How Morgan Sanson fits in at Villa
Aston Villa are reportedly on the verge of completing the signing of Marseille’s Morgan Sanson for an agreed fee of up to £15.5 million, after Marseille’s boss Andre Villas-Boas openly admitted at the weekend the midfielder was B6 bound. Whilst the initial offer for around half of this figure was called “pathetic” by Villas-Boas, a strong negotiation stance appears to have paid off for Villa, sealing a relatively low fee for a player of his calibre in the current market.
Whilst a move to the Premier League is a challenge for any player, he could be a good option in key positions if he adapts well to English football. The Frenchman is capable of playing in the centre midfield or centre attacking-midfield role, combining a desire to drive with the ball and ability to pick out a pass, with a high defensive workrate.
The absence of John McGinn against Newcastle was a good indicator of how Dean Smith deals with enforced tactical changes and the role that Sanson will most likely play. With the Scot out, Smith could have played Barkley in a deeper role with Grealish starting centrally, or opted to give Jacob Ramsey his second start of the season. However, the decision to start Marvelous Nakamba shows that Smith is keen on maintaining a balance of defense and attack in his midfield.
A fantastic performance from the Zimbabwean proved the decision to be a correct one. Nakamba’s role though tended to be one of recycling the ball and keeping it simple, while Sanson perhaps would have been a more proactive selection to help break teams down.
The move by Smith also indicated that the Grealish – Barkley partnership is to be prioritised.
Barkley has elevated Villa to another level this year and Grealish has always looked more dangerous when floating in from the left, dragging defenders from their set position to create chances. Whilst he was not at his best on Saturday, the captain added another assist to his tally and the internationally-capped pair showed glimpses of the link-up play that has unlocked many defenses this season.
It is therefore likely that Sanson will initially act as cover for McGinn and Luiz, fighting for a place in the midfield double pivot rather than in the attacking three. When Barkley was injured previously, Smith moved Grealish to the centre and played two of Trézéguet, El Ghazi or Traoré. With the form of the latter two in particular, it is likely that this would be the default setting were Barkley to be absent again, although the performances of Sanson may change that in the longer term.
The French midfielder is likely to be a midfield utility player initially, getting a lot of action off the bench, until a time that he is able to force his way into the starting line-up.
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Long Term Planning
It is in the longer term that the Sanson signing becomes particularly shrewd; given Barkley’s injury problems and his loan status. Smith now has the best part of six months to assess whether the Chelsea man should be acquired on a permanent basis, or whether Sanson is an adequate replacement for that role.
With Thomas Tuchel set to take over at Stamford Bridge, it is unclear as to whether Barkley will be made available at a cheaper price. Tuchel’s sides often contain two attacking midfield players, but with Mason Mount and Tuchel’s fellow countryman Kai Havertz in the squad, the return of Barkley may not be a priority to him unless to provide back-up.
Yet, if Barkley does stay at Chelsea or moves on elsewhere, at least in theory Villa have already got in his replacement.
The signing also signals towards continued change and development within the youth system at Villa Park. The only recent academy graduate in the side is Jacob Ramsey and after battling his way ahead of Conor Hourihane in the midfield hierarchy, he now finds himself back in the same position behind Sanson.
Villa are in a crucial period with a fantastic opportunity to re-establish themselves in the league and regularly fight for European football. After phase one of this season’s transfer plan of bringing first-team players in to suit the system (Martínez, Cash, Watkins and Traoré), phase two will be to provide quality to come off the bench or compete for places.
With the continued limited exposure given to Ramsey and the recruitment of a player in a similar role, this quality is evidently not going to come from within at this moment in time.