As every Premier League manager in the history of the competition will attest, January is a notoriously difficult time to get any major transfer business done.
There are notable exceptions of course, but generally speaking, blockbuster deals are almost exclusively reserved for the summer rather than winter months.
Clubs of a stable financial footing simply aren’t open to selling their prized assets midway through a season when there are targets to reach, such as winning trophies, securing a place in European competition or staving off the threat of relegation.
Consequently, the pool of players able to elevate a team available in January is rather shallow, as Aston Villa are finding out the hard way at the moment.
Dean Smith’s side had appeared to turn a corner following a difficult festive run by beating Burnley 2-1 at Turf Moor on New Year’s Day but that result came with considerable cost after Tom Heaton and Wesley suffered season-ending knee ligament injuries.
Heaton and Wesley have joined key midfielder John McGinn in the treatment room at Villa’s Bodymoor Heath training complex, forcing Smith and the club’s Sporting Director Jesús García Pitarch or Suso for short, into a manic trolley dash across Europe.
Midway through the transfer window, Villa have sourced replacements for two of their three injured stars. Pepe Reina and Danny Drinkwater have arrived on loan from AC Milan and Chelsea respectively until the end of the season to plug the gaps left by the stricken Heaton and McGinn.
Ahead of Saturday’s game against Brighton, Smith suggested a replacement for Wesley has also been identified, saying: “Suso’s working very hard every day. Whether we’ll have one in for Saturday I’m not so sure yet. We’re getting closer.”
According to PA Sport, that striker is Mbwana Samatta, a 27-year-old who will become the first Tanzanian representative in Premier League history if his £8.5m move from Belgian club Genk goes through without a hitch.
While Villa have been dealt a tough hand in terms of injuries, the fact that they have been forced into acquiring three players in pivotal positions in January despite spending £130m on transfer fees in the summer has seen them criticised in some quarters for being willfully unprepared.
However, the strange circumstances of last season’s promotion-winning campaign provide context as to why Villa’s squad has become so stretched this term.
The root of the club’s current issues can be traced back to an agonising play-off final defeat to Fulham 20 months ago, the aftermath of which exposed the club’s desperate financial state.
Its official title is a play-off final, but the climax of the gruelling Championship season at Wembley has also become known in recent years as the richest game in football, such are the enormous financial rewards for the victor.
There are no such benefits for the loser, though, as was made abundantly clear in Villa’s case back in 2018. After Tom Cairney’s first-half strike had condemned them to defeat, Villa’s precarious financial situation under their eccentric chairman Dr. Tony Xia was laid bare.
During Dr. Xia’s two-year spell at the helm, Villa reportedly lost £50m and were days away from entering administration before being taken over by the NSWE group fronted by Egyptian billionaire Nassef Sawiris and American billionaire Wes Edens at the back end of July 2018.
That takeover not only saved Villa’s immediate future but it is also enabled the manager at the time, Steve Bruce to augment his squad with additions. With only three weeks separating the takeover until the end of the transfer window, though, Villa largely relied on loan deals.
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Of Villa’s 12 signings under Bruce and his successor Smith during 2018-19, eight were loanees including Tyrone Mings, Kortney Hause and Anwar El-Ghazi, as well as Chelsea striker Tammy Abraham and Manchester United defender Axel Tuanzebe.
By the end of the campaign, Villa still had five first-team players on loan, as well as a further seven who were released at the end of their contracts, including Albert Adomah, Glenn Whelan, Alan Hutton and Birkir Bjarnason. A further three – Mile Jedinak, Micah Richards and Mark Bunn – retired.
Due to the uncertainty over the futures of so many players in the squad, Villa only had a dozen senior contracted players in the aftermath of their play-off final win against Derby County, which meant a major rebuilding job was paramount ahead of a first Premier League season in three years.
Successful loanees Mings, Hause and El Ghazi were all retained permanently, while big fees were spent on Wesley, Matt Targett, Douglas Luiz, Heaton and Ezri Konsa amongst others. In total, Smith signed 12 players in permanent deals in the summer – a huge number for a promoted club.
It was a necessary rebuild but due to the sheer number of departures last summer, Villa’s squad remains on the small side and as a result, only ever one or two injuries away from disaster, as the recent setbacks to Heaton and Wesley have emphasised.
Signing short-term fixes in the form of Reina and Drinkwater – two players with a combined seven league starts over the past 18-months – presumably, would not have been part of Villa’s long-term strategy.
But considering the difficulties of operating in the winter transfer market allied to the squad issues that have been built up over years of mismanagement off the pitch and the threat of relegation from the Premier League, Villa had to do something.
While it is reasonable to assume that both Reina and Drinkwater’s best days are behind them, various circumstances have forced Villa to get them on board.
Time will tell whether they prove to be successful recruits or not.