The Second City giants finished 17th on just 35 points last season, just one point above the relegation zone to prevent an immediate return to the Championship. There were fears among many that Villa would sink yet again, suffering second-season syndrome like their great rivals Birmingham City before them.
However, these concerns were eased within three games of the season with a 7-2 thumping of Premier League champions Liverpool.
Immediately after that result, praise was pouring in for Villa’s recruitment. Ollie Watkins, Ross Barkley and Emiliano Martinez were singled out by fans and the press to explain Villa’s unexpected and rapid rise up the table. However, there is one man behind the scenes who has been instrumental in their resurgence that has flown largely under the radar.
That man is new Sporting Director Johan Lange.
There was a certain amount of bewilderment among the Villa faithful when Lange was appointed in the summer. His only notable work in England was a short-lived stint as Ståle Solbakken’s assistant at Wolves in 2012. There were some doubts over Lange’s ability to build a team capable of pushing Villa forward until his record in his previous role was unearthed.
Prior to coming to Villa, Lange was the Sporting Director at Copenhagen. He arrived having mastered the ‘Moneyball’ strategy of buying players cheap and selling them on for massive profits. The Danish giants had developed Robert Skov, Denis Vavro and Robin Olsen and sold them on for in excess of £8 million each. While this may not sound too impressive to the average Premier League viewer, it was massive money for the league.
It also fit Dean Smith’s profile perfectly. The Villa boss had developed a reputation for buying players young and selling them on for vast profits.
At the Bees, he sold Scott Hogan, Neal Maupay and Andre Gray for a combined £40 million having paid just £3.25 million for the trio. Smith had helped the business model along earlier by bringing in Ezri Konsa for £12 million, six times the fee Smith paid to take the defender to Brentford a year earlier.
Clearly, the pair were a match made in heaven. Both had experience using Moneyball to their advantage, using the strategy to have a constant conveyor belt of talent to be sold on for massive profits, funding the next batch of stars.
While on the surface Villa had another free-spending summer on a raft of new players, their recruitment was much smarter with a low average spend by top half Premier League standards.
The club replaced the scattergun approach to recruitment they took in the summer of 2019, which saw them buy multiple players in the same position with few being genuine Premier League quality, instead opting to focus on keeping their star players and upgrading the first team.
This saw Villa’s only true mega-money signing, star striker Ollie Watkins, come in to replace Mbwana Samatta, who was shipped out to Fenerbahçe, to finally add a clinical striker to Villa’s ranks. Additionally, Matty Cash was drafted in to replace Frederic Guilbert and Bertrand Traore replaced Trezeguet. However, the biggest upgrade came in the goalkeeping department with Emiliano Martinez replacing the popular but error-prone Ørjan Nyland.
This season also saw 17 players leave Villa Park, four of them leaving in January. Instead of the typical raft of youth players leave, all of the players departing were members of the first team squad. Five of the players that left were signed the previous season, with the club choosing not to pursue permanent deals for loan arrivals Pepe Reina or Danny Drinkwater while also letting Samatta, Borja Baston and Jota leave.
More importantly, the club tied John McGinn, Ezri Konsa, Tyrone Mings and Jack Grealish down to new long-term contracts. This allowed Villa to finally have a consistent core to the squad and build not only a team, but an identity for the first time in half a decade. This two-pronged approach to recruitment and squad building is all part of Lange’s plan at Villa.
Most impressively, the average spend on a player has not increased massively despite the increased quality. Villa recruited 13 players at a cost of £130 million in the summer of 2019/20, an average spend of £10 million per player.
Aside from the £28 million arrival of Watkins, all of Villa’s permanent signings cost around £15 million. While this does represent a 50% increase on last season’s average spend, it also represents a much better value for money given their position in the league. This is Lange’s entire recruitment philosophy, getting the best deal possible for every single player.
The Dane was tasked with bringing “sustained success to Aston Villa at the top tier of European football” in the words of Villa co-owner Nassef Sawiris, and he has made a fine start towards achieving that aim. Villa currently sit ninth in the Premier League, four points off the top six and are on course for their first top half Premier League finish in a decade.
Scattergun vs focused recruitment
Lange’s predecessor as Sporting Director, Jesus Garcia Pitarch, was a famously controversial figure at Villa Park.
His appointment was a confusing one as he had been sacked from a string of director of football jobs, most recently with Valencia, so most fans were unconvinced immediately. Additionally, while he was in the job he kept pulling against the manager and going off to sign his own targets, such as his infamous pursuit of Steven Nzonzi while Smith was signing Drinkwater, leading to a disjointed recruitment policy.
Pitarch was infamously fond of the Belgian league during his time at Villa, signing no less than four players from there in one season. Three of them even played for the same club, that being Club Brugge. Of these four players signed, none of them are first-team regulars anymore, albeit with Wesley having suffered a devastating knee injury that has kept him out for 13 months so far.
Analysing the recruitment options a little closer, it is immediately apparent which approach has worked the best. Ollie Watkins has already scored three more goals than Wesley and Samatta combined in 15 fewer appearances while Emi Martinez has kept over double the number of clean sheets Tom Heaton kept in the same amount of games before his injury.
Matty Cash’s more attacking style also compliments Villa’s expansive game more so than the more defensive Frederic Guilbert.
However, arguably the most important signings have been Ross Barkley and new arrival Morgan Sanson. Both players are attacking midfielders, an option sorely missed by Dean Smith since Jack Grealish shifted back out wide at the start of last season.
This has allowed Villa to ditch their ineffective 4-3-3 formation in favour of a more expansive 4-2-3-1 that plays more to Villa’s strengths.
The quality of the new recruits has also brought the players from last season up to a new level. John McGinn has finally started to look more like he did before his ankle injury in December 2019, Trezeguet has stepped up his defensive work while Matt Targett has put himself in England contention with a string of huge performances for Villa.
Lange’s approach to recruitment is already beginning to pay dividends with Villa’s upshoot in form. He has been much more responsible with the club’s finances than his predecessor and has gotten much better results from it.
While Smith or Grealish can collect the plaudits for the form on the pitch, Lange’s role in building this team cannot be understated.