Since returning to the Premier League, how much have Aston Villa’s transfer windows differed? We’ve taken a look back at the last few years.
Words: Ivan McDouall | @Ivan_McDouall
It’s fair to say things feel a little different around B6 this summer, but how different?
The sense of clean states and new beginnings will always dominate at this time of year, whatever position the club is or isn’t in. Hope springs eternal. Last summer is a case in point where expectation was high as Steven Gerrard oversaw pre-season and the usual comings and goings. With hindsight, many Villa fans have been quick to suggest last July and August was merely a sign of what was to reach its nadir on a wintry night at Fulham in October, but that’s easy to say now. As we start another pre-season there is certainly grounds for more sustained hope – Unai Emery is a career coach who, quite simply, miraculously turned Villa’s season around last term and has given the club a chance to return to European competition after more than a decade.
While Emery and his team represent a renewed and clear vision for the club’s anticipated progression, the personnel on the pitch remain integral to the execution of that vision. Every summer is defined in fan’s eyes by the transfer window – who is coming in, who is being shown the door, either permanently or on loan. If we are to accept this summer is – or feels – different what can a look back through Villa’s recent summer transfer dealings show us? Has there been an evolution in policy that would suggest we are entering into a special time for the club?
When Villa returned to the Premier League in the summer of 2019 the club was stuck between a rock and a hard place. The squad that had won promotion was built on a successful combination of experience (Jedinak, Whelan, Chester) and loan signings (Abraham, Mings) all harnessed and glued together through the help of local boy Jack Grealish. Something had to give after the Wembley final and it duly did – many of the experienced players were released and fringe players deemed unsuitable for a Premier League campaign followed. To add to this, Tammy Abraham – whose goals, despite Grealish’s influence, were the key driver for promotion – returned to Chelsea.
There were clearly gaps to fill but as with many promoted clubs Aston Villa would need to balance that with a conservative approach to spending funds alongside the level of player a newly promoted club (whatever their history) can attract. Defence was a focus from the off – two new full backs arrived (Guilbert, who had been signed the January prior in the Championship, and Targett) as well as new centre backs (Konsa and Engels). This was supplemented by making permanent deals for Tyrone Mings and Kortney Hause who had both been a success for Villa on loan in the second tier. Although Jed Steer had come to the fore in the second half of the Championship season, who would play in goal remained a concern and Tom Heaton was duly signed from Burnley, representing a solid and experienced top-level addition.
Looking back now this development of defensive options has an air of quantity over quality. Of the eight names above only Konsa, Mings and Hause remain at the club, with the latter decidedly surplus to requirements. More tellingly neither Guilbert nor Targett started the first game of the season at Tottenham which points to a sense of uncertainty whether those signings improved the quality of the starting XI or more the depth of the squad. Engels was preferred to Konsa – something which seems unthinkable now given the latter’s progress.
Other summer signings remained in the background for that opening game to echo the point. Douglas Luiz would clearly have a job to displace Dean Smith’s preferred triumvirate of Grealish, McGinn and Hourihane. And Marvellous Nakamba would surely have an even harder job to do that. Trezeguet – signed from the Turkish Super League – did start but was replaced before the hour by another underwhelming summer addition Jota. Brazilian Wesley, the replacement for Abraham’s goals, toiled up front.
An evaluation of that summer’s business can be viewed in short and longer terms. In the short term many of the players added made contribution to achieving the goal of not getting relegated. Not least Trezeguet who scored crucial goals against Crystal Palace and Arsenal in the dog days of the season and Ezri Konsa who established his starting role post lockdown. But longer term, of all eleven players that arrived that summer only Mings, Luiz and Konsa remain as real contenders in the squad. This underlines the fact that a policy of squad depth to survive was the focus – a policy that would shift dramatically in summer 2020.
Three key signings in September 2020 demonstrated a shift towards strengthening the first XI. Emi Martinez, Matty Cash and Ollie Watkins would surely be certain starters. And they duly were in the first league game of the season against Sheffield United (alongside Konsa, Mings and Luiz). A core side emerged over a stunning start to the season that suggested that Dean Smith had a clear plan of style and personnel, which hadn’t been abundantly clear in the previous season. Ross Barkley was also added on loan, to reduce the creative burden on Jack Grealish – a move that also pointed to a harder edge from Smith in terms of one of his erstwhile lieutenants Connor Hourihane, who would lose his place to Barkley. Bertrand Traore also arrived at the club, to supplement the existing stable of inconsistent wingers, taking his place alongside the Trezeguet and the Championship surviving Anwar El Ghazi.
If one views the two Summers as a whole, the additions of Mings, Konsa, Luiz, Cash, Martinez, Watkins make absolute sense and all of them are strongly involved in Emery’s current plans. There was a genuine sense that Smith was building a core that would sustain Villa’s development in the topflight – and then summer 2021 happened.
The sale of Jack Grealish to Manchester City for £100 million was inevitable in some sense – but equally hit hard for any Aston Villa fan. Not least because, for all the establishment of a core squad Grealish remained the shining creative light and it was difficult to imagine how he might be replaced. It might seem unfair, but the Grealish money essentially re-configured the transfer policy within the club as they suddenly had an enormous challenge to replace the irreplaceable whilst placating a bitter fan base, albeit with quite a war chest.
The Grealish money was spent on three players – Danny Ings, Emi Buendia and Leon Bailey. We will all remember Christian Purslow’s odd analogy of Grealish being replaced by three players in terms of his running, goals and assists. It all felt rushed and unthought through – the signing of Ings upset the balance with Watkins after a strong season, Bailey just appeared to be another inconsistent winger and Smith seemed unconvinced by Buendia’s ability. All three were involved in the opening day defeat to Watford and Ings scored in his first two, but the season stuttered and Dean Smith was sacked in November.
Steven Gerrard inherited the core squad of 2020, now supplemented by Jacob Ramsey, and many continued to perform well under a new steward. Gerrard – as with Smith before him – couldn’t seem to work out how to utilise the ‘Grealish three’ starting Ings and Buendia alongside Watkins in a system that only worked in his first game once the former two had been taken off. If Smith’s faith in Buendia had appeared shaky there was no doubting Gerrard’s view when Philippe Coutinho joined in January 2022.
The summer of 2022 seemed to shift thinking again, towards a slightly more conservative model of spending and ambition. Coutinho was made permanent, but early additions of the much-fancied Boubacar Kamara and Diego Carlos added genuine quality to the squad. It appeared that Gerrard and Purslow had identified key personnel to improve the first team and acted decisively. That was then undermined by the panic additions of Bednarek, Augustinsson and Dendoncker towards the end of the summer which wholly reeked of Summer 2019 and ‘getting bodies in’.
The first game of the 22/23 season unsurprisingly saw Kamara and Carlos start in a disappointing defeat away to Bournemouth. In hindsight the fact that Mings, Luiz and Watkins were not starters that day is preposterous given how the season played out but was not necessarily so at the time. As alluded to earlier it is easy to look now to Gerrard’s deficiencies but the Ings/Watkins conundrum was never solved by any manager and who would Luiz have played in front of? The midfield three that day on the South coast was McGinn, Ramsey and Kamara. The Mings omission was odder but Carlos was clearly brought to start and an omission of Konsa would have been equally hard.
Once Gerrard was dismissed and Unai Emery took the wheel, things appear to have settled down into a coherent plan again. Whilst the focus here has been on summer windows, the first allusion to this was January 2023 with the addition of Alex Moreno (a left back entirely suited to how Emery wanted to play) and the sale of Danny Ings (in one foul swoop, and a decision that empowered Ollie Watkins to break club scoring records).
The summer 2023 window – so far – seems to be following a stable and well thought out pattern. Youri Tielemans is another quality addition – and a free one at that – to an already powerful midfield staple, although Emery may expect him to play further forward at times. The signing of Pau Torres is exceptional, and one that points to Emery’s way of playing out from the back. Torres will bring a new level to that aspect of Villa’s play, but given the narratives played out around Carlos and who missed out for him to start will be interesting to see how Emery maintains that balance. Ultimately, Emery won’t be rushing to add depth – any signings that are made will be needed and fit the plan and system of how he wants the side to approach 23/24. I also wouldn’t give too much weight to the idea that more games mean more squad – Emery has throughout his career preferred a settled side who work hard for one another. That was the strength of the end of last season and he won’t want to undermine that. Additions will be upgrades.
Finally, in evaluating the four summers since promotion back to the Premier League, it is telling that Mings, Konsa, Luiz, Cash, Martinez and Watkins were all secured in the first two which shows that the club identified a level of quality that has sustained managers. Add to that John McGinn (signed in the Championship) and Jacob Ramsey (one of our own) and a core is there – which Emery will build on – but pre-dates him considerably. That suggests that for all the mis-steps an overarching policy with transfers has worked, even if it has taken changes in management to bring the best out of some of those players.