The season’s winding down, another match without Jack, and calls for the youth after another impressive Cup performance. And all eyes are turning firmly to the summer window.
Naturally, I understand the calls to blood some of the kids at this point. It’s one of those things that seem to make sense. Me, I have no idea whether it actually does. Some obvious pros, perhaps a couple of cons.
As for the pros, well they’re pretty obvious: We’ve got some real up-and-coming talent, other clubs are keeping tabs, and the players will be wanting a taste of the action. Supporters obviously worry that if they don’t get some first-team minutes and encouragement for the future, they may want to find those somewhere else.
And it’s not wrong to think that if the season has sort of plateaued, it’s the perfect time. No real pressure, and good, hard competitive outings against top opposition. We look at other young players who’ve been handed debuts at similar ages.
On the con side: As Dean Smith said during the week (it was this week, I think), it’s one thing to look good against other kids, quite another going up against seasoned pros. The case apparently is there to be made in training against the seniors. Reading between the lines, he’s not quite seeing them ready to make the step up.
This could be for any number of reasons. Perhaps not showing they’re up to the pace/tempo. Perhaps not quite there with the physicality. Perhaps not quite thinking quickly enough. Perhaps a little cowed.
Naturally we know Compass are investing in the youth, and we know they want that to bear fruit. So we know Dean is quite aware of that, too. Whether there’s “pressure” to play them, I don’t know. But that’s the stewardship part of the manager’s job.
And from a motivated self-interest perspective, I’m sure Dean would love to have a couple ‘kids’ break through to stretch the transfer budget and squad depth. Given the way he seems to approach the first-team squad (you wouldn’t see so many contract extensions if the players didn’t like and trust him), you like to think the youth are in good hands.
There’s also the matter of senior players getting what may be their last chance to prove themselves. Part of keeping the dressing room together is players feeling like they’re treated fairly and that the starting XI is based on merit. And by all accounts, Elmo and Taylor are popular and well-respected, model professionals who know their roles, understand where they’re at in their careers, and do a lot behind the scenes.
So, there’s a lot to balance. I won’t pretend to know more than I do about any of these young players. I’ve seen some highlights, etc., and certainly see the promise. But I don’t see training or have any idea about their maturity, strength, etc.
The other trick is that Villa will likely be looking to spend on instant-impact players to lift the starting XI and push for Europe.
That means as far as the senior players go, there’s also lot to consider. Ghazi and Traoré. Luiz and Nakamba. Elmo and Taylor. Keinan Davis. And while McGinn remains a fan favorite, I’m sure he’s going to want to stitch together some better all-round performances heading into the break. Ross Barkley? The fact he started last week says to me Smith isn’t giving up on the season, though maybe starting Ross at this point makes it seem like he has.
It could well be that minds have been made up on some of these players. Putting aside Trez’s injury, I seriously doubt whether he or Ghazi really have a future at the club. Traoré, to my mind, may very well become a sub next season. Davis, probably out on loan, but maybe not. Is there any possible future for Barkley? Wesley obviously remains a huge question mark, so is another striker option being considered? Will Barry be auditioning during the summer? Would Ollie go wide?
And, perhaps biggest of all, is there any desire to move Jack into the middle? Or are the staff looking for an upgrade behind him while targeting a number 10? If a move is on the cards, then there are all sorts of dominoes that would follow.
Me, I’d expect Elmo to either move on, retire, or take a back-room role, with Guilbert and Kesler battling it out over the summer to back up Cash. But maybe Guilbert has already been ruled out. Hourihane? One assumes he’ll be moving on, however many nice things have been said, and if he does, no one will wish him anything but the best.
The biggest opportunity or need at the back will be an understudy for Targett, and likely a CB to replace Engels. I don’t think anyone can see Taylor being kept on. And there’s also going to be a battle for the #2 spot behind Emi because we all expect Tom Heaton to want out for a starting spot elsewhere.
Lots of moving pieces, which means that we might see some youngsters come off the bench, might not. I’m not going to be upset if we don’t see them play, because I have no choice but to trust Smith and the rest of the staff. They’re the ones paid to worry about it, they’re the ones answering to Compass. We know Dean has a pretty good eye, and isn’t shy about spending on young talent with the right attributes who haven’t played at the top level. Which means I don’t think he’s predisposed against the youth. He’s got more riding on getting that mix right than anyone.
Moving to Everton, no idea what we’ll see tomorrow. Many will expect or demand that Keinan start. I can understand, but I can also understand Smith not wanting to change formation. Or understand him saying, “Right, why not? He’s earned it, let’s see what he’s got over 60-90.”
The match-ups will play a big part in that decision, as will tactical considerations regarding a four-man midfield, or even (much less likely), a 3-5-2. Smith will want any positive momentum he can get in these last few games. I don’t think he’s going to change things up just to see the kids unless he really thinks they’ll step in and do a job. If he’s not giving Keinan starts, then…It’s probably still a bit down the road for them.
All I know is that I’m glad it isn’t my responsibility to make these decisions.
Over to you.