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Could the sea change in recruitment policy see Gerrard’s Villa break into the top 8?

The signing of Philippe Coutinho and imminent arrival of Lucas Digne shows that Aston Villa are ready to further their ambitions under Steven Gerrard’s leadership.

Aston Villa Unveil New Loan Signing Philippe Coutinho Photo by Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images

While many managers claim fans should be “excited” about the club’s targets in a January transfer window, few have made good on that promise. Steven Gerrard, however, seems to be a man of his word. With a large shift in the recruitment policy and the finances to back it up, is this the most exciting January transfer window for Aston Villa ever?

January is a tricky time for transfer dealings; a time for short-term fixes to issues that appeared in the season. Few clubs want to lose players midway through a season and those that are available are there for a reason. For players falling out with a manager, long-term fitness and performance issues are both sure fire ways of getting sold in January. For clubs looking for players outside of those options, a premium price is often required to tip the scales of the selling club. Aston Villa, however, seem to be finding golden opportunities within those restrictions.

Aston Villa Unveil New Loan Signing Philippe Coutinho
Philippe Coutinho has become Steven Gerrard’s first signing as Villa boss.
Photo by Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images

At time of writing, the club have only signed one player, with another likely to be through the door very soon. That one player though is Philippe Coutinho, the third most expensive player ever. The Brazilian signed for Barcelona from Liverpool for a premium fee after the former were burned by the willingness of Paris St. Germain to activate the release clause of Neymar. Things haven’t worked out for the playmaker in Catalonia for a myriad of reasons, including his signing and others like it plunging the club into deep financial difficulty. It is this financial situation, along with the player’s prior relationship to manager Gerrard, that has allowed Villa to get such a talented player on favourable loan terms.

There are questions marks, however, as Coutinho’s form has been poor for a number of years while at Camp Nou. His performances at Bayern Munich whilst on loan, however, ended in a Champions League, Bundesliga, and DFB-pokal treble, showing that he is still a talent of the highest calibre. In this loan move, Villa have a player who could push Villa’s chance creation to the next level — much like Jesse Lingard’s move to West Ham United last season. The loan also minimises the risk to Villa should his poor form continue.

The next player through the door looks likely to be Lucas Digne. The French international fell out with Everton manager Rafa Benitez over the manager’s defensive style and Everton are keen to get him off the books this window. Digne is a similar style left-back to current incumbent Matt Targett in style. Able to cope defensively, but always looking to range forward into the final third and impact attacking areas.

A development option in Aaron Hickey was initially preferred to supplement Targett and provide competition in a key area in Gerrard’s narrow Christmas tree formation. It became clear this move wasn’t possible in January. Digne will come with a big wage (over £100,000 per week), and transfer fee (reportedly £25 million), but also comes with a big reputation as one of the league’s best attacking left-backs and is an upgrade on Targett when it comes to his impact in the opposition’s half. The fact that Villa are willing to spend heavily on a 28-year-old, short-term option demonstrates a change in recruitment policy for the Villans as they look the disrupt the current order of the Premier League.

Manchester City v Everton - Premier League
Lucas Digne is a clear upgrade and provides true competition to Matt Targett.
Photo by James Gill - Danehouse/Getty Images

Sooner or later a project must see success and now in its third season, the upper management at Aston Villa have clearly decided that the project must see success sooner rather than later. Until now, players have been signed with a view to selling them on for a profit. This tactic is common in clubs looking to break into European places as it allows them to make up for their financial disadvantages through player sales. Even this summer’s £30 million plus transfers, Emiliano Buendía and Leon Bailey, are in their twenties and should increase their values should they play well.

Coutinho, and Digne are both in their late 20’s, will come in on high wages, and so will have little resale value if signed permanently. The trade off for this is getting a complete player who needs less time to settle and develop. The club’s intention is clear — they do not want to settle and stabilise as a mid-table side — this is a push for the top eight. It’s easy to see why too as this season is a golden opportunity to break the establishment. While Arsenal have picked up form, they are hardly invulnerable to better teams, Tottenham’s project under Antonio Conte in still in its infancy and requires significant spending, likewise Everton under Benitez.

There are vulnerabilities too in Leicester City and West Ham United, with the former coming to the end of their project having failed to achieve Champions League football in the previous two seasons and the latter’s small squad one or two injuries away from looking quite ordinary. The change in policy also disrupts things lower in the division; both Coutinho and Digne were reportedly targets for Newcastle United’s newly minted project. Both players though decided that a Villa are preferable to a relegation dogfight, which could reduce Villa’s competition in the coming years should Newcastle get relegated.

Newcastle United v Cambridge United: The Emirates FA Cup Third Round
Villa’s market activities have disrupted Newcastle’s plans.
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

12 years on from Aston Villa under Martin O’Neill and the signing of Emile Heskey rather than Radamel Falcao to push them into Europe, Villa fans can be excited again once again. There is plenty left to do in a difficult window — the club lack cover at centre-back, a defensive midfielder must be a priority after the injury to Marvelous Nakamba, and a backup goalkeeper would allow some of the academy’s young talent to go out on loan. The club, however, have two domestic loan slots available, and as well as a seeming willingness to spend big this window in order ensure that Gerrard’s Villans break into the top eight this season.