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xV Four Thoughts: Johan Lange, Villa’s transfer budget, their summer plans and ‘Moneyball’

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It’s a crucial summer for new sporting director Johan Lange and Aston Villa. Let’s talk about it a bit before it gets underway.

FC Copenhagen Parken Sport and Entertainment Press Conference
Johan Lange, technical director of FC Copenhagen during the FC Copenhagen Parken Sport and Entertainment Press Conference at Telia Parken on March 7, 2019 in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Photo by Lars Ronbog / FrontZoneSport via Getty Images

Welcome to Expected Villa (xV), a numbers-focused column about Aston Villa!

I’m trying a new format this summer, titled xV Four Thoughts, where I’ll present four different topics, each in 200 words or fewer. This will both challenge my life-long struggle with brevity and serves as a bit of a call-back to our old Villa in Four Numbers series. Enjoy!

New sporting director Johan Lange’s transfer ethos is exciting

I’m really excited about Johan Lange’s appointment, mainly because I share his views on player development. København’s strategy during Lange’s six years was simple: buy young players, develop them, give them European exposure, then sell them on to bigger clubs for profit. It might scare you that København are a “selling club”.

I hate that phrase — primarily because it’s a good thing to be a selling club! If you’re constantly selling players on for profit, you’re going to improve the general standing of your club over time. Just look at Brentford, Southampton and Tottenham as examples of English clubs that have made gains after several significant sales.

But I also hate how it’s applied as this black-and-white concept — that you’re either a selling club or you’re not. That just ain’t how this works.

Here’s the bottom line: Villa should continue to target promising players who can slot into the team and grow over time. It’s great if that developed player gets flipped for profit a couple years later, and it’s also great if he’s still at Villa in five years!

Lange has done the important part at København. He’s going to adapt, not replicate the approach here.

Villa’s transfer budget shows continued intent from the owners

The transfer budget this summer is reported around £100 million — let’s talk about that figure.

When Villa won promotion to the Premier League, they guaranteed around £170 million in television revenues. As we were reminded just about every time Villa played this season, they spent almost all of it on transfer fees before the season.

Well, staying up secured around another £100 million in television money for the club. It’s not hard to see where the transfer budget’s coming from, is it? Before the season, CEO Christian Purslow commented on how Villa felt they had “an obligation to be competitive” in the Premier League — that’s why they spent the money they’d earned through promotion up front.

A season later, if the £100 million budget pans out, it’ll be clear the view from ownership hasn’t changed. As the guaranteed money rolls into the club, Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens are immediately going to reinvest it, willing to spend to a number (likely tied to the FFP limit) each season. Given that Villa have done that so far without bloating the wage bill, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about the club’s future.

Villa should focus their summer business on filling their big holes

In my eyes, there are three priority signings for Villa this summer: a starting-quality left winger, a starting-quality striker, and a starting-quality right winger. Maybe a depth central midfielder to replace Henri Lansbury. Everything else is a bonus.

That obviously changes if anyone leaves, but Villa can’t get bogged down in the little things here. Take Matt Targett or Frédéric Guilbert. Could Villa use an upgrade on them? Sure — but in order to spend enough to get an upgrade at either full-back position, Villa would be harming themselves overall.

If Villa’s transfer budget is £100 million, and their top priorities are three attackers and a central midfielder, how much cash does that leave for a full-back? £10 million? That’s not getting you a true upgrade on Targett or Guilbert. For Villa to truly upgrade at either full-back spot, they’d be taking money away from the pool for higher-priority signings.

There are more than three or four issues in this Villa squad, sure, but if Villa get bogged down in trying to fix every one of those, they’ll have the same top-end talent problems they did this year — and be right back in the relegation fight.

What is “Moneyball” anyway?

I’m sorry if you’ve heard this rant before.

I like Gregg Evans, The Athletic’s Villa writer — but his story the other day where he proclaims Villa won’t use a “Moneyball” approach because they’re still going to utilize traditional scouting methods irked me. That’s because “Moneyball” as a concept is not about eschewing traditional scouting in favor of a data-only approach — it’s about finding a trait or tactic that the market systemically undervalues, and using it to build a better team than your resources would suggest you could. Sure, data are likely to be part of any “Moneyball” approach, but the use of data is not the sole point nor purpose of one.

The best example of “Moneyball” in football is probably Midtjylland’s first Danish title (I wrote about this in xV in 2018). Midtjylland noticed that there was a huge edge they could get by devoting attention and effort to set pieces, and torched the league for 25 set-piece goals en route to their title. A “Moneyball” transfer policy, then, could target players who are strong on set pieces, if the transfer market doesn’t value the trait as much as it’s worth.

The data aren’t the important thing.