Tired and tested: what happened to Aston Villa’s big top-flight return?
As conceded goals come, it takes some beating. When Jay Rodriguez scored West Brom’s second on Saturday, it consigned Aston Villa to defeat against a local rival.
It also effectively ended Villa’s promotion dream – they are now nine points off the top six, having played two games more. Coming on the stroke of half-time, it decreed that Villa would be roundly booed from the pitch.
Most significantly, it meant that they had conceded more home league goals that any other club in England’s top five leagues. Villa’s journey back to the Premier League after shambolic relegation was supposed to be a short one, at least in the eyes of ambitious owners and optimistic supporters. Another season has been wasted.
The sensible choice
At the time of his appointment, Dean Smith seemed the perfect appointment. Replacing the tired and tested Steve Bruce, a man whose spirit was eroded by his failure to lead Villa back to the top flight.
Unlike Thierry Henry, the bigger name and bigger risk, Smith had Football League experience and was a lifelong Villa fan. He had flourished at Walsall and Brentford, and earned his shot at a more prestigious club.
But there is no such thing as guaranteed success, and certainly not at a club with more skeletons in the closet than your standard haunted house. After a bright start, Smith has now won seven of his 22 matches in charge and two of his last 14. Since Boxing Day, the only team that Villa have beaten are crisis club Ipswich Town.
There are grumbles of discontent at Villa Park. Some might say that they never really went away.
Aston Villa have bigger problems than Smith, an assertion so accurate that it deserves to be shouted from the rooftops. His predecessors Bruce and Roberto Di Matteo chose to invest in expensive centre-forwards in their bid to fire the club to promotion, a plan not without merits.
Wasted millions (and millions)
But Villa paid for this stockpiling. Ross McCormack, Scott Hogan and Jonathan Kodjia each cost £9m or more. Two of the three are currently out on loan and the third has scored six league goals this season.
The strikers aren't their only high-profile transfer mistakes. Henri Lansbury has played eight league minutes this season, James Bree cost £3m and is loan at Ipswich, while Aaron Tshibola cost £5m and is loan at Kilmarnock.
There is no better statistic to damn Villa’s recruitment than the fact that a Championship club currently has players on out loan who cost them almost £35m in transfer fees.
The result is a squad that is simultaneously bloated and short on fit defenders, highly-paid and underperforming. In January 2017, when Villa were a Championship club, it was calculated that they had the 20th-highest wage bill in European football. Smith must fix the mistakes of those who came before him and the ludicrous missteps of former owner Tony Xia, who has stayed on as co-chairman.
But Smith knows that Villa expected better. Since mid-November, the team have conceded two goals in a match six times, three goals in a match four times and five goals in a match once. If Smith was tasked with addressing Villa's defensive shortcomings, it hasn't worked. If John Terry was appointed as his assistant to organise the defence, that organisation is sadly lacking.
Smith will be acutely aware that his team have also failed to score in five of their last eight games. This is getting worse, not better. Villa have become overly reliant on Jack Grealish, to the extent that they are devoid of attacking creativity without him.
Most Aston Villa supporters are prepared to give Smith time. They have tried the leftfield foreign option (Remi Garde) – it didn’t work. They have tried enthusiasm and pashun (Tim Sherwood) – it didn’t work. They have tried the continental coach (Di Matteo) – it didn’t work. They have tried the Mr Dependable (Bruce) – it didn’t work.
If a club that has become predisposed towards underperformance really will require a long-term overhaul, then why not have faith in a manager who loves the club and is prepared to stick it out? If there are doubts about Smith’s capability, have Villa not gone down every other route?
But that faux-patience hides the uncomfortable truth: Villa really do need to start moving forwards quickly. Having been given £41m in parachute payments in their first Championship season and £33m last season, the payment dropped to £15m this season and will stop altogether in May.
Therein lies the Aston Villa dichotomy. After financial implosion was only avoided by NSWE’s summer takeover and injection of funds, Villa could do with a little serenity and time to take stock. But the Championship is not a league in which such quiet introspection is easy.
Next season will be Aston Villa’s fourth straight season of Football League participation. Only once in their history have they spent longer away from the top flight. The longer a club spends away from the top table, the harder it is to retake your seat.