Striking problems

Robin Wilkes looks at big money forwards and their impact at Villa Park.

It’s fair to say that, over the years, the Villa have had just as many, maybe more, misses as hits when we’ve spent heavily on new strikes. Over halfway through his first season in claret and blue, the jury is still out on which camp one of last summer’s star signings, Danny Ings, will join. Certainly though, with the side currently struggling to get the results expected following a great start for manager Steven Gerrard, the striking positions are coming under increasing scrutiny.

As a proven Premier League goalscorer, it was easy to see why the club took the chance to recruit the striker as one of three signings which, in effect, spent the money received for Jack Grealish – clearly, Ings isn’t the only one who has yet to settle at his new club. Less clear was how Dean Smith, would fit both Ings and last season’s top scorer, Ollie Watkins, into his starting eleven. With Watkins out injured for the first few games of the season, this conundrum was initially avoided and Ings started well in terms of goals, converting an injury time, consolation penalty at Watford on the opening day, before scoring from an overhead kick that Doug Ellis would have been proud of, against pre-investment Newcastle on his home debut.

Our first view of the potential Watkins-Ings partnership had to wait until our fourth league game, away to Chelsea. This was one of a run of six league games when Smith largely employed two up top, a formation outside the almost religious 4-3-3 that he had used for his successful, first two and a half seasons at Villa Park. Two of those six games, Everton at home and Manchester United away, brought victories but the strike partnership was clearly one in its infancy. The disastrous result against Wolves at home, when we somehow to blow a two goal lead in the last fifteen minutes (thankfully, not something I can recall seeing too often over the years at Villa Park), saw another good Ings goal, this time a header, as Smith reverted to a 4-3-3, with Emi Buendia joining the strikers in a fairly fluid formation in the final third. When the strikers have played together Ings clearly favours a more central position, meaning Watkins has tended to be forced out wide and whilst his abilities may suit this role, it’s not the one in which he had so much success in his debut season.

After a short spell when Ings was absent from the squad Smith’s replacement, Steven Gerrard, reunited the pair for his first game in charge, against Brighton, again alongside Buendia in a front three. Watkins grabbed his third goal of the season that day, a fine run and emphatic finish at the Holte End. Ings was brought off just before Watkins’ goal in that game and he was benched by Gerrard for the next one, away at Crystal Palace, with Watkins returning to a central role. The pair were next united against Chelsea on Boxing Day, when Gerrard chose to play two up top, with Jacob Ramsey just behind in support. A good first half was followed by a lacklustre second and we slipped to another defeat. The New Year saw Watkins not in the squad for Brentford and with Ings starting centrally, Traore and Buendia providing support, he grabbed another good goal. The underlying theme being give him a chance and he’s more than likely to put it in the back of the net (that’s what he’s spent his whole career doing, after all) but there’s far too few of those chances being provided and if not, there tends to be little contribution of note from our £30 million signing.

Watkins was in the side for the FA Cup tie at Manchester United, back alongside Ings and Buendia in a front three, though he again looked largely out of sorts. Ings had a poacher’s goal disallowed by VAR, with a foul by Ramsey apparently the reason finally presented to the masses viewing on Monday night TV. Watkins’ disallowed effort was at least clear, our FA cup ‘run’ ending all too familiarly, in the early rounds. Will our luck ever change?

Gerrard kept the same front three for the next game, this time United in the league at Villa Park, a game which changed on the introduction of new signing, Philippe Countinho, with an assist and a debut goal. With another of our big summer signings, Buenida, now also showing some real form the competition for those forward places has ratcheted up a notch and it may be that there is only one central striking position up for grabs in Gerrard’s formation.

Ings was back on the bench for Everton away, with the South American maestros supporting Watkins at centre-forward. The same forward trio were used for our last home game, the disappointing draw with Leeds, though the qualities of Coutinho and Ramsey couldn’t be denied on the night. Watkins again though, this time like a few of his team mates, put in a largely uninspiring performance, which was repeated just a few days later at Newcastle, much of his work done outside rather than inside the box. Brought up on centre-forwards of the calibre of Andy Gray, Peter Withe and Alan McInally, I’m always disappointed when I see that.

Watkins is a tireless worker and after his performances last season, fully deserved his starting place this time around but his appetite for goal doesn’t quite seem what it was. Certainly, both him and Ings will want to be upfront in a side with Coutinho and Buendia creating chances. I doubt we will see them together very often, so hopefully the competition will inspire them both to produce more. He may just be going through one of those spells that all strikers go through but it is starting to feel like, after being goalless for the last six games, Watkins has had a long enough almost guaranteed run in the side and that Ings should perhaps now be given an extended chance to provide the goals that the team clearly needs. They have different attributes but centre-forwards will always be judged on goals. Gerrard may persist with Watkins against Watford and hopefully he’ll be back on a goalscoring run. If so, good on him, as he certainly doesn’t deserve any of the personal criticism he might have received.

So what of the other expensive forwards we’ve signed over the years? You’ll all have your own favourites (or not) for both the failure and success categories and of course, the reason for why they failed – wrong player signed, not good enough, couldn’t play alongside – or of course, why they were a success in claret and blue. Let’s name just a few from both camps here.

For a Championship side, Villa spent big money, £15 million, on Scott Hogan from Brentford in the January 2017 transfer window. Steve Bruce can only have bought Hogan for his then current goalscoring record (he’d got fourteen goals already in just 25 games for The Bees that season) rather than any potential to link up with our main striker, the maverick Jonathan Kodjia. The two never looked like forming an effective strike partnership. Unlike Kodjia, Hogan’s spell at Villa Park can only be described as poor. He got one league goal in the remainder of that season and only another six in total before leaving. He now plays in the Championship’s lower echelons.

Once we were back in the Premier League, Dean Smith signed a couple of strikers, for combined transfer fees of over £30 million, who also largely failed to deliver. Wesley’s Villa career has been blighted by the injury he received from a terrible tackle at Burnley, and whilst five goals in 21 league games in our first season back in the Premier League wasn’t the worst return, there’s probably few who can see him leading the line for us again. His opener against Everton to give us our first home win back in the top flight will always be remembered, though. Wes’ replacement, Tanzanian Mbwana Samatta, only got one league goal in fourteen appearances before moving on to Fenerbache and is now back in the Belgian first division from which both he and Wesley were recruited, with our old adversaries Royal Antwerp. Samatta will always have his moment in Villa history, as one of currently just eleven goalscorers for the club at Wembley, with his only other goal in claret and blue. Given Smith’s penchant for wide players, both seem to have been signed to play as lone strikers rather than in a partnership and indeed that season most of our goals, to thankfully stay in the division, came from other areas of the team, particularly the midfield axis of McGinn-Grealish-Hourihane.

In the last year of his tenure as manager, John Gregory recruited two strikers from overseas, who gave vastly different returns to the club. Juan Pablo Angel, who cost £9.5 million from River Plate, took time to settle, making eleven appearances over three months before his first goal, in the game that saw Coventry City relegated from the top flight. Angel went on to form a decent strike partnership with Darius Vassell. Bosko Balaban cost nearly £6 million from Dinamo Zagreb, but found neither a strike partner nor the back of the net in his eight substitute appearances before being moved on.

Looking for expensive signings who’ve hit the ground running then Darren Bent, with a debut goal against Manchester City and Dean Saunders, with two goals on his home debut against the side we’d only just signed him from, Liverpool, spring to mind. Deano had a much more successful time with us than Bent but this was helped by playing in much better sides – the 1992-93 Premier League runners-up and the 1994 League Cup winners – and having a great strike partnership with the mercurial Dalian Atkinson.

Other expensive forward signings who didn’t fair as well as they might have been expected for us include: Tony Cascarino, who never linked up with David Platt in the same way Ian Olney had, in another season when we were close to winning the top flight title; Emile Heskey, who just seemed to present Martin O’Neill with an additional option he didn’t need, when really he already had the answer in Big John Carew, and Stan Collymore, who joined a side that already had two main strikers in Dwight Yorke and Savo Milosevic, though he went on to link up well with two more Gregory signings, Dion Dublin and Paul Merson, both of whom had also made instant impacts when joining the club for big money.

With the exception of Peter Withe and the success the team enjoyed through his wonderful partnership with Gary Shaw, it could be argued Dion had a bigger initial impact than any Villa forward signing in recent memory, scoring seven goals in his first three league games. Now, well over halfway through this season, Watkins and Ings only have nine league goals between them. Clearly time to get a partnership going or as currently seems more likely, stepping up as individuals in whatever game time comes their way, especially given the undoubted quality that they now have around them.