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Five-Year cycles, Leicester City, and sustainable squad building - when does long-term planning meet short-term success for Aston Villa?

A supplement to our transfer round-up series as we dive into the squad building policy in modern football and what that means for Aston Villa in this post-Grealish world.

John McGinn Signs a New Contract at Aston Villa Photo by Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images

‘The Project’ is quite an ambiguous term, isn’t it? Yet, it’s a term repeated again and again by Aston Villa staff and players during interviews. Upon signing his contract extension, Matt Targett referred to it after his extension in April, stating “... it’s a really exciting time and an exciting project.” CEO Christian Purslow has mentioned the project on numerous occasions. It is not just at Villa as sports journalists, pundits, as well as those inside the game have begun referring to projects — so what is ‘The Project’ at Aston Villa and what can we expect as it enters its fourth year?

Aston Villa Training and Press Conference
Targett spoke about Villa’s project when signing his contract extension.
Photo by Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images

Thinking has changed in modern football in regards to building a squad for success. At first glance, football is a finite game; after 90 minutes of play, the match ends and a winner is declared. Similarly, across the course of a season, 38 matches are played, ending with a champion.

However, football can be looked at in the longer term as an infinite game, one in which never ends and the objective is to keep playing at the highest levels possible. This concept, adopted from Game Theory, shifts the focus away from the outcomes of the individual game or even season and focuses on the continuity of the team within the league.

In footballing terms, you can’t be the champion every season or win every game, but you can keep a team in successful positions for long periods and by doing so, increase the chances of success in the finite game or season. This way of looking at the game found its way into modern football thinking by following the example of one of the game’s longest serving and most successful managers, Sir Alex Ferguson.

What typified Ferguson’s time at Manchester United was his ability to think long-term instead of always chasing the next immediate trophy, often receiving criticism for doing so. After losing to Villa in 1995, Alan Hansen famously criticized Ferguson by saying “you’ll never win anything with kids”, so naturally, United went on to win everything there was to win with those kids. United’s 1999 treble came after moving on stars like Eric Cantona and Steve Bruce to promote the class of ’92; they were supplemented in the transfer market by top professionals like Jaap Stam and Villa’s own Dwight Yorke.

Ferguson talked about this philosophy in an interview with Harvard Business School in 2013, stating “[w]inning a game is only a short-term gain—you can lose the next game. Building a club brings stability and consistency.” In that same interview, Ferguson stated, “I believe that the cycle of a successful team lasts maybe four years and then some change is needed.” So then, a project in football is a period of four to five years where a squad and playing style is built in order to achieve a certain goal. This is how many successful sides plan their teams, in periods of four to five years with a certain squad and playing style, often under a certain manager or managers brought in to coach that style.

Modern examples of this type of thinking can be seen at Liverpool and Tottenham under Jürgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino; building sides with distinct styles over the course of four to five years. These examples also show the need for smart succession planning and change after four to five years as Pochettino was sacked after five years when his team could no longer maintain momentum and became physically burned out. Klopp’s Liverpool seemed to be undergoing the same process last season and require major changes this summer to avoid the same collapse Klopp’s previous teams, Mainz 05 and Borussia Dortmund, experienced after five years.

For another example, and one that Villa may wish to emulate, Leicester City’s current project started under now Villa assistant manager, Craig Shakespeare, in 2017. Most of the title winning squad of 2016 were sold at a profit to make way for young prospects in James Maddison, Harvey Barnes, and Wilfred Ndidi. Despite going through several managers, the spine of the squad and its flexible 4-2-3-1 shape have remained. As Leicester close in on their aim of breaking into the top four, they are perhaps the best example of a team outside the ‘big six’ pushing for Champions League places thanks to their long-term planning.

The aim of Aston Villa’s project was stated in no uncertain terms by Dean Smith ahead of the Manchester United match last season, “Qualifying for Europe is the aim for the football club. […] We need to start challenging.” Villa have so far made a lot of the correct moves in building the current project. The recent departure of Jack Grealish doesn’t change that ambition or goal.

In the 2019/2020 season, when the goal was simply survival, Villa brought in mostly young talent with potential to improve and resell at a higher price. Despite barely scraping survival, this first-year strategy has been largely successful. That summer brought in several current key players, laying the foundations for last season’s team; even those who have become fringe players have been improved by Villa’s coaching staff.

Smith also added that the target for last season was top 12, though Villa’s early success sadly did not earn a European spot. Again, Villa have been successful in this, smartly adding quality where needed, with all five of Villa’s summer signings last season turning out to be successful in some way; ultimately pushing Villa up the table.

Villa have, however, posted losses of £70 million and £99 million in 2020 and 2021 respectively, and while the club remain able to spend in the market due to rounds of share purchasing from ownership (NSWE), it is easy to see how this level of spending is unsustainable without pushing for European football. Luckily, the focus on bringing in and developing youth leaves the club in a healthy position financially as many of Villa’s current squad could be moved on at a profit to fund future transfers and keep the club stable. With the sale of Grealish for £100 million exemplifying this, the transfer has already given the club the freedom to move for top Premier League talent such as Danny Ings.

To keep this team and project going, the goal next season and beyond will be to push into those top eight positions, to turn 55 points into 60 plus points, and to show more consistency throughout the duration of a long and grueling campaign.

Rapid Vienna v Aston Villa - UEFA Europa League Play Off
Aston Villa have not played a European fixture since losing to Rapid Vienna in 2010.
Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images

With top eight being the goal next season, the club are going big in the transfer market again as Villa need some quality in the starting line-up in order to improve ball retention and stop attacks from faltering. Looking again at Leicester, their third year of their project brought in five players, using the sale of Harry Maguire for £80 million to fund them. These signings included the likes of Dennis Praet and Youri Tielemans in order to add quality to the first 11, whereas James Justin was brought in to add depth, develop, and is now a first team regular. Likewise, Liverpool used the sale of Philippe Coutinho in 2018 to fund a defensive rebuild that earned them a Champions League and Premier League title.

Villa are following a similar pattern, with three attacking signings brought in to replace the attributes of Grealish and build a more rounded squad. The stable Premier League position and settled playing style established last season will only help Villa’s reformed recruitment department fill the gaps this summer. Beyond that, fans can expect a potentially large outlay on just one or two players next summer to hopefully turn a top eight finish into a top five finish.

The club’s efforts of reforming the academy shows they are already planning for the next ‘Project’, but this is, however, a delicate balancing act. The club’s project must balance a need for immediate success in the form of European football, without which the likes of Grealish was tempted away by a more successful club.

Bringing in new players in the transfer market does have it’s drawbacks. When Liverpool’s injury crisis occurred last season, players such as Nat Phillips were unable to plug the gap due to their lack of exposure to top level football in the 2019/2020 title success and the same happened to promising Villa youth players for years when survival and then promotion were club priorities.

For Villa, would bringing in James Ward-Prowse compromise the development of Jacob Ramsey and Carney Chukwuemeka by reducing their potential minutes within the first team? With the club reportedly looking to add another attacking midfielder/winger, centre-back, and goalkeeper, what does it mean for Jaden Philogene-Bidace, Lamare Bogarde, and Viljami Sinisalo?

A balance must be found as these players won’t push Villa into Europe yet and a club that focuses on youth will quickly find itself a mid-table, selling club. The answer in the short-term is loaning out young players who will not get minutes, but they will sooner or later need to prove themselves in claret and blue attire and for that, the club must be brave and trust in the project.

Bristol City v Aston Villa: Pre-Season Friendly
Can the likes of Jaden Philogene-Bidace and Carney Chukwuemeka establish themselves within the first team this season?
Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images