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xV: Relegation doesn’t have to be Aston Villa’s worst-case scenario

Staring down the barrel of relegation is far from ideal, but a drop to the Championship could give Villa the chance to finally build the stable foundation they so desperately need.

Aston Villa v Manchester United - Premier League
General view inside the stadium during the Premier League match between Aston Villa and Manchester United at Villa Park on July 09, 2020 in Birmingham, England.
Photo by Andrew Boyers/Pool via Getty Images

Welcome to Expected Villa (xV), an ostensibly numbers-based column about Aston Villa! The Claret and Blues cut four adrift with just four to play, and they’re 1–9 to survive. Relegation is feeling like a bit of an inevitability. So we’ll talk about it.

Let’s start with a take: If you asked me to draw up the best-case scenario for Aston Villa over the next five seasons, I’d tell you I’d rather go down than stay up.

There is a concept in American team sports that sticks in my mind right now: “rebuilding” (or its more aggressive sibling, “tanking”). The idea is probably not foreign, but is largely specific to closed systems like we have in the States — if the current squad isn’t good enough for success, the team needs to prioritize playing and developing young players over winning in the short term. In the “tanking” approach, you’re able to acquire better young talent by first losing and receiving a higher draft pick. It’s a trade of short-term success for long-term gains.

Of course, between the penalty relegation imposes and the lack of a draft, there isn’t a great parallel to this phenomenon in football. Plenty of noteworthy clubs who face the drop often take a generation to come back (Leeds United finally look to be headed back to the top flight after 16 years), and generally speaking, the worse a team is, the worse its signings. In football — and particularly in a pyramid like England’s — doing anything that prioritizes long-term gains over short-term success is incredibly risky.

That’s what gives me a bit of hesitation about this tweet:

There is a lot that can go wrong when you drop. You can make poor signings and consign yourself to an FFP nightmare. You can squander a couple opportunities at promotion and run out of parachute payments. Hell, you can even play great football, rack up nearly 90 points, and not go up because you finish third and lost in the play-offs.

But what if you actually do everything right?

Say Villa survive — I don’t think their current trajectory in this league is sustainable, primarily because the club is necessarily stuck in a short-term cycle. When Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens bought Villa in 2018, they were forced with a paradox: The complete mess Tony Xia left behind necessitated a full rebuild, but Jack Grealish’s status necessitated an immediate promotion push.

Villa were successful in that push, of course, but had to do it with short-term solutions — there were four loanees in Villa’s XI at Wembley for the play-off final, plus a fifth starter who’d be released upon promotion. We don’t need to document Villa’s summer that followed, a hedge between getting enough depth in the team and enough Premier League talent. They still have issues with both.

And that’s where I struggle to see how Villa fix their issues by staying in this division. If you spend your transfer cash on a couple top players, you’re still going to have the maddening lack of depth you’re employing this season. If you distribute your funds across several new signings to build depth, you’re still going to be lacking the top-end talent that’s dooming you right now. Either way, you’re still probably sitting in a relegation battle next spring. It quite easily becomes a year-over-year experience of treading water, trying to finish 17th, and eventually hoping you do enough things right that you eventually move toward “solid mid-table”.

Enter relegation.

Dropping down a division, especially this drop, is no doubt risky — you’ll see a lot of “could” and “if”, accordingly. Those terms are doing a lot of heavy lifting. But I see a handful of potential positives to a Villa drop:

  1. Broadly, the club have lost the identity Dean Smith has tried to cultivate. Dropping down a division could allow Villa a better opportunity to figure themselves out philosophically, no matter who the manager is — look at how Wolves and Sheffield United have developed a style of play in the Championship that they seamlessly transferred into the Prem.
  2. Villa have a lot of players who are barely surviving in the Premier League, and it’s not really a division that’s conducive to quick development. Ideally, you have some guys really step up and take the opportunity to develop as a player and emerge as a long-term option. We’ve seen this, right? Just think about Villa’s relegation team — most pointedly, to Adama Traoré, who used his drop into the Championship to blossom.
  3. A Villa drop takes the “buy talent” vs. “buy depth” conundrum away entirely; Villa already have plenty of Championship-level players, and it’s obviously cheaper to buy key Championship players than key Premier League ones. A relegated Villa won’t have to choose between buying good players and filling out their squad; they can focus their business entirely on cultivating a full 25-man squad where every player fits the system and is capable of playing a role.
  4. While Villa spent big in the top flight last summer, the combination of £170 million in total Premier League TV revenue and a big profit from the sale of Jack Grealish should put the club in a good place against the EFL’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules.* This should enable the squad building noted above.
  5. Villa should be able to go down with a solid Championship spine, particularly at the back; by and large, the defensive roles should already be filled for next season, even if Tyrone Mings leaves. Tom Heaton, Jed Steer and Ørjan Nyland are a very good goalkeeping stable for the Championship, and I’d feel pretty good about walking out onto the pitch to start the next season with Matt Targett, Björn Engels, Kortney Hause, Ezri Konsa and Frédéric Guilbert as my back line. You’d probably want to supplement the squad with at least one centre-half to replace Mings, but Neil Taylor, Ahmed Elmohamady and potentially James Bree offer adequate cover at the full-back positions.
  6. Between expected outgoings and squad deficiencies, most of Villa’s transfer work should come in midfield and attack, as Villa will probably lose their preferred midfield three and really need to buy some forwards irrespective of outgoing business. This is fun, promising and also really scary! This is probably the linchpin of Villa’s success next season, irrespective of division — because midfield and attack are where the biggest margins are. Get guys who develop well and fit in your system, and you’re probably winning promotion with a much better team than you went up with in 2019. This is the promise. But fail to sign the right guys (which Villa have done plenty of), and you’re a mid-table Championship side that just blew a lot of money.

I don’t have strong enough opinions on Suso or Christian Purslow or even Dean Smith in this space to make too much of a comment on who should be in charge and whether or not we should be optimistic — I think the discussion around Villa’s summer 2019 is incredibly nuanced — but in a lot of ways, relegation would provide the NSWE regime their first true opportunity to fully shape the club in their image. That didn’t happen last year, when Villa had to win promotion to take advantage of Grealish, and it’s not likely to happen in the Premier League, where fighting for simple survival is so important.

This isn’t to trivialize or downplay the difficulty of winning promotion from the Championship, as we learned in our last stint there, rather to say that for the first time in their regime, it shouldn’t be seen as necessary that Villa secure a short-term goal. Assuming it happens, Villa’s primary goal after this relegation should be to come back up with a strong, stable foundation they can build on, no matter how long it takes. If Villa come up with a solid squad already in place, they can then supplement it with quality in the transfer window — that’s what will give the club an opportunity to grow into what it’s capable of being.

Again, relegation is a huge risk. I get it, and I’m certainly not rooting for it, because not handling the drop right can be a death certificate for a football club.

But damn, if it wouldn’t be a chance to finally get it all right.

*A handful of FFP comments:

  1. I understand the spirit of the comment, but don’t agree with the notion that Villa were promoted “a year early”. Had Villa lost the play-off final or otherwise not gone up, FFP was absolutely going to be an issue for the club this season; it would’ve likely forced Villa to bring back several players they released, would’ve significantly limited summer transfer activity, and my view is the club most likely wouldn’t be fighting for promotion right now. A long-term rebuild would’ve been more likely (e.g., this promotion being “three years early”).
  2. That £170 million influx of TV revenue will go a long, long way to ensuring Villa are compliant in future years. I can’t speak enough about how important simply the functional “reset” of the club’s FFP fate was.
  3. The number “dropping out” of Villa’s FFP calculation for next season is a little over £20 million (from the 2017/18 season); this means Villa can take a pretty decent-sized loss next season, even if they’ve spent to the FFP limit this year.
  4. An important thing to remember is that with FFP, a player’s transfer fee is spread over the life of his contract on the books (e.g., a player signed for £8 million who signs a 4-year contract will hit £2 million against the FFP expense each season, not all £8 million in the first year). This nuance generally enables a club to spend more in the short-term than we may think (particularly as Villa could have a couple of big profit sales this summer in Grealish and McGinn), though it needs to be balanced with long-term FFP considerations.
  5. My impression is that Villa didn’t really sign any big earners this summer, which would be huge for the club. Above all else, the bloated wage bill was the biggest FFP issue last time Villa went down, particularly as you had high earners who didn’t have a role at the club. There’s no dead money at Villa right now, and everyone earning a contract is involved in the setup. It honestly wouldn’t shock me if Villa’s wage bill didn’t increase much upon promotion.
  6. If people are in your mentions saying that Villa are going to be punished by the EFL for their spending, they’re 100 percent wrong. The threat to Villa if/when they do go down is that the EFL might want another look at the club’s sale of Villa Park to itself. The issue the EFL have with Derby County and Sheffield Wednesday doesn’t seem to be around the sale itself, rather the amount those clubs sold their respective grounds for. Derby sold Pride Park for £80 million; Wednesday sold Hillsborough for £60 million. Both figures are more than Villa sold Villa Park to NSWE for, at £57 million. I’m far from an expert in stadium valuation, but Villa Park is certainly worth considerably more than Hillsborough, and I’d imagine more than Pride Park, too. I think it’s fair to trust that this regime picked a valuation that’s more or less accurate and should keep the club from seeing a points deduction.