By Calum Slater
The January transfer window comes in a period of sustained form for Aston Villa, with the recent performances of certain players potentially having an impact on the needs of the team during this period. Football is a fickle game; only a few weeks ago, a new winger would have been the priority, whereas the recent performances of Bertand Traoré and particularly Anwar El Ghazi have changed this.
This window is often the time for panic-buys to plaster a gaping hole in an underperforming squad, a description that couldn’t be further from where we currently are.
The spirit in the squad is good and it will be further boosted by the return of Tom Heaton and Wesley in January, with both strengthening Dean Smith’s hand. The Villa Head Coach has suggested they’ll only be additions, if opportunity knocks, as opposed to them actively earmarking players to get in.
Recently, with the absence of Ross Barkley, a player who undoubtedly elevates the team, Smith found a way to adapt the system by bringing Grealish into the more traditional ‘Number 10’ role with El Ghazi on the left. This set-up has both managed to grind out results in some games and dominate others. The team are settled and confident; it is unlikely that he will disrupt this dynamic unless a very good opportunity presents itself.
The final game of the calendar year was an entertaining draw at Stamford Bridge; it’s a real sign of the progress made by the club that going into the game, a result of some sort was very possible and that the point earned was deserved (a similar result would have been forthcoming at Old Trafford, if VAR had done its job).
When considering that Mings, Trézéguet and Barkley were all unavailable, such a performance indicated that we will push for a European spot and players acquired in January, if any, should reflect the new expectations of the club.
Following the game, Smith commented that “unless the right thing comes along, we don’t have to jump into the market” but also mentioned that he and those involved in recruitment “always have their finger on the pulse”.
His remarks around the players returning to the squad would suggest that any incomings may only be to act as cover for the incumbents.
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The squad have already faced its toughest challenge fitness-wise, playing 45 minutes with ten men against Crystal Palace before an end-to-end contest at Chelsea only two days later. However, the Premier League season is a long and unpredictable affair and so depth is required in every position.
Reviewing the squad is a strangely comforting task given the players we’ve had over the years, with not a Leandro Bacuna or Jordan Bowery calibre player anywhere near the starting line-up.
The goalkeeper situation is the best we’ve had for many years with a strong #2 in Heaton, in case the unthinkable were to happen. The two fullbacks have been very impressive and Villa have three centre-backs that have shown enough quality to warrant their position in the side when they’ve featured.
Kourtney Hause’s performances have proved to Ezri Konsa and Tyrone Mings that their position is under constant threat, although the unpredictable Mings is the main leader in the back line. Whilst fans may feel another centre-back is needed, recent performances may have persuaded Smith otherwise and Brett Engels showed himself to be a decent centre-back at the start of last season.
John McGinn and Douglas Luiz have looked very strong in midfield of late, and Villa’s attacking options have looked far more menacing than any would have predicted, with El Ghazi bagging five goals in as many games.
Wesley’s return will give Smith added tactical options too, as well as strengthening the squad. Villa will have the option to play two up top or have Watkins on the right-hand side of a front three.
What do we need?
Injuries to Matt Targett, Douglas Luiz or Ollie Watkins pose the biggest threat to the balance of the side in the sense that the replacement would play with too different a style or simply not be good enough.
Should Targett be out for an extended period of time, his replacement would most likely be Neil Taylor, who’s able to do an adequate short-term job defensively, but ultimately is limited going forward and compromises Villa’s attacking potential.
In the deeper midfield role, Marvelous Nakamba or Conor Hourihane would have to step in – Nakamba has shown his limitations in his brief cameos so far and the fact that Smith opted to start Jacob Ramsey ahead of Hourihane against Wolves, shows that the Irishman’s status at Villa Park has somewhat fallen.
Whilst he may not be finding the net recently, Watkins provides a very quick and physical presence up top, pulling wide when required and creating both space and chances for his teammates.
The return of Big Wes will be an interesting one as he has some of these attributes whilst presenting another option for Smith if required. However, it may take him some time to find his feet after a year out and so it is likely he’ll be re-introduced slowly.
Based on this assessment and linking it to players that have been mentioned in recent times, the following could be worth consideration by Smith and Sporting Director Johan Lange in January:
Matías Vecino – Midfielder (Inter Milan, 29 y/o)
The latest name doing the rounds is that of the Uruguayan defensive midfielder Vecino, with some rumours linking him to B6 on a loan deal and some on a permanent basis.
A major downside is that a knee injury has kept him out of the Inter side for the season so far but he will be available to play in the coming weeks; the period it would take to return to match fitness may be a concern (remember Mr Drinkwater?) but having him in the squad would undoubtedly be an upgrade.
A fixture of the Uruguayan sides over the last few years, he has a fairly strong all-round game for his position, breaking up attacks with his physicality but also possessing the comfort on the ball to recycle possession and start attacks after winning the ball.
Whilst he wouldn’t automatically displace anyone on the team sheet, his attributes have elements of both McGinn and Luiz’s game, allowing him to act as adequate cover for either player and bringing greater quality to the Villa bench, whilst providing competition for both.
This would also allow Smith to manage players’ fitness levels in the midfield during busier periods. If the rumours are true and he is to be made available, we can expect competition for his signature. A reported transfer fee of around £20m is perhaps too high for a player of his age, but given Conte’s tendency to rotate his squad, the loan option may be more suitable for both parties
Verdict: A good addition if possible, but unlikely unless as a short-term loan deal, before looking for a more typical Smith signing in summer. It remains unclear as to whether Inter want to sell and other, more desperate clubs may be willing to pay an inflated price if they do.
Ross Barkley (permanent) – Midfielder (Chelsea, 27 y/o)
We’ve all seen the attacking edge that Barkley provides, the spark that he gives the Villa side and how the system changes without him in the team. The zenith of this was the Liverpool game in which he and Grealish made a mockery of the champions, and the last-minute winner in the following fixture vs Leicester was a moment that few players are capable of producing.
After hobbling off in the early stages of the Brighton game, the England international has missed the following seven games and forced a reshuffle in Villa’s attacking quartet though. Although the results in his absence have been very good, it is likely that his quality will see him immediately return to the starting XI and really support our push for Europe.
The difference that he has made to the side has inevitably led to calls to make the deal permanent. Theoretically, this suits everyone – Barkley will be a guaranteed starter for a very promising side at a time where the Euros and World Cup come in consecutive years, whilst Chelsea offload a player that is fighting for his place against the £71m Kai Havertz and Southgate’s prodigy Mason Mount.
However, Havertz’s failure to fully settle in England combined with Chelsea’s recent mixed run of form may find Frank Lampard considering Barkley as part of his squad for next year as a rotation option.
Additionally, given the number of games missed, Smith and the Board may wait until summer to fully commit to what would undoubtedly be an expensive signing. Recently approached on the subject, Smith has made it clear that the decision is “one for Johan and the owners to speak about”.
Verdict: Perhaps mere social media wishful thinking at the moment and not one for January. Likely to be re-visited in the summer, with his injury record being taken into account. Chelsea will expect a premium price whenever the deal is made, although this may fluctuate slightly depending on their needs at the time. Importantly, in December, Villa have shown there will be life after Barkley, whatever happens.
Rico Henry – Left Back (Brentford, 23 y/o)
In looking for back-up and competition for Matt Targett, Smith would no doubt be looking for a left-back that brings attacking potential to the team, as well as having defensive quality.
Rico Henry has long been linked with a move to Villa Park having followed Dean Smith from Walsall to Brentford and is the obvious choice to provide strength in this area, with solid defensive performances this season complemented by the attacking mindset of the modern full-back. Brentford are sat comfortably in the play-off positions and their counter-attacking style utilising the wings isn’t too dissimilar to that of Villa’s. Henry could quickly fit into the side were he to sign.
The manager clearly trusts him and their relationship, plus the link-up with former teammate Ollie Watkins would make his signing a smooth transition. The two Championship signings from the last window have proved to be successful and the age of the young left-back is only a positive as he has plenty of time to develop.
Being understudy to Targett might not be ideal for his move to the Premier League, but the Smith connection surely highlights Villa as the club he would most like to join considering how much he has already done for Henry’s career.
Brentford have proven to be tough negotiators, squeezing £28m from the Villa coffers in September for Watkins, and reported interest from West Ham may drive up the potential price. Smith and his backroom staff will have to weigh up such a cost against the value and importance of a rotation player over the next few years of establishing ourselves at the upper end of the table.
Verdict: Quite possible, a tried and trusted player for Smith in the mould of our current left back. The cost may be problematic, but Smith has a good relationship with the club owners and the current league position suggests they may show their faith in him in the market.
Joshua King – Centre forward/ Winger (Bournemouth, 28 y/o)
Another player with continued links to B6 carrying through from the summer is Bournemouth’s Josh King. Wesley may take time to get up and running, so a more like-for-like option could help to sustain our current form and remove some of the attacking burden from Watkins. Attacking injuries derailed our season last January and the signing of King would theoretically remove the threat of that happening once again.
Despite being relegated with Bournemouth last season, King has had patches of impressive form in the Premier League, amassing 48 goals and 14 assists in the previous 5 seasons.
However, much of his time was in a wide role, with Callum Wilson acting a Bournemouth’s front-man during their time in the top flight; additionally, he has only made three starts in the Championship this season, with injury and the establishment of a successful front three in his absence resulting in most of his time being spent on the bench. Given this, giving him the responsibility of leading the line would be somewhat of a gamble.
With his contract expiring in the summer however, it may be the perfect time to strike a deal. Considering that his role would most likely be as a back-up with occasional starting berths in less challenging fixtures, his experience in the league would be beneficial and his physical attributes, plus playing style, would allow the team to keep a consistent tactical approach.
Verdict: With the position in which we would need him to operate, there is no guarantee that he’d be hugely successful at Villa Park, despite impressing at times in the top flight.
He’s set to be a free agent in the summer, so Villa could potentially get a rotation option at a reasonable price. The question mark though will be is he good enough for the 2021 version of Villa?
Emiliano Buendía – Winger (Norwich, 25 y/o) / Jonathan Bamba – Winger (Lille, 24 y/o)
Both players have been reviewed together here, as realistically only one would join in January, if Smith were to seek a new first-choice right winger.
Both have been in fantastic form this season, with Buendía (a stand-out in a poor, relegated Norwich side last season) contributing 6 goals and 6 assists in 17 games to put his team top of the table going into the New Year – Opta have him as the player with the highest average rating in the Championship so far this season. Bamba has been equally impressive in Ligue 1, with 5 goals and 6 assists in 16 starts.
Both are tricky wingers with the ability to both cut inside and take the ball toward goal themselves, or to beat their man and deliver the ball in from the byline.
With Lille set to face Ajax in the Europa League Round of 32, whilst sitting in second place in the league, it is likely that they would want a sizable fee to acquire his services. Buendía may be more interested in a move, but his performances last season will have drawn the attention of many other Premier League sides.
The recent form of our current wingers may have also influenced the possibility of bringing a winger in. Traore’s right foot may solely be used to stop him toppling over, and his lack of tracking back caused issues in the Chelsea game, but his performances have shown why he was signed, with some good attacking intent and final product. El Ghazi has 5 in 5, seemingly becoming a confident player at the peak of his powers overnight. With Trézéguet returning as an option too, it may seem unnecessary for Smith to add yet another player to the list.
Verdict: Only one would be considered, although Smith is most likely to stick with his current options on the wing given their recent run of form. He’d also want to keep his squad lean from both a financial and morale point of view.
With the squad settled and reaching a period of form, any potential outgoings are likely to be fringe players that we were unable to offload over the summer. Henri Lansbury was not included in the Premier League squad and will look to be offloaded as soon as possible.
It’ll be easier said than done though.
A 30-year-old that has not played much football in recent seasons isn’t the most tantalising prospect for a potential buyer and his wages, reported between £25k-40k, means the player wouldn’t give them up and no other club would match them.
Frédéric Guilbert may use January to reevaluate his position as Villa’s third choice right-back after the arrival of Matty Cash. Rumours have began around a potential loan move, most likely to a club in his native France.
Questions about Conor Hourihane’s future have started to be asked considering his contract is winding down and he’s 29-years-old and would want to be playing regularly.
It has to be remembered that it is a squad game and the subs bench is now extended to nine players. Hourihane currently sits as one of the best potential substitutes Smith has to hand, so they’ll be no reason to offload him from Villa’s point of view. The FA Cup tie against Liverpool will no doubt afford the Irish midfielder a chance to stake his claim for the reason of the season.
Cover in key positions would make Villa a very interesting prospect in the second half of the season – a defensively strong team with attacking talent that can embarrass anyone, bolstered by quality in reserve, if required, is a very good formula indeed.
Whilst the set-up is geared towards finding value in the market, this does not necessarily mean that we wouldn’t be willing to spend, as proven in the summer. The performances of recent signings will please the owners and any player identified by Smith or Lange as being important in sustaining this form will certainly be considered by the board, even if they do come at a cost.