As Tim Sherwood gingerly entered the press room following Aston Villa’s latest defeat in the Premiership, he must have already known that his time was up. Eight defeats from the opening ten games of the new season has Villa rooted to the bottom of the league and Sherwood now out of a job. The axe fell on Sunday after Sherwood watched helplessly as his Villa side threw away a 1-0 lead and surrendered sheepishly to Swansea who eventually ran out 2-1 victors. It was the eight game this season that Aston Villa have lost by a single goal but with a quarter of the season now played, the Villa board felt that they had to make a change.
But was the sacking justified given the circumstances? Sherwood’s arrival last season heralded a change in fortunes which saw Villa play some attractive football and avoid relegation. At the summer, Sherwood’s optimism for the season ahead was infectious with the club linked to several players. But by the end as the new season grew closer, Sherwood’s smile had turned to a frown as he watched the spine of his team sold from under him. Benteke, Delph, Cleverly and Vlaar all left for pastures new. US-based owner Randy Lerner for once did reinvest in the squad, sanctioning the spending of just over £50 million but not with the players that Sherwood wanted. The former Tottenham boss wanted to sign Andros Townsend, Asmir Begovic, Tom Cleverly (permanently) and Aaron Lennon, all of which possess years of experience playing in the Premiership. Instead what was brought in was youthful raw talent with a lot of potential primarily from abroad, all of whom fitted nicely with the clubs new moneyball approach being enforced by Sporting Director Hendrik Almstadt. Sherwood had little say in their signings but was forced to work with the players and attempt to mould them into a team.
The fact that only 3 of the twelve signed (Micah Richards, Jolean Lescott and Scott Sinclair) have played in the Premiership before highlights how difficult the task would have been for Sherwood. Most of the new arrivals came from the much slower and less physical Ligue 1 in France whilst the rest arrived from the lower leagues of England and Spain. Given that generally takes foreign imports at least six months to adapt to the speed of play and technical demands of the Premiership, it’s not surprising that few of the new players have shone. Sherwood has done what he can to regroup his new look side but without players capable of hitting the ground running, he was on a hiding to nothing from day one. Losing your prize goalscorer (Benteke) is one thing but removing the midfield engine (Delph and Cleverly) is another. Villa’s desmise this season is down to the loss of those three players and the inability of the club to replace them with like for like players. Gestede, Gueye and Veretout have a lot of potential but again their inexperience at this level has cost Villa and Sherwood dearly.
The blame for that must fall on Almstadt and chief scout Paddy Riley and their over reliance on the moneyball approach to buying players made famous by its use in US baseball and more recently at progressive clubs like Brentford and Danish champions FC Midtjylland. In this approach, data is used more heavily in identifying potential targets, pinpointing players strengths and weaknesses which is then accompanied by scouting reports on them. However what isn’t taken into consideration is various personal factors including the ability to adapt to new leagues and the time that would take. On paper they may look like the ideal fit for the long-term but in the short-term they could struggle badly as Villa have seen this season. This new growing trend in football is pitting clubs against their managers in a battle that only one side will ever win. Managers like Sherwood, Advocaat and Rodgers have all suffered this year due to the clubs they managed ignoring their judgement on who to sign, instead signing based on data models that aren’t quite as exact as once hoped.
Granted Villa’s results have been unacceptable to date but given the circumstances in which Sherwood was forced to operate, is it any real surprise? For owner Randy Lerner, the move is purely motivated by money with the understanding that he cannot afford to have Aston Villa relegated this season more than any other. At the end of this campaign, the new monster TV deal kicks in which will see all twenty clubs in the Premiership strike it rich beyond their wildest dreams. Villa dropping to the Championship would remove them from this equation hence Lerner’s impulsive behaviour towards Sherwood. The difficulty will be that Lerner and the Aston Villa board now need to find a manager who can keep them up with the squad that they have. Whoever comes in will be faced with the same challenge as Sherwood had – finding a wining formula for the Premiership with a squad lacking in Premiership experience.