Aston Villa can count themselves lucky to be heading into a second season in the Premier League, rather than looking at the prospect of a season back in the Championship, but they shouldn’t care about that.
Villa took a point from a draw with Sheffield United when goal-line technology failed to award Sheffield United a clear goal. Villa fans will, and should, point out that they could still have come back to score in that game. And they had their own share of bad luck this season, with the VAR system denying them a number of decisions over the season.
None of it matters now though, the past is the past. Villa are a Premier League club, and that’s the only thing they should concern themselves.
Year two in the Premier League can often prove tricky, and Villa will no doubt prepare themselves for a battle but maintain ambitions of a midtable finish. Villa are owned by ambitious men and there will be no settling for the club from the Midlands. One of their co-owners is Wes Edens, who has turned the Milwaukee Bucks NBA franchise from an afterthought into one of the very best teams in the NBA. The other is Nassef Sawiris whose family business, Orascom Construction, has grown to become one of the large construction companies in the world under the guidance of he and his brothers. Both men have amassed large fortunes, and both men will spend to make their sporting ventures successful.
Last summer Villa signed 12 players, for a combined £135million. A sign of real ambition, but a little bit too scattergun in the approach. They followed that up with a further £10mil outlay in January, buying three players and bringing in another two on loan. No matter what way you slice it, bringing in 17 new players in one season is too many.
You can excuse some of it, when you acknowledge that 23 players left the club permanently during the summer and January windows, with a further 16 outgoing loans being put in place. It’s also worth noting that three of the players signed in the summer had been on loan at Villa the previous year, and that Pepe Reina was a necessary January signing because of Tom Heaton’s injury.
Sporting Director, Jesus Garcia Pitarch seemed to be channeling his inner Harry Redknapp though, wheeling and dealing to his heart’s content. Pitarch has recently been fired, which might suggest that his bosses were not happy with the result of his transfer policy, and in his place Villa have appointed Johan Lange.
Lange arrives having revolutionised FC Copenhagen’s transfer policy, creating something of a talent factory that has seen them snap up talented young players, develop them into quality senior professionals and sell them at a profit.
It will be interesting to see what his remit at Villa is. But one thing is for certain, Villa can not afford so much squad turnover this summer. They need to bring in less quantity, and a lot more quality.
The rumoured budget for the summer is £100million, which should help in terms of the recruitment, and Villa have already been linked to a host of signings. Much of that will simply be agents trying to link their clients to a cash-rich club in order to force their current clubs to offer a new salary, but some of it will be real.
Villa are a draw. They’re a Premier League club, they’re the number one club in England’s second city, they have a big fanbase and they have fantastic history. Villa are a big regional club, similar to Everton and Newcastle. But they have a more successful past than either.
It’s easy to forget that Villa have won seven top flight titles, the 5th most in English history. That’s more than Manchester City or Chelsea. They’ve also won with seven FA Cups, joint 5th most ever, and five league cups, joint 3rd most ever. It’s easy to forget that in the early years of the Premier League, they were title challengers.
And there’s also the small matter of having won the European Cup in 1982.
People can dismiss that success as “a thing of the past” but it’s real. It’s Aston Villa’s history, and it can be a selling point to players. “This is what we’ve done in the past, and it’s what we want to do again in the future”. Don’t dismiss Villa too quickly, their two owners are mega-rich and could go full Roman Abramovich if they really wanted to. Villa will be ambitious, they will spend money, but they will look to grow in a controlled manner.
They won’t run before they can walk, the past history of Sawiris and Edens shows us that. They’re about sustainable growth. Take the time to properly read up on Fortress Investment Group, Orascom and the Milwaukee Bucks, and you’ll be left with no doubt as to how successful they’ve been with that mindset.
So year two in the Premier League for Villa will be about sustained growth. Dean Smith will not be tasked with getting a European place this season, but likely he’ll be required to avoid another relegation dogfight.
As things stand it looks as if he will have the services of talismanic playmaker Jack Grealish to aid him in that task. Grealish, the club captain, has been subject of interest from Manchester United. But Villa have no need to sell, and unless Grealish pushes for a move, they can stick to their valuation of the player and no budge. That valuation is rumoured to be around the £80million mark, which is steep for a player who is yet to be capped at senior level despite being almost 25.
Recent rumours suggest that United could offer 33 year old backup goalkeeper Sergio Romero as “bait” to convince Villa to make a deal. Villa would do well to ignore such “bait”, though if they were to enter negotiations then Dean Henderson is a player Villa should demand be included in any offer.
As for Grealish, should he stay, there’s question marks over what position he will play next season. Last year he spent time in midfield but predominantly played on the left side of the front three. Villa’s record with him in their midfield three was disastrous, just one win in 11 games. Grealish isn’t a central midfielder. He can play in central midfield, but that does not make him a central midfield in the same way that taping features to your arms, flapping them and shouting quack does not make you, the reader, a duck.
Grealish is an attacking midfielder. A throwback 10 at heart, capable of breaking the lines, splitting defenses and drawing foul after foul. To get the best out of Grealish, it’s probably best to utilise him as an attacking midfield, either at the tip of a diamond behind a front two, or in a 4-2-3-1. Villa played the diamond only once last season, while using 4-2-3-1 on two occasions.
The diamond might suit Dean Smith’s men better, as it retains more similar spacing and playing patterns to the 4-3-3 they used on 20 occasions. They also get to keep the solid base of three in midfield which matches up with the top teams in the league.
Proceeding with the diamond in mind, Villa’s squad is quiet strong and probably only needs 5 good signings to become a comfortable midtable team.
Tom Heaton is a quality goalkeeper, but he is 34 and coming back from a serious knee injury. The other goalkeepers at the club, Steer, Nyland and Kalinic, are probably best suited to the role of third choice keeper and the club should really be looking to move at least one of them out the door this summer. Villa definitely need to find a back-up to Heaton but should not rule out making him the back-up if the right player becomes available. With the aforementioned Dean Henderson definitely not returning to Sheffield United, could a year long loan with an option to buy be possible, even if Grealish is staying?
Henderson is England’s best goalkeeper, and one of the best in the Premier League. Villa should definitely be calling about his availability, despite the presence of a very good keeper in Heaton. If United want to keep Villa sweet regarding Grealish as perhaps a 2021 target for them, they could well be inclined to do such a deal. Villa could box off the goalkeeping situation without spending any money. Henderson, Heaton and Steer would be a strong trio to carry into the season.
In defence, Villa do appear pretty well stocked. Centrally they can call on Tyrone Mings, Ezri Konsa, Bjorn Engels and Kortney Hause. It remains to be seen what the starting pair will be, as Mings appears to be the only guaranteed starter. Each of the other three offer a different type of partner for him and Smith may adopt a horses for courses approach and rotate depending on the opposition. Konsa seems to most likely long term solution, but all three can be counted on to partner Mings this coming season.
At left back, Matt Targett and Neil Taylor are solid, if unspectacular, options and Villa should not require any investment there. Right back is a bigger question, Frederic Guilbert had something of an up and down season last year and the other season option at the club was Ahmed Elmohamady. “Elmo” has always seemed miscast as a traditional right back, being more at home in a wingback role. At 32 it may be time to move him on, perhaps Steve Bruce of Newcastle would like to buy him for the fourth time.
That would leave an opening in the squad for a rightback but it’s possible Villa don’t have to spend in this position, if they decide to give James Bree an opportunity to show what he can do. Villa signed Bree from Barnsley four years ago but he’s only been given a handful of chances to show what he can do. He’s spent the last 18 months on loan, and turned in some impressive performances for Luton last season, so maybe he’s worth trying as a back-up to Guilbert before rushing to spend on a new signing.
Giving the existing defenders another year to develop and grow together, form better understandings and become a more cohesive unit might be Villa’s best course of action. They can always look to boost the defense in January if need be.
Looking at the midfield as a diamond, or at least as a 3-Grealish shape, Villa have two absolutely nailed on starters, and three good squad players that can be used in a variety of ways, and one who could be placed in either group. Marvelous Nakamba, Conor Hourihane and Jota are good squad players. Nakamba is an energetic midfield destroyer, Hourihane a willing runner and clever user of the ball, and Jota a creator player with a knack for the unexpected.
Douglas Luiz is nailed on starter number one in midfield. Perfect for the base of the diamond, he’s already established himself as one of the best holding midfielders in the Premier League. If Grealish is Villa’s most talented player, Luiz is their most important. He’ll set the platform for others to go and play. Nakamba can offer good cover here, and in the box to box roles.
In terms of those box to box roles, Villa either need one starter and potentially a back-up or two starters, depending on how you view John McGinn. He’s clearly a good player, but is he good enough and consistent enough to warrant a starting role if the aim is to surround Grealish and Luiz with players of their own calibre. Probably not.
McGinn and Hourihane, plus Nakamba at times, does mean Villa have strength in depth behind the starters in those box to box roles and can heavily rotate to preserve the legs of their players over what will be a very intense season, due to the shortened calibre.
Ideally Villa’s box to box roles, would contain on player who’s more defensive minded, and one who’s more attack minded and can be a source of goals. Aaron Ramsey is available, as Juventus look to improve in midfield, but while he is the ideal fit he’s almost 30 and would demand wages that he’s simply not worth.
Villa would be well served to repeat the trick they pulled off last summer when signing Douglas Luiz. Look at the top clubs and see who they have that could be available and would improve your team.
Could Ross Barkley be the right fit? He’s a quality footballer who’s shown a penchant for scoring and creating goals during his Everton years, and while he hasn’t always performed at his best level for Chelsea he has developed into more of an allround player.
Barkley wouldn’t be an excessively expensive signing, nor would his wages be unmanageable for Villa. He’d be a player who’d compliment Grealish very well, as a second creator and possibly the main goal source from midfield. Their skillsets should mesh well on the pitch and Barkley would join as a player with a point to prove. If Villa could land the England international for around £15million, that would be very good business.
For the more defensive of the two roles, Villa could look at someone like Marco Grujic of Liverpool. A big, rangy box to box player who’s good on the ball and strong in the tackle, Grujic would bring a physical presence to the Villa midfield. After two impressive seasons on loan at Hertha Berlin, he’s believed to be available for around £20million. At 24 he has his best years ahead of him. Villa have also recently been linked with Weston McKinnie of Schalke, who could also fill the role though he’s not as developed as Grujic.
Douglas Luiz, Marko Grujic, Ross Barkley, and Jack Grealish as the 10. That is a midfield that could compete with most in the league. It has a little bit of everything, goals, creativity, work rate, physicality, defensive nous. With Nakamba, Hourihane, McGinn and Jota in reserve, depth would not be an issue. Young Jacob Ramsey is very promising, but maybe a loan would be in his best interests this summer. Henri Lansbury isn’t Premier League calibre but is very good at Championship level and should push for a return to that level this summer.
In attack, Villa needs to buy goals. It’s that simple. The current strikers, Wesley, Mbwana Samatta, Keinan Davis, Indiana Vassilev and Scott Hogan are a mixed bag. Hogan is not a Premier League calibre striker but could have good value to a team in the Championship, so Villa could sell him to recoup some of the money spent on him in 2017. Davis is raw, but game. He’ll work endlessly but offers very little in the raw of a goal threat. Both he and Vassilev would benefit far more from loan spells, than the would from spending the season playing under 23 football.
Wesley was last summer’s biggest expenditure and while he can’t be classed as a success, he certainly wasn’t a flop either. He showed plenty to suggest that in the right system, and when used with a partner, he can offer a lot in the Premier League. He suffered a bad knee injury which will likely slow him for the coming season, but he can be a valuable squad option.
As can Samatta who proved in the Champions League that he has a lot to offer in the right role.
If those two represent the 3rd and 4th options upfront, that puts Villa in a good position as long as they get the right 1st and 2nd options in the door.
Ollie Watkins of Brentford seems extremely likely to be Dean Smith’s top target, and understandably so. They’ve worked together in the past and Watkins, having been shifted from a wide role to a central role for last season, is coming off the best season of his career.
Pacey, strong, intelligent and a hard worker, Watkins has shown an eye for goal and a calmness in front of goal, that should see him succeed at the highest level. While he may be the least natural talented of the Brentford BMW front three, he’s the one most certain to succeed at Premier League level because of his style of play, versatility, and physicality.
Watkins would be a fantastic signing for Villa, and while there will be competition for his signature, the Dean Smith link is one that should pay dividends. Brentford have set a price of £25million, and while that is a little high for a Championship player, goals are the most valuable currency in the game.
Finding a partner for Watkins is a little tougher but Villa have already been linked with someone that could really thrive in a front two.
Milot Rashica of Werder Bremen is a very exciting attacker who appears well suited to the Premier League. Rashica has mostly played in wide roles in his career but does have the skillset to move central, with clever movement, good control and dribbling, and intelligent interplay with his teammates.
Asked to carry a bad Bremen team, he has fallen in love with shooting a little too much but with teammates like Grealish, Barkley and Watkins, he would likely feel less pressure to carry the team and trust his teammates more. Rashica’s decision making is the one question mark against him, but at a club with players as good or better than him, that problem should resolve itself.
It’s been suggested that Villa are also interested in Said Benrahma from Brentford but given and Rashica primarily play the same role, it would seem it is one of the other who will be signed. Adding Benrahma to Rashica, Watkins and Grealish would mean Villa having to play a midfield 3 including Grealish, which has not worked in the past.
Perhaps it could work in a 4-2-3-1 but only Watkins is a natural fit on the right and surely his signing would be aimed towards him playing centrally. There’s also the factor that Grealish will probably still play some games on the left in 4-3-3 sets, which means on of Benrahma or Rashica not being in the team.
Rashica and Watkins make the most sense for Villa in attack, and the pair should cost no more than £50mil. They could also function in a 3 for some games with Wesley played centrally, or as a pair flanked by wingers.
Villa do have two good wide players in Anwar El Ghazi and Trezeguet. Reliable, hard workers who can add 4-7 goals a season in squad roles. Both can also be used upfront if necessary, or as a 10 in certain games.
Signing Henderson – on loan, potentially with an option to buy, Grujic, Barkley, Rashica and Watkins in one summer would represent a big step forward for Villa. It would represent quality over quantity, and it would represent potential.
Barkley is the oldest of that group, and he doesn’t turn 27 until December. None are the finished article. All have room to develop.
Add them to Guilbert, Konsa, Mings, Targett, Luiz and Grealish to complete a starting 11 and you have a team that ranges between 22 and 27 in age. Perfect to grow and develop together for years to come. In fact of the potential 23 man squad outlined here, only Tom Heaton, Neil Taylor and Conor Hourihane are over the age of 27. Jed Steer would become the 4th when he turns 28 in late September.
Of course there are many other options for Villa this summer. Villa will be a draw as mentioned above. Ambition is a powerful thing, and Villa can point to their past to promote their plans for the future. A midtable finish is definitely attainable given the existing quality in the squad, the money available and the calibre of the man in charge.