency in veterans, particularly for a club that needed to build depth, like Villa did this past summer.

Let’s briefly live in a new world: What if Villa signed Gary Cahill on that free transfer, not Crystal Palace? I don’t know if Cahill was receptive to coming to Villa in the first place, but you can really replace him with any veteran defender who would’ve been available for little or no fee.

If Villa sign Cahill, they now don’t buy Björn Engels, saving several million pounds of transfer budget that could be used elsewhere. Perhaps Villa improve their depth and buy an additional forward instead, or perhaps they get enough cash together to bring Saïd Benrahma to Villa instead of Trézéguet.

Either approach would’ve made Villa a better team than they are now. Doing the same with one player in each position group — forward, midfielder and defender — would have either provided Villa with better depth than they have now, or would’ve freed up cash to go after one or two more key players. That doesn’t harm the youth-oriented movement I know the club want, and if it would’ve been the difference between survival and relegation, would’ve actually helped the movement by reducing the burden felt by some of Villa’s current starters.

Villa didn’t invest well in the key area of the manager’s preferred system

Dean Smith wants to play 4-3-3. That is evidently clear — and while I’m still not convinced a team of Villa’s calibre can play 4-3-3 at this level and be successful, as long as recruitment matches the system, I’m generally happy to proceed.

The issue is that I’m not really sure it did.

Villa spent more than £25 million on two central midfielders despite having both Jack Grealish and John McGinn penciled in on the team sheet. They spent north of £60 million to completely rebuild Villa’s defence. But they only spent about £20 million on the wings — and spent more on Marvelous Nakamba (necessarily a backup in a 4-3-3) than they did on either Anwar El Ghazi or Trézéguet.

Particularly when you consider that three of Villa’s four full-backs are best suited to a wing-back role, and two of those wingers can play as either an attacking midfielder (Jota) or a second striker (El Ghazi), it’s a squad where I think the business better reflects a 5-3-2 than a 4-3-3. And make no mistake, the winger position is where Villa have been most let down this year; it’s put a lot of stress on the central midfielders to drive the attack, and has forced Villa’s best player out of his natural position.

The best way to account for that may be to abandon the role entirely.

Moving away from talking about the transfer business:

Villa are not designed to be successful in “Project Restart”

The surface way: Five subs are bad for Villa. Chelsea used their allotment to bring on Christian Pulisic and Tammy Abraham. Villa brought on Jota and Trézéguet. It exacerbates the talent gap between bigger clubs and Villa, whose depth is a well-noted concern.

The deeper and likely more impactful way: Fixture congestion is bad for Villa. There’s a lot of it happening now.

That’s why I’m giving Dean Smith the benefit of the doubt for Sunday’s tactics. He knows it’s unlikely Villa win without Jack Grealish and John McGinn playing well, and if Villa are going to attack a side like Chelsea, they need very high work rates from those two. Did Dean Smith try to nick a result against Chelsea to save his team’s legs for the trip to Newcastle United on Wednesday? It’s entirely reasonable, particularly given Villa’s top/bottom half splits this season (Villa are now 0-2-13 against the top half, and 7-3-5 against the bottom).

If that is what happened, though, Villa need to make it worthwhile at St. James’ Park. Newcastle aren’t a great side, and they’re the type of team Villa have had plenty of success against this season. Win it, and you more than atone for Sunday’s annoying defeat.