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Aston Villa: Creating a recruitment strategy

Promotion from the Championship to the Premier League is the culmination of one of the toughest seasons in European football. Not only do you have to play a huge amount of matches, 46 in the league and then various cup ties, but you also have to play against opposing sides who may have played recently in the Premier League and whose squad depth and financial reach reflects this.

Getting promoted from the Championship then is an achievement in itself but once the elation passes, clubs that have managed this find themselves having to plan and build their squad for competing in the Premier League. In most cases, clubs that are competing for promotion in this manner will have dual plans in place for recruitment. They will have a plan for if they are promoted and they will have a plan for if they have to spend another season at their current level. The same, of course, applies for teams at the opposite end of the table as there will be divergent plans in place again depending on whether they are relegated or if they retain their place in their current division.

The purpose of this data analysis article is to develop the first stages of a recruitment plan for a club who has experienced both sides of this issue over the last 12 months – Aston Villa.

Aston Villa were promoted via the playoffs at the end of the 2018/19 season and as such they were the last club in England to have their recruitment plan finalised. Now, at the time of writing, we see Aston Villa sitting second-bottom of the Premier League table with 25 points from 28 games. The first step that we will take, however, is to look at the recruitment at the club prior to the 2019/20 season to gain an understanding of the way that they approached the task.

Recruiting for the Premier League

Before we break down where the club signed players from and what they received in terms of output from those signings, it can be interesting to compare the amount of money spent to the amount of points gained over the course of the season at not only Aston Villa but all of the other Premier League clubs.

The scatter graph above makes for sobering reading for Aston Villa fans. Not only has the club accrued the highest net spend in the league with over £139m Net spend but they have done so to gain just 0.89 points per game. Compare this to the other two clubs who were promoted this season and we see Norwich City with a net spend of just £5.95m as the only side with a worse average points total than Aston Villa on 0.72. Then we see Sheffield United with a significant spend of over £61m but with a much higher average points total of 1.54. These three clubs represent an interesting mix of strategies coming into the Premier League. Norwich are favourites for relegation at this point but if they do go back to the Championship, they will do so having spent relatively little and having gained financially from the television income shared between teams in the Premier league. In the long-term then, we are likely to see Norwich remain a healthy side financially and on the pitch. Sheffield United have taken a slightly different approach and their spending increased in the winter transfer window with a significant outlay on the Norwegian midfielder Sander Berge. Crucially though, this spending came after the club was already established in a strong position. At the time of writing, Sheffield United stand on the brink of achieving European qualification in their first season back in the top-flight. Now, contrast those approaches to Aston Villa. The level of spending at the midlands club is likely to be problematic should they be relegated back to the Championship this season.

Next, we will consider the areas in which Aston Villa recruited from prior to the 2019/20 season.

There were four key markets that were accessed by Aston Villa prior to this season in the Premier League, although only three of these markets were significant with only one player, the Egyptian winger Trezeguet, being signed from Turkey. When developing our new plan then we will concentrate on the markets in England, Belgium and France.

Next, we will start to consider the style of play that we see from Aston Villa as well as the systems of play that they use most often.

As we can see in the above image, under coach Dean Smith Aston Villa have favoured either a 4-1-4-1 or 4-3-3 system in the vast majority of these matches. It is important to also note that these two systems are largely variants of one another so similar player profiles will be required for each system.

The above graphic is a network that we at Total Football Analysis use to describe team style of play and it was provided by my colleague Zoltan Toth. This network shows us that under Smith we see Aston Villa utilise a counter attacking style of play that is direct in its build-up and focused down the wings. They also look to generate a large amount of shots at goal, although these are not always from the best of areas.

Now that we have gained an understanding of the way that Aston Villa like to play, we need to consider how effective each of their new players has been over the course of the season by using key metrics. We will examine defensive efficiency, the efficiency with which each player progresses the ball for Aston Villa, creative efficiency and efficiency in terms of goal contribution. These same data points can then be used to identify future targets for the club.

The first metric that we are going to look at is defensive efficiency. We have found this by combining possession adjusted tackles and possession adjusted interceptions to find a value that points towards defensive output. Measuring defensive output using data has always been a difficult task but these two metrics carry enough value to make the findings at least instructive. We have only applied this to players that were signed by Aston Villa in the window prior to the 2019/20 season. 

As you can see, two players stood out as Kourtney Hause, signed from Wolves, accrued a score of 11.5 having played 1,079 minutes over the course of the season so far. Next comes the former Southampton left-back Matt Targett with 9.24 from 1,823 minutes. The other player who has impressed in this regard is the Zimbabwean midfielder Marvelous Nakamba who moved to the club from Club Brugge with 8.75 from 1,751 minutes.

Next, we will examine the extent to which the new signings have progressed the ball over the course of this season. To reach this ball progression score we have combined progressive passes per 90 minutes and progressive runs per 90 minutes to come to a single score. Once again, we have only applied this search in the data to players who were signed before the start of this season.

Once again we see that the standout player is Kourtney Hause with a score of 13.1. We also see Matt Targett in second with 10.47 but this time the third slot in our search is taken up by the former Brentford defender Ezri Konsa with a score of 7.34 from 1,300 minutes.

The third metric that we will examine looks at creativity in the final third. To find this score we have combined key passes per 90 minutes and deep completions per 90 minutes to get the players who contribute the most in the final third of the pitch.

The standout player this time is Anwar El-Ghazi. The Dutch wide player had spent the 2019/19 season on loan at the club from the French side Lille before making the move permanent prior to this season. He accrued a score in our metric of 1.35 per 90 minutes from 1,791 minutes. Next, again, is Matt Targett with 1.13 per 90 minutes and in third we have Trezeguet with 0.88 per 90 minutes from 1,432 minutes.

The final metric that we will examine is expected goal contribution. To create this metric we are combining expected goals per 90 and expected assists per 90 in order to find a single score to show the player’s importance in front of goal.

We again see that Anwar El-Ghazi features prominently with 0.41 per 90 minutes. Next we have Wesley, signed from Club Brugge in Belgium, with 0.37 per 90 from 1,902 minutes and third we see Trezeguet with a score of 0.31 per 90.

Next steps for recruitment

Now that we have a picture of who Aston Villa signed last season, where they came from and what they contributed, we can start to build a picture of a potential recruitment plan for this coming transfer window. We should add at this stage that this is something that would only form a small part of the overall planning. The data check that we will show then would be followed up by video and live scouting to form a clearer picture.

To start with, we will look at the squad as a whole to get an idea of the distribution of playing minutes across the age profile.

The first thing that we see from the scatter graph above is that a large portion of the playing minutes at the club have gone to players in the early stages of their peak phase. This is a hugely positive sign for the club with key players across all positions at the club still likely to improve from their current level. This also increases the potential resale value of a number of these players as they continue to develop into the peak stage of their careers.

Now, we will start to look at potential targets for the upcoming transfer window and we will start with defensive signings. These scatter charts are created using data, as with the rest of this article, from Wyscout with filters added to include players who have played over 1000 minutes this season and who are currently aged between 21-26 years. We have then applied these filters to the Belgian and French top-flights and to the English Championship. The first chart looks at defensive efficiency using the same combination of metrics that we saw earlier in the article.

We have picked out four players from the initial data check, two of whom play for the same team in the English Championship. First is the Finnish defender Aapo Halme. He is a 22-year-old central defender currently signed to Barnsley in the English Championship and is averaging 10.69 possession adjusted interceptions and 1.09 possession adjusted tackles. Next is a second Barnsley central defender in the 22-year-old Danish defender Mads Juel Andersen who is also averaging 11.54 possession adjusted interceptions and 1.10 possession adjusted tackles per 90.

Next is Aleksandar Vukotić who is a 24-year-old Serbian defender currently signed to Wassland-Beveren in the Belgian Pro-League. Vukotić is averaging 9.09 possession adjusted interceptions and 1.44 possession adjusted tackles. The final central defender on our list is Modou Diagne who is a 25-year-old central defender contracted to Charleroi, again in Belgium, who is averaging 7.21 possession adjusted interceptions and 1.72 possession adjusted tackles.

Next, we will turn our attention to those players who can help Aston Villa to improve with their ball progression throughout the pitch. Again, we will use the same metrics that we used to assess the previous signings earlier in this article. These are applied using the same filters to our data as above.

We have suggested three players from this set of data with the first being the Belgian right-back Alessio Castro-Montes who has 11.55 progressive passes per 90 minutes and 2.99 progressive runs per 90 minutes. He is an athletic full-back who would provide an interesting counterbalance to Matt Targett on the left-side. The next player is the 25-year-old Reims left sided player Hassane Kamara who has 8.22 progressive passes and 3.56 progressive runs per 90 minutes. He has the flexibility to play higher on the left or on the right-hand side. The final player in this section is the 23-year-old Cameroonian player Didier Lamkel Ze of Antwerp. Lamkel Ze is capable of playing across the front line and is averaging 6.35 progressive passes and 4.45 progressive runs per 90 minutes.

Now, we will turn our attention to the creative players that Aston Villa could target this coming summer. Once again we use the same metrics as we did earlier in the article in key passes per 90 minutes and deep completions per 90 minutes.

The first player who stands out this time around is Massimo Bruno, the 26-year-old Belgian winger currently playing for Charleroi. Bruno is averaging 1.02 key passes and 1.47 deep completions per 90 minutes. Next is the Strasbourg player Adrien Thomasson and the 25-year-old player is averaging 0.95 key passes per and 1.62 deep completions per 90 minutes. The final player this time around is the 24-year-old Reading midfielder John Swift who is averaging 0.57 key passes and 1.37 deep completions per 90 minutes.

Finally, we will examine the expected goal contribution aspect of our data by combining each player’s expected goals and expected assists per 90 minutes. The first player that we have picked out is the 22-year-old Nigerian forward David Okereke who is averaging 0.53 xG and 0.14 xA per 90 minutes while playing in Belgium for Club Brugge. Next we have the 22-year-od English forward Karlan Grant who has 0.36 xG and 0.14 xA per 90 minutes. The final player on our shortlist is the 26-year-old Milwall forward player Jed Wallace who is averaging 0.23 xG and 0.23 xA per 90 minutes.


So, we have used data to assess the transfer business of Aston Villa over the course of the previous season before building the start of a model to help them to recruit this coming season.