It’s already a fortnight since the day that was, and the realities of Premier League preparations are settling in. The recruitment drive has begun in earnest and it’s fair to say it will be a sizable rebuild that’s required to be as Premiership ready as possible. And there are plenty of lessons we can learn from those teams that have gone before us to make sure we implement the right things to hit the ground running come August?
Planning out the details of a return to the top flight is an unfamiliar consideration for Villa to have to make. It’s been 31 years since we were last in the position of being a newly promoted team in the top flight after winning promotion from the old Second Division at the end of the 1987/88 season under Graham Taylor’s management. That began a 28 year stay of highs and lows at the top, and it would be fantastic if this year’s promotion were to signal similar longevity.
So what do we need to do to live up to our motto and be ‘prepared’? Well for every successful promotion there is a litany of teams who came and went after a solitary season, there were two last season alone, in Cardiff and Fulham. So how do we avoid a similar plight? The key idea for me would seem to be keeping true to a philosophy and identity that Dean Smith has begun to instill in his first 8 months at the helm.
In the modern game where every minute tactical detail is studied and the minutiae of performance and preparation run through complex analytics to maximise the end product, the idea of having your own strong footballing identity seems obvious. Now we’re entering a league where the majority of teams play variations of possession based brands of football, at high tempo with more intensive and aggressive pressing, it is more important than ever that we really know our style and have full confidence in our processes and the players on hand to implement it.
Where Cardiff fell down was in having a more rudimentary style and set up compared with the majority of the league – coupled with some unfortunate officiating moments. They often looked out thought and lacking in enough quality to beat the competition over the course of the season, and in that scenario even their admirable willpower and determination weren’t enough to carry them into a second season.
Fulham meanwhile had a very strong identity and brand of football which should have suited the Premier League well. They however, destabilised that delicate blend and recognisable style in a summer of mass recruitment which ultimately unsettled everything they’d built so successfully over the previous couple of seasons.
The teams who do well usually have a strong spine of quality, a coach with a recognisable and well drilled philosophy, and steadily recruit additional quality which compliments their existing squad and style. It’s usually an incremental transition year on year slowly climbing into a steady, consistent Premier League side. In that regard, the models most recently which Villa could study are those shown by Bournemouth or Watford.
Many might also mention Wolves too, given their remarkable success over the last couple of seasons, but their recruitment and development was somewhat different and they are more of an anomalous outlier when considering where we’re at currently both in philosphy and squad make-up.
Both Bournemouth and Watford however were more unfancied sides, but both had a clear identity, differing yet successful philosophies in recruitment and a belief in the way that they respectively played. Both were unawed by the task of playing Premier League football and took those aspects into the league with confidence. It’s a belief, confidence and focus that see them both now comfortably settled into Premier League life competing in the top half.
So how do we achieve what’s needed? Well to start with this will be Smith’s first pre-season, so whereas we were trying to implement quite a sea change of style in the midsts of the unforgiving and unrelenting Championship campaign, this season we have the added luxury of time to truly get to work on getting his ideas set in to the collective psyche.
Getting fresh personnel in quickly is the caveat to this luxury. The sooner the new faces arrive the quicker they can be brought up to speed. And we do have quite an overhaul to manage, with the departure of 8 senior squad players (and a fair amount of experience with it) as well as the departures of key loan players, only a few of which seem likely to sign on permanently.
There have been some complaints from within the Villa faithful towards the names we’re being linked with and a perceived lack of ambition, but for me this just comes back to the importance of philosophy. We’ve already signed Jota from Birmingham, tied down El Ghazi after a successful loan campaign and are being further linked again with former Smith favourites like Neal Maupay and Saïd Benrahma.
Ultimately, Smith is seeking to build a team of young players who can be coached and work in his systems, and bringing in players he knows and trusts, who already know his systems is an astute approach to building the framework of his Premier League squad and serves as a firmer foundation on which to build a squad going forwards which can support the required additions of more experienced Premier League quality players.
Getting the foundations right to build upon this Summer is of utmost importance to avoid an instant return to the Championship. A glossy surface sheen is nothing without some primer behind it. Further tying up the signing of Tyrone Mings is an immediate priority that will leave our foundations looking much healthier as the Summer burns on.
It will be a very busy few months, but as long as we keep a focused strategy on recruitment, bringing in players to fit into Smith’s system rather than signings for the sake of it, then we’ll be standing in much better stead. Lest we forget the disastrous recruitment drive of our last season in the Premier League.
The Summer of 2015 saw us sign 13 players in an attempt to avoid another relegation battle and despite signing talented players like Jordan Amavi, Jordan Veretout and Idrissa Gueye, the overall approach was so scattergun and lacking in any overarching methodology that the impact was not only negative it was toxically damaging.
Mistakes have been made in the past that we need to learn from and everything is certainly much better structured behind the scenes to suggest that things are in a much healthier state of affairs. Still we could do with making sure we have studied the valuable lessons from those teams that have both succeeded and failed in this transitional promotion phase.
I have no doubt that we have as good a set up and management structure in place to make sure we plan and execute exactly what we need to do survive and grow back into the Premier League. We may have been away for a few years, but let’s remind everyone that Aston Villa and top flight football are a good match.