Rethinking ambition: Villa transfers at the close of the window

Like many Villa fans, I’ve been fiendishly checking forums, papers, blogs, and Twitter hopeful of the news that Villa has signed an attacking midfielder. A holding midfielder or defensive cover would only be consolation at this point.

At the beginning of the January window, Paul Lambert indicated that his top priority in January would be finding a No. 10. While Lambert’s idea seemed right, fans were less than impressed when it seemed his sites seemed set on Wes Hoolahan, a former old-hand he had worked with at Norwich, whose age makes him a short-term target at best, and whose Premier League experience barely rivals that of our current squad. While interest in Hoolahan seems to have cooled, it helped bring some pretty telling elements into focus.

Negotiating short-term/long-term solutions and experience

Among the first points of order is the balance between what many would consider to be a short-term or long-term solution. Players that I, for one, regret to see us signing, like Grant Holt, and if it comes through, Wes Hoolahan, are admittedly short-term deals that would provide cover and depth, but little else.

These players would not slide into the first team right away, and will warm our bench until asked to sub, adding a little physicality up front coupled with, at the very least, the past experience of playing in the league and scoring under this manager. In the case of Holt, it’s no secret that he could barely get a first-team position at Championship side, Wigan, and has a lot to work on in terms of fitness.

However, if we sign a younger player from a lower division or another league entirely, there is the argument that the target may not have Premier League experience, or simply isn’t a Premier League player.

Young players certainly have their merit; it shows that the club is willing to invest and build on a long-term solution by nurturing a budding talent into bloom. Investing in youth and buying cheap has thus far been the hallmark of Paul Lambert’s transfers.

Lambert is willing to take a gamble on young talent and help develop them into a Premier League player. Though, as we have seen, the process isn’t instant, nor is it guaranteed. Instead, we are left with a few young players who could potentially be fantastic long-term prospects.

Christian Benteke is a phenomenal player, but aside from that, who of Lambert’s transfers can we sing as a true success story? We miss Ron Vlaar when he isn’t played, and he is a true talisman and great captain; the team seems to feed off of his leadership.

Matt Lowton, who had a great season last year, comes to mind as a player whose eagerness, dedication, and ability tend to shine through when given the chance. Tend to. While he is not the finished article, Lowton puts in dangerous balls, commits, and plays with his heart. However, his limitations are in his lack of experience, as he’s been exposed for being tactically naive; the stats aren’t any kinder, as the bulk of games in which Lowton has featured tend to result in points lost.

This isn’t a post meant to pick apart Matt Lowton. This is more drawing attention to the pitfalls of negotiating in between these two extremes: a player who has vested experience within the Premier League, or a young player eager to play for a Premier League side who may or may not have what it takes.

Meeting in the middle

In my opinion, the ideal transfer target in our current form is an attacking No. 10 to help unlock defences, who is young enough to be a long-term prospect for the club (read: A three-year contract or so) with enough Premier League games under their belt to understand the dynamism, frenetic pace, and physical nature of the game at this level.

We had Stephen Ireland, who proved to do this in spurts at Manchester City, and Charles N’Zogbia, who the entire fan base thought would provide the same creative spark for Villa as he did at Wigan. Both didn’t seem to be bothered at showing these traits at B6.

However, looking at the transfer market, it’s hard to see how a club in our position will attract our dream player without falling in one of the two extremes mentioned above. If a player is young enough to be in the prime of their career, or at least nearing their prime, they are going to want to make a lateral move or go to a club on the ascendancy.

This is the benefit of attracting players from other leagues - they’ll forgive our current predicament, a club devoid of big-name, big-salary players lingering in a mid-table position to have a shot at making their name in the Premier League. However, at this point, any players that we may be linked with may be unlikely to want to make the trip to Villa Park unless they aren’t getting game time or find themselves at a club in trouble.

Bridging the gap

In the not-so-distant past, we were a club on the ascendancy, and after picking up rising stars in the likes of Ashley Young, Stewart Downing and James Milner from lower-league teams. We boasted an attacking midfield with three bright stars, not to mention the crux of the England team.

While I can’t help but laugh every time Ashley theatrically goes down in the box for United, or wryly smile when I see Downing fail to produce for West Ham after his transfer fiasco, I can’t help but remember that we gave them a platform on which to shine, and they kept us competitive.

We were neck-and-neck with the best of the rest, always on the cusp of that coveted spot for a Champions League position while competing in Europe’s second-tier consolation Cup.

What changed? We were in a totally different position in the table when we were turning these stars into top players, and predictably, they leapt at the opportunity to play for trophies. However, it’s not the football that changed. We weren’t playing scintillating stuff at the time; in fact, it’s not to be forgotten that we played some dire kick-and-rush route one football under O’Neill.

We were just in the right spot in the table. It’s just that the rest of the league got better while we sat by and stayed stagnant. We watched, in desperate search of a manager who would be committed, not throw their toys out of the pram, and start playing the game the right way. A Villa squad fighting for a chance to compete in Europe is far more likely to attract the names we want rather than one languishing six points above the drop--even if we are tenth in the table.

That 'other' transfer rumour

So where does this leave us? What players might meet our criteria to help our young squad realise their potential to be challenging at the right side of the table again? While my heart covets players committed to the claret and blue cause, I feel that we just may be short of the capital required to lure the country’s best to Birmingham.

While we may not be fighting for Europe’s top prizes, we’re a club steeped in history. We won the European Cup. We’ve won the League, the FA Cup and helped found the league. But Forest have also won the European Cup, and they’re not quite near a Premier League berth.

Surely we deserve to turn the heads of Europe’s top talent, but it won’t be our history, it will be our pockets. 

The rumour was doing the rounds that Red Bull had fixed their heart on purchasing this fine club of ours. Would we really want to sell our history just for a chance to fund the purchase of better players?

I think all of us would resent our history being usurped by an energy drink mogul. Villa Park, one of the cathedrals of English football, being reduced to being named after a soft drink doesn’t echo the proud history of the Villa faithful.

Where’s our bright future coming from?

Or in other words, where do we find a No. 10? Where is the next star that we can help build a team around? Are they already at Villa Park? Where are these players going to come from, and why would they come to Villa Park?

We’re going to have to negotiate age, ability, wages, with what we’re able to offer: Premier League football, decent wages, steady game time, and the platform on which to prove yourself. Who can fit this list? Belhanda? A Capoue or Kakuta, who can’t get a look in their current squad? I’m not sure I know the answer.

If we fail to sign someone to fit the one position that was singled out as our single priority within this transfer window, I think there will be bigger questions to be asked at Villa Park. Friday can’t come soon enough.