Something For The Weekend (411)
It looks like I was wrong again. This is not a new experience for me, you understand, but it is never a pleasant emotion. You see, for the past couple of years my favourite football rant has been a, foam at the corner of the mouth, diatribe about how there is no proper competition in football these days and that the big clubs are so rich, it is literally impossible for a middling to smaller club to win anything any more.
My main thrust was a lamentation about how the game was losing its essential romance and therefore, is surely doomed.
The argument seemed sound enough but as ever it rather underestimated the ability of rich clubs to screw things up, even when they are blessed with resources which should, by all reckoning, provide them with enough slack to protect them from even their most serious bouts of incompetence. Underestimating the ability of people to screw up is probably the most common mistake in life but sometimes people just surpass all expectations.
For reasons mostly to do with being a very bad loser, a substantial amount of double-think and a pinch of hypocrisy, I struggled to see the romance this week when a magnificent Bradford performance against Villa, sent them on their way to Wembley for their greatest day out since they made their Premiership debut in 1999. Sadly, my cup did runneth over but not with either Corinthian spirit or romantic feeling.
But even so, I wasn't as disappointed as some, because I never thought it was a realistic expectation that Villa could score three goals with out reply and was rather cynical about the daft suggestion that this Villa team could be in any way compared with Big Ron's. For those who had managed to suspend their incredulity Villa's poor performance came as a bitter blow, and heads were demanded for the infamy inflicted by this final nail in the coffin of their faith, in those running the club.
Every Villa fan has their favourite, as to who should shoulder the blame. But trying to find a single candidate for Villa's month of failure, farce and fiasco, would seem to be unfair, because the guilty men are many. Ultimately the responsibility lies with Randy Lerner but those who managed Villa's strategy and declared it workable, and Paul Lambert and his staff cannot escape an unequivocal accusation of failure.
But when you look at the facts, I don't think Villa are failing by much.
Despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth which the loss to Bradford provoked, it was a single mistake in the first leg, which put the tie beyond Villa. The mistake which made it 3-1 to Bradford when Villa had just reduced the deficit to 2-1, effectively killed the tie for Villa. All the nonsense about Villa repeating Big Ron's famous comeback was good marketing but it just made everything worse by glossing over the reality and giving the fans false hope.
The reality is that Villa's problems are predictable, if you look at the reality which prevails in the Premiership; and that reality is money; a reality the fans have failed to grasp. The mantra is that Randy Lerner spent £250m buying the club and building a squad which should have finished in the top-four. The reality is that the clubs which actually get into the top-four have squads of players worth around £250m or more.
The price of guaranteeing a place in the Premiership as secure an NFL franchise is probably a squad worth around £150-200m.
You only have to take a look at a league table of squad values and ask yourself which clubs look totally beyond the threat of relegation to arrive at an answer. Liverpool with a squad valued at £205m is the poorest club for which relegation looks beyond imagination.
To make a challenge on the Champions League places a club needs a squad worth between £300-400m. Arsenal's squad, worth £240m, is not enough to allow them to make a realistic challenge for the title; just as Spurs' £235m isn't enough either.
A club such as Villa with a squad worth £105m, a level they share with both QPR and Sunderland, should put them safely in the middle-order, if things are going smoothly and that most of that value is counted amongst players who are part of the manager's plans. Any difficulty brought on by transition within a club, whether it is managerial or financial, will remove any safety-margin the club sees as their guarantee against a relegation battle.
So, what we find at Villa is that although the club has a squad worth £105m, the value of the starting-eleven the manager tends to field these days, is only valued at about the same level as their relegation rivals. For instance, when Villa played Southampton the other week, although Villa's squad is worth £42m more than Southampton's (£63m), Villa started the game with eleven players actually worth less than Southampton (£35m vs £37m).
It should have been no surprise that the game proved such a close contest and was decided by such a small margin.
Any club with a similar squad value to Villa's risks being dragged into relegation if they go through any sort of managerial or financial transition, because they effectively reduce themselves to the same level, as clubs operating with cheaper squads, but which are running smoothly.
If we take a look at West Brom, we can see that they are totally set up on the assumption, that if they have the slightest difficulty, they will be relegated. They understand having a squad worth only £72m puts them in a very vulnerable position. Villa's present transition has effectively put them in the same position as the Albion because presently they are only fielding 33% of their squad's value, in some games, compared with Southampton's 59% and West Brom 61%.
Villa's troubles begin to look inevitable given such a waste of resources and we can only choose between whether the problem was caused by Paul Lambert holding onto players he had no use for or the policies and inaction of Paul Faulkner and Randy Lerner.
It seems likely that it is a mixture of both. Lambert might have cashed in Darren Bent and bought himself some players known to be able to defend a corner, or stiffen up a midfield. Paul Faulkner and Randy Lerner might have realised that Villa's present wage-structure might limit their manager's options.
If Randy Lerner is going to stick to his plan then he is right to stick with Paul Lambert. There is no better candidate for squeezing value from a low-value squad and it seems inevitable that the value of the Villa squad is going to fall in the near future, which makes the permanent threat of relegation something the fans are going to have to get used to.
Villa once boasted they were aiming for the Champions League, now they can't even afford Premiership security.
It's enough to make you mad.
Keep the faith!