Stacy Murphy with another look ahead to 2023-24.
Just as it is going so well; possibly too well, the curse of being Aston Villa has struck. We all probably knew it would it was only question was when and how. Or in this case who. For other clubs Twitter rumours of a player suffering an injury remain just rumours but for Villa it always signals more long-term space being required in the treatment room.
This time it’s Emi Buendia who has suffered a “significant knee ligament injury” according to Villa’s official website. As the manager said in his first pre-match press conference of the season, this will mean more than just a couple of months out for the diminutive Argentinian and is almost certainly code for a torn cruciate ligament. If this is the case, whether the ligament is anterior or posterior it will mean we won’t see Emi minor until at least April, if at all this season.
It is a shame for Buendia as he had shown some really good form in pre-season, particularly during the US tour with his performance against Newcastle in Washington being especially impressive. He seemed to be stronger and half a yard faster than we had seen before demonstrated well by his set up for Ollie Watkins’ opener before taking advantage of Jaden Philogene-Bidace’s misfortune to score the third himself.
If there can ever be a silver lining to such a cloud this scenario has one, at least as far as the club is concerned, in that the transfer window is still open and Villa can bring in a replacement for Buendia if Unai Emery and Monchi decide one is required. Very early suggestions point to Nicola Zanioli from Galatasaray being brought in, at least on loan, to cover Buendia’s absence. The slight irony here is that Zanioli has been plagued by ACL injuries himself in the past. The other impact of Emi’s bad luck is that Aaron Ramsey’s mooted buy-back clause transfer to Burnley may be put on ice but more of that later.
Buendia’s injury comes just as most of us, players, fans and even the media, have been at their most optimistic prior to a season in at least two decades and probably more. NSWE, Unai Emery and to a lesser extent Monchi have put together a squad which could push the almost closed shop at the top end of the table close come May. As has been the Villa way since the takeover in 2018, players have been brought in with the minimum of fuss and without fanfare. In a similar development to Bouba Kamara’s arrival last summer, Youri Tielemans joined on a free transfer when press reports said he was signing elsewhere. Pau Torres is a statement signing and could have had chosen to join an array of clubs but, such is the pull of working with Emery, he elected to wear claret and blue.
It seems a similar story with Moussa Diaby, who has joined from Bayer Leverkeusen and became Villa’s record signing in the process. If the pre-season games are anything to go by Tielemans and Diaby look to have slotted straight into the Emery system, with the latter scoring twice in his first two games and Tielemans playing the sort of balls from midfield many of us have dreamt of for many years. Torres may take a little more time to adjust but some of this could be due to the absence of Alex Moreno and Emery’s almost lop-sided formation being played as a mirror image. Where Moreno would usually be the more attacking of the Villa full backs on the left, the warm-up games have seen this role fall to Matty Cash on the right leaving Torres in an unfamiliar left back position. He is though a wonderfully gifted footballer who no doubt will adjust to this and hopefully quite quickly.
Tied into those incoming are the inevitable outgoings, with Morgan Sanson departing on loan for Nice and both Kaine Kessler-Hayden and Finn Azaz joining (or in the case of Azaz re-joining) Plymouth also on loan. At time of writing (Thursday night 10th August and at 30,000 feet somewhere over the northern Adriatic so I can’t check the latest news) that transfer of Aaron Ramsey to Burnley for a fee of between £12 and £15 million (depending on the source) is still not complete and there is a report of Cameron Archer moving to Sheffield United for an unmentioned fee. Both of these permanent transfers would involve buy-back clauses.
I understand how these two deals will help the club with financial fair play regulations with both representing pure profit as they have come through the club’s academy but feel a bit ambivalent about the nature of such deals. Ideally both Ramsey junior and Archer would help lead Villa to future glory but the deals, should they happen, are low risk and could be viewed as glorified loans. Villa would effectively be paying the buying clubs to develop our players, giving them top division experience and, if they don’t sufficiently make the grade, we would not invoke the clause.
The case for Ramsey moving like this, however, is far more clear cut than for Archer. Villa currently have a well-stocked attacking midfield area (Buendia’s injury notwithstanding) so the chances he has of breaking through this season will be limited. Cameron on the other hand is in prime position behind Ollie Watkins for a striking berth. If Watkins were to get injured only Jhon Dúran or, in an unlikely scenario, Keinan Davis would be left as cover. Both transfers would also affect Villa’s homegrown and club-developed quota of players in European games this season. The loss of Archer may point to an incoming striker but that will not solve the homegrown issue. As with the silver lining of the dark Emi Buendia-shaped cloud, though, there is still time to do something about losing those players.
After being energized for the season by Richard Nevin’s excellent optimistic article yesterday today’s news has slightly tempered my unusual, and now slightly dented, positive feeling about the hopefully 60+ games to come on the pitch. Matters off the pitch such as the near calamitous Terrace View ‘project’ which now scars the Holte End is another matter. It reminds me of the then Prince Charles speaking about the extension to the National Gallery appearing as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face a much-loved friend”. I’m not exactly a royalist, unless our most famous fan wants to bestow a small estate on me, but the words of his father were the first which came to mind when I saw the picture that circulated across the web earlier this week. That, and the squeezing every penny out of fans, though is a debate for another time. If Villa start 2023-24 well such things will become minor irritants.
For the first time in what seems like several millennia Villa are in a position to challenge for honours. This time though, unlike the false dawns of 1993, 1996, 2008 and many others, we must sustain it and make it count.