Updated: Jan 25
At the time of writing, Aston Villa currently sit 8th in the Premier League with 2 games in hand (Still looks crazy written down doesn’t it?). The turnaround this season has been nothing short of remarkable, from just surviving in the last campaign thanks to a point on the final day away at West Ham to winning 9 of 17 games (including beating the champions 7-2) in less than 6 months, some of the more optimistic of the fan base even suggesting anything less than a top 6 finish would be somewhat disappointing, myself included, having put £5 on Villa to win the league after the Liverpool result more in hope than anticipation. Crazy.
It really seems as if the good times are back at VP, and, with any luck, here to stay. One thing is for certain, however: in order to compete in a league as dynamic as England’s top flight and, VERY hopefully, cement and build on a top half finish this season, players joining the club, keeping hold of quality that is already there and, unfortunately, losing some to pastures new is vital. With this in mind, I’m going to offer up my opinion as to those players that Villa should look to move on in January or the summer, and also consider some additions to strengthen the squad.
Goalkeepers: Lovre Kalinic, Tom Heaton
Opening up with one that I’m sure will ruffle a few feathers, we start with the shot stoppers. I don’t think there’s too much to be said about the former, the Croat having already returned to his home country on loan to his former club Hadjuk Split, a deal I firmly expect to be made permanent after what could only be described as a miserable time in B6.
I understand some supporters will be confused as to why I think Tom Heaton should also be allowed to leave, but in my mind, this makes total sense. Emi Martinez, the ‘Narcos Neuer’ as I often see him dubbed on twitter, has been nothing short of sensational, without a doubt Villa’s signing of the summer and, for my money, the best acquisition by any PL club. The best part? At 28, we still have the best years of Emi to come. Whilst I am a huge fan of Tom Heaton, recovering from an ACL injury at 34 years of age is no mean feat. Despite this, I still believe Heats is starting quality, so with little chance of ousting Emi, I would begrudgingly let him go as I simply believe he has more to offer elsewhere than being our number 2. In response, I would return Villa’s championship play-off semi-final shootout hero, Jed Steer, to the matchday squad, and with young prospect Akos Onodi proving his worth in being around the first team during a stellar performance against Liverpool in the FA Cup, promote him to third choice to fight it out with Steer for a spot on the bench.
Defenders: Ahmed Elmohamady, Neil Taylor, Bjorn Engels, Frederic Guilbert (Loan)
2 seemingly easy choices here with Elmo and Tayls both being out of contract in the summer and coming towards the latter stages of their careers. I personally believe both have been excellent servants to the club, coming in at a difficult time and being integral to promotion in 18/19, but all good things must come to an end, and with Matty’s Cash and Targett both showing their importance to the side in the early part of this season, it will almost certainly be curtains for both come the end of the campaign.
As for Engels, I do think the Belgian is a solid player. At the start of the last season, I would have been sure that him and Mings would be our current centre back partnership. The fact is simple though; Ezri Konsa is just a more complete player, being noticeably quicker, more composed on the ball and considerably more defensively aware than big Bjorn. With first team opportunities lacking as such, I expect him to leave come the summer when Villa will likely look to bring in another right footed CB to cover Konsa.
Guilbert is a tricky one. There’s no doubt the claret and blue army adores him, but Dean Smith certainly appears not to. The Frenchman has fallen to third in the right back pecking order just a season and a half after his move from Caen. It looks nailed on that Freddie will be loaned out to the championship this month with Cardiff and Middlesbrough reportedly interested. The real dilemma facing DS is whether or not to place him in the shop window come the summer given that Elmo also leaving would mean only Cash remains as a senior right back. My opinion is that we should retain the services of Guilbert as second choice. Smith has already had 17-year-old Kaine Kesler involved with the first team at Bodymoor, and whilst I think next year might still be slightly too soon for the promising youngster, I would expect him to continue to be integrated into the first team in coming seasons, eventually breaking into the squad. In the meantime, however, Freddie gets my nod.
Midfield: Henri Lansbury, Conor Hourihane
It’s not really clear why it hasn’t worked out for Henri Lansbury at Villa. It always seemed as though he’d never had the rub of the green and his omission from the PL squad this year has confirmed that his exit is almost inevitable. His contract expires in June and thus he will leave the club for free if no suitor can be found for him before the summer, a shame as at the time his move to Villa Park was well received at the time but, sadly, the reality failed to match the hype.
Hourihane is another that divides the fan base. I personally love him - Who could forget his hattrick against Norwich, that Volley against the Blues or that screamer in the play-off first leg at VP against the baggies? Conor played a massive role operating in the 6 in our promotion season and adds serious quality with his delivery from set pieces, but despite this, it is commonly thought he lacks the athleticism to play week in week out, particularly due to him being a lesser effective presser when out of possession. Even when Ross Barkley, the man brought in to take his place in the side was out injured, Smith rarely used Hourihane, instead preferring to use Grealish as a 10. Having just secured a loan move to the Welsh south coast with Swansea, it would not surprise me if, should Villa secure a replacement, Conor leaves permanently in the summer, much to the sadness of myself and many others.
Forwards: Keinan Davis (Loan)
I was actually fortunate to have been there when Keinan Davis netted his first senior goal for Villa away at Barnsley in 2017. I find it mad to think that despite all the praise he was getting leading the line when he first broke into the first team, he has only scored twice for Villa in 58 appearances. At 22 years old I still believe there’s a player in KD, but I’m certain that at the moment that player's level currently isn’t the Premier League. A loan to a Championship or perhaps League 1 team where Keinan was able to score a few goals, develop his trade and gain some confidence at senior level would do him a world of good and, equally, given that Wesley will be returning to fitness soon, KD may soon find himself third choice and needing to find game time elsewhere.
I think, therefore, that assuming we sign Barkley permanently, we need to add 4 players to the side: a right footed centre back, a left back and two central midfielders. Here are some potential targets I’d like to see Villa move for.
Centre Back: William Saliba (Arsenal, 19)
In the long term, options at centre back look plentiful, with both Dominic Revan and Mungo Bridge putting in assured performances that caught the eye of many Villa fans against Liverpool. I would suggest that their place as a second choice behind Konsa, however, remains a way off, with Revan having just signed for National League side Weymouth to gain his first consistent senior football experience and Bridge remaining in the U23s. With this in mind, I’d like to see Villa make a move to take William Saliba on loan from Arsenal once he returns from his current spell at Nice in the summer. Saliba has been capped right the way through France’s youth teams and is a pacey ball playing centre-half much like Konsa. Arteta will be keen to get Saliba experiencing regular football and particularly adapting to the English game. With this in mind, I think this move would work for all parties, allowing Villa to plug a gap whilst our youth gains vital experience in the lower leagues and giving Arsenal the chance to get Saliba regularly involved with the matchday squad of a PL team.
Left Back: Rico Henry (Brentford, 23), Luke Thomas (Leicester, 19)
I’d be fairly confident in saying Matt Targett will remain Villa’s first choice left back given that he has improved no end this season and will only continue to do so as he enters his prime. With that said and Neil Taylor set to depart in the summer, however, another left back will surely needed to provide both squad depth and competition. Young Callum Rowe was impressive in the cup against Liverpool, providing the assist for Louie Barry’s excellent finish, but remains unproven at senior level. As such, it makes sense for Smith to turn his attention to Brentford’s Rico Henry, a player he has already previously signed twice at his past 2 clubs. Henry was a standout performer for the Bees in both last season’s unsuccessful promotion bid and their respectable loss in the EFL cup against Spurs. Similarly to Targett, Henry is an attacking minded full back who is comfortable in possession and a good crosser of the ball. I think he would provide stiff competition for a starting spot and this move would raise both players’ games.
Should Rico Henry be snapped up elsewhere, however, I like the look of Luke Thomas from Leicester. Despite having only made 8 senior appearances, Thomas has a distinct likeness to Ben Chilwell by way that he can both create and score goals. He caught my eye playing against Braga in the Europa League, a game in which he scored, and with Leicester adding Castagne this season, Pereira returning to full fitness and James Justin having taken his first team opportunity well, game time could be lacking for Thomas who may look to seek this elsewhere. He has just penned a new 5-year deal however, so this move wouldn’t come cheap. I’d probably be looking at loaning him to start with an option to buy based on performance.
Central Midfield: Morgan Sanson (Marseille, 26), Michael Olise (Reading, 19)
It’s interesting to see what people have made of the speculation linking Villa to the box-to-box midfielder Sanson, with many concluding that this must mean we are either not signing Barkley permanently or bracing to lose Douglas Luiz in June. In reality, I think neither is true. There has been times this season (Leeds, Southampton to name but 2) where the game has been crying out for a change in the middle of midfield, yet Smith clearly seems to be of the mindset that the bench lacks the quality to make the impact required and so no substitutions are made. I think Sanson’s likely addition is simply one to add both quality and depth to the side. I don’t expect him to come straight into the team if he does sign (the deal may already be completed by the time this goes out!), but I do expect him to put pressure certainly on McGinn and Luiz to perform consistently and provide good cover in case of injuries, replacing Conor in the squad (similar players, but Sanson has a clear edge in terms of pressing and defensive work rate). For a fee of €15-20 million, it seems like a good move and will hopefully add to the depth that Smith is looking for.
I do think that Ross Barkley carries a significant injury risk if we sign him given his track record in his career thus far. As such, I also like the idea of signing Olise from Reading. At 19 years of age, he is already giving off signs of the talent that he has in being a regular starter in the championship. I was gutted in missing out on Eze who is now confined to playing in a woeful Palace side, so I think signing a promising youngster like Olise makes sense as Villa’s current style of play gives a large scope of creativity and fluidity to the front 4. The opportunity to be a part of this in his development and also cover and push Ross Barkley, therefore, makes Michael Olise a prime target in my eyes if we can secure him for the right price. This would take some of the strain off of Grealish to be the team’s main source of creativity and keep him playing from the left is Barkley is not fit which, in my opinion, is his best position. Olise’s versatility of playing centrally and out wide could be very useful in any potential link up with Grealish and co. I also think that bringing him in might allow Jacob Ramsey to leave on a season long loan to a championship club to give him some vital game time consistently – I do really rate JJ but again, like many other academy graduates I’ve mentioned, think he just needs a little more time and a lot more opportunity to turn into a top player.
Of course, all these targets are just my personal opinion and I’m sure some will agree and others won’t, but in my eyes at least, keeping hold of what we currently have alongside these additions would make us a real threat in the top half of the division, and who knows where we could be this time next season. UTV!
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