There is no magic formula for improving upon consecutive Premier League finishes of 16th, 15th, 15th and 17th, but it would be a committed optimist who viewed Aston Villa’s current condition as anything but grim. “There will be a few changes, as many as we can possibly do,” said Tim Sherwood after the 4-0 FA Cup final defeat to Arsenal. Not sure this is quite what he had in mind.
Since the end of last season, Aston Villa have lost their captain (Fabian Delph), their top league goalscorer (Christian Benteke) and two of their next three top league goalscorers (Tom Cleverley, Andreas Weimann). Those four also constitute four of their top eight appearance makers from last season. Central defender Ron Vlaar was poor for large swathes of last season, but he was also their most experienced defender. He too has opted for pastures new.
The headline statistic is this: Aston Villa’s current squad scored a total of 12 Premier League goals last season. Gabby Agbonlahor accounts for half of those. The Premier League reconvenes in 16 days – Villa are emphatically ill-prepared.
Furthermore, Sherwood will know only too well the importance of starting the season quickly. In their first six league matches his side face one promoted team (Bournemouth) and four more (Crystal Palace, West Brom, Sunderland and Leicester) who finished in the seven places directly above Villa last season. With six consecutive games against teams in last season’s top nine following thereafter, collecting victories in August becomes of paramount importance.
The obvious retort is that there are still close to six weeks of the transfer window remaining, but Villa are in the unenviable position of having conspicuously full pockets with time running out. The basic economic principles of supply and demand dictate that clubs will soon put up their prices when officials dressed in claret and blue ride into town.
Another concern for fans is their club’s recent record in recruiting from abroad – it’s nothing short of abhorrent. A list of the last nine players brought to England by Villa is almost a complete who’s not: Libor Kozak, Aleksandar Tonev, Jores Okore, Antonio Luna, Carles Gil, Carlos Sanchez, Aly Cissokho. All since the beginning of 2013/14, and only Okore counts as a success.
Sherwood must hope, therefore, that his two signings thus far can buck the trend. Jordan Amavi had a wonderful season with OGC Nice in Ligue Un, but must deal with the pressure of being the club’s most expensive player in four-and-a-half years. Amavi is joined by Senegal international Idrissa Gueye, who is intended to be a replacement for the departing Delph (at a similar price and age but without the Premier League experience).
Gueye ingratiated himself to Villa supporters with some choice words upon completing his move: “I wanted a change of scenery. The most important thing was to come to England to improve and aim for a big club later.” Nothing like making a good impression, and that’s nothing like…
Replacing Benteke’s goals will be the club’s toughest task, with fans presumably less than impressed by repeated links to Emmanuel Adebayor. Given that the striker is on a £100,000-a-week contract at Tottenham and Daniel Levy wants a £5m transfer fee, we can’t shout ‘Walk away, do not touch’ loudly enough.
The final concerns surround Sherwood himself who is walking into untrodden ground, preparing for a new season for the first time as a manager. He was rightly credited with his short-term impact at Villa Park and for reigniting the form of Christian Benteke, but it’s worth remembering that Sherwood took just 16 points from 13 league games in charge.
Sherwood recently admitted his exasperation at his inability to shift the deadwood from his squad. “I think we still need to get rid of five, six, or seven maybe,” he said last week. “When you have players at the club who are on big money and enjoying the environment they are in, it’s hard. I’m not blaming the players – the club gave them the contracts, it’s not their fault – you just have to hope they have the opportunity to move elsewhere.” It’s an intriguing motivational tactic, and an awful lot of business to do in under six weeks. The start of the season already feels like a missed deadline.
The manager’s only other public missive was to laud the decision of Delph to stay at the club. “I could go as much as to say that if Fabian wasn’t with us last season we wouldn’t be in the Premier League now,” Sherwood said. At the time that was intended as a boast of Villa’s promising future; it now hangs in the air like the smell of decay. That’s close to an inadvertent admission of another relegation battle to come.
Tim Sherwood discussed performing “major surgery” on his squad in May, but supporters must put faith in a rookie manager and wantaway owner to fix the obvious wounds before time runs out. In the battle to avoid a fifth consecutive winter of Villa Park discontent, crossed fingers are the only protection against the cold.