Together, they are the Grealish three even if they are never actually together. Most of the proceeds of a record sale were spent on Leon Bailey, Emi Buendia and Danny Ings. The £100 million man was followed by the £90 million trio, even if none was a direct replacement for the departed Jack Grealish.
But, three-quarters of a way into a season, they have outdone him: statistically, anyway, and not only the Manchester City Grealish. As Aston Villa captain, he got six goals and 10 assists in the Premier League last season.
The trio of newcomers have eight goals and 11 assists. There are fundamental differences, of course, including the reality that Ings is a striker and that Grealish only occupied one spot in the side: others, like Anwar El Ghazi (10 goals) and Bertrand Traore (seven goals and six assists) could join him on the pitch then.
In comparison, the Grealish three can be seen as degrees of disappointments. Ings has perhaps been the best, scoring a spectacular overhead kick on his debut at Watford and contributing either a goal or an assist every 152 minutes, but having a stop-start season with injuries, struggling to form a partnership with Ollie Watkins and not replicating his Southampton form. Buendia flattered to deceive initially and at least delivered a winner away at Everton, but the outstanding creator in last season’s Championship has not proved anything like as inventive at a higher level. Bailey had his remarkable cameo at home to Everton, contriving to score and make a goal and get injured in an eventful 21 minutes. Otherwise, he has often been injured or a substitute. His campaign is shaping up as a wasted year.
Summer signings can be bracketed with one another; each was part of succession planning, a very different recruit with pedigree and statistics to suggest they could contribute to life after Jack. Yet Villa’s plans have not been realised. Ings and Bailey have never started together. Bailey and Buendia have only begun three games alongside one another. Ings and Buendia have been in the same on 11 occasions. Villa lost seven of them.
Two managers have wrestled with the question of if there is a shape to suit all, plus the remaining attacking talent. Both have failed to find a way to get the best out of two, let along all three: Dean Smith switched to 3-5-2 to pair Ings and Watkins, but Buendia was unconvincing as a No. 10 and it left no room for a winger, in Bailey. The presence of two box-to-box midfielders, in John McGinn and the fast-emerging Jacob Ramsey, has left 4-3-3 as the logical shape.
And if four into three won’t go, five definitely won’t. Steven Gerrard’s flagship signing is Philippe Coutinho. He is a sign Villa’s ambitions accelerated in the few months between buying Buendia from Norwich and borrowing the Brazilian from Barcelona. Coutinho’s future is uncertain, but Gerrard’s desire to keep him is evident.
And Coutinho means two of the Grealish three tend to be spectators at any given point. Watkins has established himself as the first-choice striker. The manager’s Rangers formation, a narrow 4-3-3 with two No. 10s, lent itself to Buendia, who could operate as an inside-right. A more recent switch to a midfield diamond, with Coutinho at the tip, put Ings alongside Watkins for wins over Brighton, Southampton and Leeds.
But it meant that Ings came in for Buendia against Brighton. In a less successful switch, the Argentinian returned in place of the Englishman against Arsenal on Saturday. As a natural wide player, Bailey seems to suit neither the system nor the manager. Gerrard has only given him one start so far; it is hard to escape the sense he does not particularly rate one of the Bundesliga’s most productive attacking midfielders.
Yet each, in his own way, has suffered from a situation where Villa had a new manager who identified a huge upgrade that was immediately available; they are good players competing for one position now Gerrard has his Galactico.
If it can suggest a failure of strategy by Villa last summer, it is worth remembering the theory that windfalls for sales of special players are often squandered. The names of Luis Suarez and Gareth Bale tend to be cited. The reality can be more complex: Christian Eriksen joined Tottenham as Bale left and proved an inspired addition while Liverpool spent some of the Suarez millions on Divock Origi, Dejan Lovren, Emre Can and Adam Lallana, who all contributed to Jurgen Klopp’s exploits later down the line.
It is nevertheless undeniable that certain signings failed; Smith, like Andre Villas-Boas and Brendan Rodgers, ultimately lost his job amid a difficulty to readjust to the loss of a talisman. Plans were rapidly redrawn and some big-money buys became fringe figures. Villa’s 2021 recruits may know how that feels. If the idea was to replace a Jack with three aces, only one has the chance to be a trump card in Gerrard’s first XI.
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Richard Jolly also writes for the National, the Guardian, the Observer, the Straits Times, the Independent, Sporting Life, Football 365 and the Blizzard. He has written for the FourFourTwo website since 2018 and for the magazine in the 1990s and the 2020s, but not in between. He has covered 1500+ games and remembers a disturbing number of the 0-0 draws.
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