Underachievement can keep getting more expensive. Fulham set an unwanted record last season by becoming the first club to spend £100 million (Dh461.7m) on transfers in a season and then be relegated. Aston Villa’s expenditure over the last 13 months stretches to about £140m. Their fate could be sealed by Arsenal on Tuesday.
Villa’s plight reflects badly on the sporting director Jesus Garcia Pitarch – no wonder, given his wretched record, he argued in March there should be no relegation this year – but it reflects wider issues. Five of the 2019 Championship play-off winning team were borrowed: three of them were eventually bought but at a cost to this season’s budget while Villa have missed Axel Tuanzebe, after finding no such resolute centre-back partner for Tyrone Mings, and Tammy Abraham, who scored 26 goals last season.
This season’s three striking signings have been Wesley, who scored six times before being injured on New Year’s Day, his replacement Mbwana Samatta, who has a solitary league goal, and Borja Baston, who left after only 16 minutes of action. The choice in attack on Tuesday lies between Samatta and the homegrown Keinan Davis, who troubles defences but has two goals in 55 career league games.
“We haven't got the points we deserve [in summer],” said manager Dean Smith. “That's been pretty much down to the final third of the pitch.”
Factor in goalkeeping problems since Tom Heaton was also hurt in that damaging victory at Burnley and it amounts to a dangerous formula. Villa can be poor where it matters most: the penalty boxes.
They may have been luckless. “We've been hampered by some big injuries this season to key players; Tom Heaton, Wesley, John McGinn,” added Smith.
McGinn did not play between December and June and has not recaptured his excellence. Villa’s progressive midfield was their strongest suit, but the once talismanic captain Jack Grealish has neither a goal nor an assist since the restart.
Neutrals may miss Villa. Only Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool’s games have produced more goals but, until lockdown, Villa were rarely convincing in defence. They have conceded the most goals on the counter-attack, the second most from set-pieces and the most in the last 10 minutes of games.
They have been found wanting on the road where, unless they shut out West Ham on Sunday, they will complete the season without a clean sheet, and against the best. They only have two points against the top eight. Perhaps they will take hope, then, that Arsenal are 10th.
When football was halted in March, well-sourced reports suggested Smith was one game from the sack. The eventual verdict may be that a decent man and a lifelong Villa fan was not an abject failure this season, but was almost good enough; but that "almost" amounted to several points in fine margins
And yet, in Smith’s defence, he was the driving force in recruiting Heaton and Mings, the two best summer buys. Villa can rue those who got away, the targets like Neal Maupay, Said Benrahma and Kalvin Phillips who, for various reasons, they did not sign last summer. Smith would have liked all and each, based on his form elsewhere, would have done better than the men they did bring in.
Perhaps each would have cost more. Certainly, the numbers look worrying for Villa. Inflated by promotion bonuses, they made a £68.9m loss last year. The notion that, after investment, they had equity in their squad is being dented by the probable decline in transfer fees. It would be sad if relegation prompts Grealish to go, but his value is being hit. Villa, meanwhile, can only wonder where £140m has got them.