Are Aston Villa ready for European Football?
Given that we currently sit in 9th position with games in hand, I've seen a lot of talk on social media in the past few days about European qualification being of great importance to some fans. It was actually mentioned to me by a friend of mine who supports Chelsea whilst we were shooting the breeze about the goings on of the week in the Prem. He asked me if I actually thought Villa qualifying for European competition was currently right for the club and, after some reflection, I came to a conclusion: I don't think it is. I'm sure that piece this will encourage plenty of good debate amongst the Villa faithful, which is exactly why I'm writing it as some will almost certainly disagree with my opinion, but it might just persuade one or two to follow my logic. We'll see.
It should be noted that the question I am posing in this article is not simply "Do I want European football back at Villa Park?"; the answer to that is, and would always be yes, as I'm sure an overwhelming majority of the fanbase would agree. What I am going to explore and propose, as such, is that should Villa miss out on European football this season, perhaps it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. So, with that said, let's get into it.
Route of Qualification
It seems logical to start by actually plotting how Villa could go about qualifying for European competition. As I'm sure many will know, the top 4 highest finishing teams in the league qualify for the UEFA Champions League (4th place needing to go through a fairly routine qualification process). I don't think I'm being too pessimistic in saying that I feel like this is probably out of reach this season - there are simply too many good teams and, sadly, certain results have cost us points we probably should have taken that would have left us sat more favourably (Brighton (H), West Ham (A) and Burnley (H)/(A) to name a few!).
I'd argue that it looks more likely that if Villa do qualify for Europe this season, it will be into the UEFA Europa League. Generally, the teams that qualify from England for this are those who finish 5th in the league, alongside the respective winners of both the FA and League cups (Neither of which Villa can win as we've already been eliminated). There are instances however where if the winner of either of these cups also finishes in the top 4 of the league, their spot in the Europa League is given to 6th place, and should both cups be won by teams in the top 4, 7th place can also qualify. This essentially means that Villa would have to finish 5th to be guaranteed a UEL spot and, failing that, hope that in finishing 6th or 7th the teams that eventually secure UCL competition win one or both domestic trophies (not outside the realms of possibility, especially given that the League Cup final is between Spurs and City).
It's definitely not out of reach, therefore, that some form of European competition could be heading to the second city next year. This article won't focus on whether we will actually qualify or not - I'm merely going to point out the reasons why I won't be too disappointed (I will a bit, we all will after this season!) if we don't quite get there, starting with...
The 'one-season wonder' curse
I think the best place to start in arguing we're not quite ready is to look at other teams who have had similarly unexpected successes in the past few years and how they've faired in the following seasons. I've picked three examples just off the top of my head from recent years of teams who have overachieved what many thought they could.
Firstly, probably the most famous example of overachievers in the Prem, Leicester's title winning team of 15/16. After nearly getting relegated the campaign before, they won the league as a 5000/1 shot, nothing short of a footballing miracle. The next season? 12th placed finish, although they did reach the Quarter Finals of the UCL, and I'm sure any Leicester fan would snap your hand off to relive those seasons again. They have also now established themselves as a top team, but it's taken some years and almost a complete reshuffle of the First XI to do so, Kasper Schmeichel the only real survivor in the current team.
Next, we have Burnley in 2017/18, who finished 7th after finishing 16th the year prior, and reached the qualification stages of the UEL where they were eventually knocked out in the final round before the group stage. They went on to fall 8 places in the league, finishing 15th in the next season.
Finally, let's take Wolves who finished 7th in the 2018/19 season following their promotion from the Championship. They went on a good run in the competition, losing in the Quarter-Finals to Sevilla who were the eventual winners of the tournament, but at what cost? They actually bettered their points tally in the league, but missed out on European qualification on the final day of last year and now sit 14th in the league, as well as having recently been beaten 3-2 at home by the Baggies (never a reflection of a good season) with the threat of potential relegation looming.
What these three teams show is that if you shake up the European mix and find yourselves with a lot of unexpected success, for various reasons, it might be a case of too much too soon and you find yourself travelling back in the wrong direction. Of course, there's no reason why Villa would have to follow this trend, right? We could have great domestic success and be a force in Europe! Well...
2. Squad Depth
If you wanted a reason, this is it. I firmly believe our first XI is a match for anyone on our day. Off the bench, however, I feel we're particularly light on quality in some areas that would almost certainly hinder the team, namely both full backs and central midfield. Let's do some quick maths.
Assume Villa finish 5th this season. Firstly, that's 38 games played this year in the league alone, with the fewest number of substitutions currently made , probably safe to assume that will continue for the remainder of the year with Deano's philosophy. Add 4 EFL cup games and 1 more FA Cup game (not counting the game the youth team played in for obvious reasons), that takes us to 43 games so far as a squad. Consider now that the likes of Jack, Tyrone, Douglas and Ginny (non-exhaustive list) are all in contention for their respective national teams, so let's say that's another 6 (generous) games for a fair few squad members. 49. Now, let's look at the players going to the Euros this summer. As a minimum, that's 3 more games in the group stage, so we add 3 more. 52. Now, we return from the Euros, back to the Prem! Another 38 games takes us to 90. Consider we have a similar cup run to this year, we reach 94 games. 94 in the space of less than two years. AND THEN, on top of all of this, we have to play a minimum of 6 games in the Europa League group stages (plus more if we qualify 7th as there's extra qualification to complete). By this point, we'd be practically begging not to qualify any further! To me, that sort of ruins the magic. Don't get me wrong, I'd be first on the plane for a German away day with a beer in hand watching the boys in claret and blue conquer Europe, but I would prefer to see a side that wasn't midway through a 100 game stretch with very little rotation put in a poor leggy performance! It just screams injuries to key players. I'd rather miss out for now and have it properly in the future than chance it for one season and it not live up to the expectation, something I'm sure many will agree with.
Our depth lacks in domestic competitions as it is, so I think one more season to allow us to integrate some new signings into the team, finish in the top 6 and have a decent run in one of the two cups would be much more beneficial in terms of maintaining any long term success we could possibly have. And that's not even considering the implications of having to travel to Astana on a Thursday night and being the early kick off on a Sunday!
3. Inconsistency in results
In fairness, our expectations really shouldn't be that high as to what we should expect from Villa this season. We crawled to a 17th place finish last and the turnaround this campaign is absolutely remarkable, full credit due absolutely to the coaching staff and players. I'm sure that like me, however, you find it incredibly frustrating seeing us convincingly beat teams like Arsenal and Liverpool, big clubs with rich top flight and European history, and then drop points to teams like Brighton and Leeds who we 'expect' to beat. It seems like whenever we're the underdogs we come out and play with a point to prove, but then for every step forward, we occasionally seem to take two back.
Contrast that with teams like Manchester City and Liverpool. Whilst the latter haven't been their same selves as last time out where they were ruthless in winning the league, they have still only lost on 4 occasions this year, picking up 7 draws along the way. City boast an even better record of 2 losses and 5 draws. Villa, on the other hand, carry 8 losses and 2 draws. This lack of draws is what concerns me the most. If you can't win a game, you have to continue to pick up points by turning L's into D's and being generally hard to beat, otherwise form goes out the window.
Since the first 5 games of the season, we've really struggled to consistently perform to the levels we've shown we can. If we're going to compete in both the league and Europe, we have to be harder to beat than we currently are now, and I think that's a work in progress that will probably take another season or so. I've no doubt that fixture congestion combined with a lack of squad depth is probably part of the cause of this inconsistency, but of course this would only worsen if we were to play additional European fixtures. We need to continue to build a squad and a mentality for success in both domestic and international competition.
I do concede that there are certainly perks in qualifying for Europe. Firstly, that's an experience I personally haven't yet had in my time following Villa and so naturally, like most Villa fans, I'd relish the opportunity. Secondly, I think we'd stand a better chance of keeping players like Douglas Luiz (heavily rumoured to be piquing City's interest) and our talismanic captain Jack Grealish if we were to qualify. Equally, we would have a greater pulling power to bring in a certain calibre of player - we all remember the Milot Rashica saga over last summer where he was holding out for a move to a club in Europe - which would help us to build a squad that could theoretically be a force in both the league and Europe (although I believe that squad would require time to gel which it won't get this summer!).
For me, however, it just feels one big step slightly too soon.
If I think back three years, the club was on its knees, barely even able to afford free transfers. Fast forward to now and it feels like there's the polar opposite atmosphere around the club; instead of wondering how far we can sink, we wonder how high we can reach, and this isn't me saying that's a bad thing at all. I just believe we need to be patient and look at it from a perspective of how far we've come and, at the same time, how far we have to go before we'll be ready to compete on the biggest stage of club football.
TheAVFCFaithful.group | Edited by The AVFC Faithful