Aston Villa’s Structural Issues
At the eye of the tornado that the most open Premier League season in years has been, it must be starting to feel a little lonely at the bottom. While the media has been working itself into a froth about Chelsea and Manchester United, Leicester City and Jamie Vardy, one of the great names of English football is sliding quietly and inexorably from view. Aston Villa seem to be headed for the Football League Championship, and there doesn’t seem to be any obvious answer to how this decline can possibly be arrested without change that doesn’t seem likely to be able to happen as quickly as the club needs.
Unforgiving numbers bear out just how desperate the club’s position is right now. Aston Villa haven’t won since the opening day of the season, have a meagre six points from their sixteen games so far, and are already eight points adrift of the dotted line that marks Premier League survival. Yet somehow or other, this doesn’t seem to be being talked about very much. This is a club that has been a member of the Premier League since its inception in 1992 and which has been in the top division of English football uninterrupted since 1988. In 1981 they were the champions of England. A year later they were the champions of Europe. For several seasons, however, Aston Villa have been treading water, with the club’s owner apparently happy to settle for Premier League existence for the sake of Premier League existence, and that stagnation, coupled with a transfer policy that seems, to put it politely, misguided, has become something that is seriously threatening that place amongst the gilded top twenty.
The club has already rolled the dice once this season in replacing Tim Sherwood as manager and has found that it has made no appreciable difference to results. If there was a new manager bounce to be seen at Villa Park upon the appointment of Remi Garde, it came in the most anaemic form possible, a goalless draw with Manchester City a couple of weeks ago. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that, for all that Sherwood was failing to deliver as the club’s manager, the problems at Villa Park are more structural than could ever hope be resolved by shuffling that particular one man deck.
All eyes, therefore, must turn to the club’s owner, Randy Lerner. Lerner is effectively now an absentee landlord at the club and has entrusted its Premier League survival to chief executive Tom Fox and sporting director Henrik Almstadt. Considering how much is at stake, it seems an unusual decision on the part of the owner to place such a responsibility on two individuals with relatively little experience of such senior positions at this level of the game, and critics might well point to the club’s fortunes this season as all the evidence they need of this policy’s failure. Furthermore, it doesn’t require a particularly cynical interpretation of events to form the opinion that sacking managers is an easy way to deflect attention away from the small matter of where the real, structural issues concerning the senior management within the club actually do rest.
The club is due to appoint a new chairman in the near future, but such an announcement will likely be considered mere window dressing if the new incumbent only answers to Fox or Lerner, without either of those two changing the way in which they control the club. The club has made huge strides in terms of cutting its financial losses over the last couple of years, but balance sheets are of limited value to supporters unless they translate somehow into something appreciable on the pitch, and this quite evidently hasn’t been happening at Villa Park of late. It is, of course, understandable that the owner of the club would wish to stem the tide of money flowing from his own bank account into the black hole that Aston Villa’s accounts had become, but if Lerner is unable to find a buyer for it in the Premier League, he may find himself unable to give the club away in the Football League Championship.
The story of Aston Villa’s failures in the transfer market last summer seems to be one of senior management following dogmatic belief rather than common sense. The sales of Christian Benteke and Fabian Delph for £40m were a gamble, but the signature of thirteen players for £50m, of which only three had previous Premier League experience, gave off an air of “never mind the quality, feel the width” and it has also become apparent that it was Fox and Almstadt, along with the club’s head of recruitment, Paddy Riley, who were driving these decisions rather than Tim Sherwood. Whether Sherwood – or, indeed, anybody else – could have done much better in the transfer market with that amount if money to spend and a completely free rein is unknowable. We can say with a degree of certainty, though, is that he couldn’t have done much worse than has been managed this season, at least not if the current league table is anything to go by.
Conventional wisdom might lead us to the assumption that, after several seasons of something approaching paralysis, relegation might be the best thing for Aston Villa. There is, in the case of some clubs and between some divisions, merit to this argument. Relegation would allow – providing they exist in the first place – release clauses to kick in, enabling the club to deforest a dysfunctional squad of players, whilst at a lower level the winning habit, which has been missing from Villa Park for some considerable time now, might be rediscovered. In the case of the gap between the Premier League and the Championship, however, the benefits may well come to outweigh the costs, such is the amount of money that sluices through the Premier League these days. The Football League Championship is littered with clubs who believed that they would be able to weather the storm of relegation, that the parachute payments would cushion the blow of relegation, that a quick return was likely, only to find out that this particular division can be considerable easier to fall into than clamber back out of again, at least in an upwardly direction.
What Aston Villa needs more than anything else right now is a change of ownership, and a completely fresh broom through the club which doesn’t end at the manager’s bench. Randy Lerner’s nine and a half years of owning the club has been a failure by any reasonable metric, and the systemic problems that are running through Villa Park at the moment will not change until there is a change in the entire culture of the senior management of the club. As things stand, for example, the best that we know of the club’s plans for what can only be considered to be an absolutely critical January transfer window seems to be a desire to acquire the signature of a thirty-four year old Ashley Cole from AS Roma. But this only leads us to another problem that may be insurmountable come the start of next month. Which players – of the calibre that Aston Villa desperately need if they are to give themselves a reasonable chance of avoiding death’s sweet kiss, come the end of the season – are going to want to drop themselves into the midst of a relegation dogfight which might well end in failure, and what might their terms for doing so be? The potential for buying in haste and repenting at leisure, with a desperate buyer in a rapacious market, is great. And, considering their misadventures in the last transfer window, who would entrust the current set up to get things right this time around?
A disinterested owner trying to sell but unable to find a buyer, a new manager who hasn’t been able to gel a misfiring first team squad, a restless support base and the rest of the Premier League disappearing off into the horizon is a complex set of problems with no easy, broad brush solution. If Aston Villa is to become the club of which it is capable of being – and has been before – it is going to require a root and branch reformation, from the very top down. It’s difficult to see, however, how that could be managed in the sort of time frame required to give it so much as a fighting chance of Premier League survival this season. The January transfer window offers a final throw of the dice, but the odds against survival are getting longer all the time.
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