Attempting to pigeonhole non-elite clubs is nothing new, the indirect result of a sport in which everything – money, interest, coverage, media attention – is skewed towards the top in a simple but unbreakable cycle: the big clubs get more traffic, so they get more coverage, so they get more traffic.
Any smallish club that attempts to play passing football is copying tiki-taka; extra points if you can add ‘-alona’ to their name. Any manager who champions pragmatism is Sam Allardyce, any that appears studious is a Pep Guardiola-lite and any that comes over from Germany is the ‘new Jurgen Klopp’. This is a country still obsessed with calling every Chelsea manager ‘the [insert tenuous adjective] one’ thanks to a 15-year-old misquote.
So Fulham probably owe an apology to every promoted team that chooses to invest significantly in their squad in preparation for a Premier League campaign. Last summer, Fulham spent north of £100m in an attempt to be too good to go down and ended up making the squad too weird to stay up. That sort of catastrophe lingers in the air like a bad smell. It clings to those who follow Fulham.
This summer, Aston Villa have also invested significantly in an attempt to be too good to go down, or at least give themselves a sporting chance. On that small point, there is an obvious comparison with Fulham. The signings of Douglas Luiz and Bjorn Engels – when confirmed – will take Villa’s transfer fee expenditure up to £106m. That accounts for 17% of all the spending by Premier League clubs so far this summer.
But that is where the similarities end. If ‘doing a Fulham’ has joined ‘doing a Leeds’ (financial clusterf*ck accelerated by willful ignorance of the warning signs) and ‘doing a Sunderland’ (consecutive relegations from the Premier League downwards), Villa deserve to avoid being pigeonholed. Far more evidence suggests learning from Fulham’s mistakes rather than replicating them.
At the end of last season, Dean Smith’s squad was decimated. One of the necessary evils of relying heavily on loan deals to fuel a promotion bid is that, obviously, those loan deals end. Tammy Abraham (top scorer), Axel Tuanzebe, Tyrone Mings, Kortney Hause and Yannick Bolasie all left Villa Park at the end of May, along with a number of senior players whose contracts had expired. In total, Villa lost 14 players, leaving them with a first-team squad of just 17 aged 22 and over. When signing two of those players on permanent deals became an option, it was a no-brainer to improve the squad with familiar faces.
Importantly, Villa have bought defenders. Mings and Hause were joined by Matt Targett from Southampton and Ezri Konsa from Brentford, one of the highest-rated central defenders in the country. Villa conceded 20 more goals than Sheffield United last season, and more than Stoke City and Birmingham City in 16th and 17th respectively. Fulham’s defence was equally leaky in 2017/18, and their biggest mistake was to keep faith with Denis Odoi and Tim Ream.
It’s not just where Villa have improved the squad, but who they have bought. Last summer, only six of Fulham’s 12 first-team signings had any experience of English football, and both of their two most expensive arrivals (Jean Michael Seri and Andre Zambo Anguissa) were imports. Of Villa’s nine signings (including Engels and Luiz), three have already played for the club on loan, two more have joined from Premier League clubs and two others from the Championship. Only striker Wesley Moraes represents a blind roll of the dice, and Villa had little choice but to gamble in search of a replacement for Abraham’s goals. There is no guarantee that Moraes will fire, but guarantees cost an awful lot more than £22m in 2019.
If Villa have answered doubts on the ‘who’ and ‘who from’, look too at the ‘when’. One of the tenets of Smith’s success is that his players must buy into the ethos of his management and the club. To expedite that process, it makes sense to improve the squad earlier in the transfer window and thus create a window for familiarisation. By mid-July, Villa probably only have one or two positions to improve.
Last summer, Fulham signed five of their 12 summer transfers in the final 36 hours of the window. Players were being signed – and were choosing to join – as a panicked alternative to nothing rather than as a result of careful planning. That allowed an air of transience to hang over the club during the autumn and winter. The weirdness that did for Fulham was bred from unfamiliarity between players; they took five points from their first 12 matches. Cliques can easily form, and a manager loses control.
This Aston Villa recruitment drive is based not just on ambition, but atoning for regret. The club’s last Premier League demise was a miserable, dismal death. The monotony of Alex McLeish and Paul Lambert was replaced by the farce of Remi Garde. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The club steered itself towards the iceberg.
Since then, Villa have paid the price for their past mismanagement and misery. Last summer they came close to administration under the ownership of Tony Xia, and only secured a loan to safeguard the club’s future by selling off the staff car park. A year later an unexpected shot at redemption has presented itself thanks to the excellence of their manager, a local man done good. Consolidate in the top flight and financial disaster will have been averted. In those circumstances, speculating to accumulate presents as the sensible option. We never expected to be here, so why not aim for the moon.
Have Villa overpaid for certain players? Yes. There is no argument on that point. They are persuading highly rated individuals to join a club that has only just been promoted and are among the favourites for relegation. The selling clubs were financially secure and so didn’t need to sell cheaply, and Villa wanted to get the deals done early. In those circumstances, silly money is the only money that works. But then the Premier League is the natural habitat of silly money.
For the best insight into the mood at a football club, don’t visit The Times or the Guardian or Football365. Don’t listen to podcasts or watch magazine shows. Talk to the fans. Visit their forums and speak to them in pubs and on public transport. Hear what they have to say before telling them how they should feel.
While others accuse Aston Villa of treading in the footsteps of a calamitous Fulham season, their supporters are buoyant about what lies ahead. After three years of having chips p*ssed on from an increasing height, their club is showing ambition to follow their most enjoyable season this decade.
If 2019/20 ends in Aston Villa ignominy, so be it. They have experienced it before and may well do again. But at least Villa have a manager to be proud of and a squad that is steeled to try and stay in the Premier League. And that’s just about all those supporters have been asking for.