So, a long break, Scotland glory for John McGinn, Ollie’s first game and goal in an England shirt, and Jack’s apparently back. All good things in an otherwise uneventful couple of weeks. I’ve not put anything fresh up, because it’s a long season and everyone needs an international break now and then. Which means I’ve had a little time to think, which is never good.
I know a lot of folks have been unhappy with the way we’ve stalled. And I’m not exactly thrilled by it, either. But one of the criticisms in Jack’s absence is along the lines of “Villa don’t have much to show for £250 million.” Which is a bit unfair, I think. We are still sitting 10th with just 10 to play. So, once again, a little perspective on where the money went, and why, to me, it’s nothing like what it seems. I apologize for the length, so feel free to skip over if you’ve learned this by heart and still aren’t moved.
Spending, Round 1
The first go-round after promotion, we spent £135m or so on 12 players, averaging out to about £11m-£11.5m apiece. The squad that needed replacing was not assembled by the current regime, whose hands were also basically tied after taking over Dr. Tony’s dumpster fire and rescuing Villa from administration. It was a very unlikely promotion.
We had to replace the likes of Jedinak, Whelan, and Adomah, loanees like Tammy and Tuanzebe, and were looking for a new No. 1. Lansbury had failed, Green wasn’t coming good, Kodjia was crocked. We had to upgrade on Elmo and Taylor. We were building on nothing much, and that kind of average is essentially enforced bargain-bin shopping to fill out a starting squad and bench. Wesley and Mings were the only signings over £20m. We couldn’t have spent more, and doing all that business at once is a lot different than building over two or three seasons.
Looking back, here’s the starting XI that won promotion: Steer; Elmohamady; Tuanzebe; Mings; Taylor; McGinn; Hourihane; Grealish; Adomah; Abraham; El Ghazi.
Of those, only three remain regular starters: Grealish, McGinn and Mings.
On the bench were: Whelan; Lansbury; Jedinak; Green; Kodjia; Kalinic; Hause.
Only Hause remains at Bodymoor.
Out of 18 in the side that won the Playoff Final, 10 are still on the books. But three are backups who’ve been replaced (Elmo, Taylor and Steer), and two are on loan (Kalinic and now Hourihane, who seems to have been replaced). That leaves 5 who aren’t emergency players. Hourihane will ‘come back,’ but I don’t think he’ll be staying. There’s just 4 of the 18 expected to start or make a regular contribution: Grealish, McGinn, Mings, and Ghazi.
We assume there’ll be at least three or four new starting-quality players after this summer. That’s a lot of turnover, and couldn’t really have gone any faster.
It made sense to have Elmo and Taylor play out their deals on the bench as veteran backups while blooding replacements in Targett and Guilbert. We couldn’t afford to buy true starting-quality backups in addition to the players bought to replace them. Heaton was very good value, but got hurt, so Reina was drafted in. (Subsequently, talk about silver linings, we were forced to sign Emi because of Heaton’s injury and Kalinic failing to convince.) Targett, Konsa, Luiz, Nakamba, Guilbert, Heaton, and Mings were all decent to excellent business, Wesley who knows, maybe a blunder. Engels seemed decent enough, but that went wrong (as did Guilbert, for some reason), then and Ghazi, Trez, Jota. I’d say if you get 9 out of 12 right, or close enough, you’ve done pretty well. You might say 8 with the jury out on Wes, but Engels still makes a reasonable #4 CB, all things considered, and Wes could yet surprise in terms of depth and ways of changing things up. He could also be moved on.
Samatta and Baston were unfortunate emergency stopgaps, but Baston is gone and Samatta is out on loan. Jota, though a bust and part of that first summer, was basically a trade for Gardner, who also wasn’t cutting it. When you factor in the major injuries to Heaton and Wesley (£32m of that £135m spend), Villa had to go into last summer spending again on a starting keeper and striker due to those injuries. Now, I’m pretty sure we’d have gone in for a striker anyway, but we’ve got about £50m of that £235 committed to two strikers, and some £30m to two keepers. That’s a third of the money spent, and you can’t say that £50m on two strikers is excessive. Joelinton, now there’s a £40m mistake.
Spending, Round 2
Second summer window, we fell short of the £100m mark, but we’re right about there with Sanson. That’s for 5 players. Sanson, too early to judge, and look at the difference between Targett last year and now. Konsa, I don’t think anyone was particularly excited with either him or Hause, but Konsa’s gone from strength to strength, and many were thinking he and Hause should be starting earlier this year. Cash has been a good buy, as has Ollie, never mind Emi. Traoré? Maybe a bust, but not a terribly expensive one. Three or four starters out of five isn’t a bad return. And at this level, if Traoré and Sanson just become squad players next year at roughly £16m apiece, that’s not out of line.
Initially, the Barkley loan looked like a masterstroke. If he hadn’t gotten injured, continued with anywhere near that form, and Jack hadn’t been out during a critical stretch, we’d be higher up the table. And I have to wonder if there’s a backstory with Ross we’re just not hearing. The injury was one thing, and you could’ve expected that, but the way he’s looked after…He’s just not right.
Also, last summer’s spend was influenced by Covid and the financial uncertainty heading into the season. The FFP changes were enacted in April of 2020, but that didn’t mean, at the time, that clubs could go crazy. It basically meant that expected operating losses could be covered by owners, and that it would all get rolled up into the 2021 accounting. FFP was then eliminated altogether, but that wasn’t a certainty at the time.
“The new measures state that the current 2020 financial year will not be assessed at all under FFP procedures, and will instead be rolled up into 2021, and the two years assessed together as a single financial period. Uefa sources confirmed that clubs would be allowed losses in excess of €30m as long as they show this was caused by falls in revenues because of the shutdown.”
Anyway, it’s been roughly £13.8m/player for 17 in two years (using a £235 million base). That’s what we’re seeing (and lamenting) right now: the teams around us have accumulated over time spending PL money and have outgoings with higher values to offset spending. We’re also in the most expensive league in the world, and FFP rules meant Compass couldn’t have spent more. We don’t yet have any £30m-£40m-rated players on the bench. Unless you count Ross.
The cracks Jack has been papering over have been exposed, and fairly. Which isn’t a bad thing. You’d rather know now, before the summer starts, where your real investment needs to occur, and no one can say they didn’t get a fair shake. The players under the microscope were all attempted bargain buys, and Villa clearly decided the man who orchestrated that spend wasn’t good enough.
It bears emphasizing that Villa have just four players who cost £20m or more: Ollie, Wes, Tyrone, and Emi.
So yes, we’ve been carrying some who ended up not really being up for it at this level, but more so because of where and how we were forced to shop, the numbers needed, the time-frame—and the man guiding the recruitment effort—than incompetence on Smith’s part. The players we know he wanted to buy (Konsa, Cash, Watkins, Mings, Targett, etc.) have largely vindicated his eye for talent, I think. No one seems really sure who came up with Wesley, Ghazi, or Trez. And I’m not sure Traoré seems like a Smith player, but he does have eight goal contributions in 26 appearances.
Bottom line: The money spent is not the same as Chelsea or City spending £235m in two summer windows, or really anyone around us bar Leeds, maybe. So in fairness, I think expectations should account for that. I’m not sure any promoted team could’ve been in a worse situation, and then bad luck with injuries meant we had to spend on two positions again. Given we’ve got six players that have either been called up to England or supporters think should be, we’ve done well enough. Never mind McGinn for Scotland, Emi for Argentina, and Luiz for Brazil.
I know all the recent history is a bit tedious, and I don’t mean to bludgeon anyone. Nor am I wanting to be an apologist. It’s just a reminder that Villa are who they are for a number of reasons beyond any single individual’s control, and those reasons largely predate Compass and Smith. All of what happened before doesn’t just get erased. It carries over, and FFP meant you could only fix so much at any given time.
Coming up, Villa were constrained by their Championship revenue. Then, on the rolling three-year average, Villa went into last summer with one year of PL revenue and two years of Championship turnover to work with. Let’s not forget that Smith and everyone else could’ve inherited a much better squad, but our business, and owner, hadn’t been all that smart prior. Compass have pumped all they can into Villa in all the ways available.
Me, I still think it’s somewhat miraculous that we are where we are, despite how the season has seemingly fizzled. From the brink of administration to promotion, complete overhaul, relegation escape, and now mid-table mediocrity? That’s a lot better than it might feel at the moment. Never mind feeling that we’re going to be competitive in any game where Jack’s involved.
Does saying that make Villa a one-man team? Sort of, when it comes to attacking. Jack’s carried us for three seasons now, making all sorts of players better than they are. He’s just that good. But we’ve got a very solid back five/six he has nothing to do with.
Criticism of substitutions, formation, lineups, the way Smith’s handled Jack’s absence…all fair game. Smith will say he’s still learning. Me, I tend to think a lot of supporters underestimate him. But that’s football. And, again, if we’re judging Smith & Co., all of the above go into the equation. Next season will be a very big one for Dean. It will be his team more than anyone else’s, and expectations will be high.
Compass have the money to strengthen and offer improved contracts, as well as hold out for good prices, and the squad know the reality of what’s going right and wrong far better than we. I don’t see Grealish putting in a transfer request, probably not Konsa, either. And even as I get set to post this, I see Konsa’s signed an extension. Well done, Ezri.
Now that FFP is going away, we could be in for some very pleasant surprises. Compass are very well aware this is probably their moment to pounce if they envision a European team built around a special player like Grealish.
So let’s see how things go when Jack returns. A decent finish will lift everyone’s spirits, set the stage for a good summer, and probably a legitimate challenge for Europe or a cup next year. Maybe even both.
Over to you.