Aston Villa’s owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens have invested around £500 million on transfers since promotion to the Premier League, underlining their ambition to propel the club back among the elite.
‘Big-spending Villa’ has remained the narrative, and they have undoubtedly been one of the more active clubs in Europe’s top five leagues.
Yet there is a story that is frequently overlooked: Unai Emery’s charge for Champions League qualification is being driven by a midfield comprising five stars that cost just £17.5 million.
With Villa preparing for a pivotal month of fixtures, starting at Tottenham on Sunday, those midfielders will be crucial in Emery’s mission to write some history.
That remarkably low spend is a triumph of scouting and recruitment, combined with a ruthlessness to execute deals at the right time.
When you consider that Chelsea spent almost £220 million on Moises Caicedo and Enzo Fernandez this year, the signings of McGinn (£2.5 million from Hibernian) and Douglas Luiz (£15 million from Manchester City) stand out as excellent bargains.
McGinn is arguably in the best form of his career, scoring three goals and providing two assists in the Premier League so far this season. The Scotland international has also scored twice in the Europa Conference League.
The background behind McGinn’s move is a warm and uplifting one. After establishing his career at Hibs, he had a concrete offer from his boyhood club Celtic, while there was also interest south of the border from Brighton.
Yet once Villa turned on the charm, whisking him down to Birmingham for talks with then manager Steve Bruce and turning on the floodlights at their empty stadium to show off the majestic Holte End, there was no disputing where he would end up.
Douglas Luiz has proved an equally shrewd signing and is worth upwards of £80 million now. The heartbeat of Villa’s midfield, he has started every game in the league this season and become indispensable following a relatively low-key arrival in 2019.
The Brazilian had been playing on loan at Girona, the La Liga club part-owned by City Football Group, in the previous two seasons after issues with his work permit.
He was recommended by Villa’s former sporting director, Jesus Garcia Pitarch, who had scouted him frequently and put him forward as a player with high potential.
City insisted on a £30 million buy-back option within two years, which was the key to Villa being able to sign him. City declined to exercise it, although Pep Guardiola was a huge fan, and Luiz is now one of the mainstays in Emery’s team.
Arsenal are expected to ignite their long-standing interest in January but Villa regard him as not for sale and fundamental to their objectives.
Since returning to the riches of the top division, Villa have also been intent on making intelligent signings at little or no cost.
Kamara was signed on a free transfer from Marseille last May and the France international is arguably their most underrated player.
A defensive midfielder who regularly drops into the back-line when Villa are building up attacks forward, he is a footballer designed for the modern game.
Kamara’s signature was secured after a trip to the port city was undertaken by Emery’s predecessor Steven Gerrard, former sporting director Johan Lange and the previous chief executive Christian Purslow.
The trio attended Marseille’s Ligue 1 match against Nantes on April 22 and had no intention of leaving without a deal being agreed.
Villa had done their homework. Kamara was only 21 but played all the junior levels from under-17s upwards up to France’s senior team. He had also operated in both the Champions League and Europa League with his club.
After that game against Nantes, Gerrard delivered a sales pitch in Kamara’s living room and he agreed to sign. Gerrard’s reputation remains a little tattered with Villa fans, but there is little doubt that his iconic status persuaded Kamara to join the club.
Tielemans, a Belgium international, was signed this summer after his contract expired at Leicester. He had endured a saga over his future with Leicester, declining to sign a deal that had been on the table for over two years.
It is now that Villa are seeing why Tielemans’s peers regard him so highly. After adapting to Emery’s methods and training regime, his last two performances against AZ Alkmaar and Fulham were perhaps his best in claret and blue.
Emery was the decisive factor in the move, convincing Tielemans to sign by outlining how he could improve him as a player.
It is also impossible to ignore the impact made by Ramsey, an academy graduate born in nearby Great Barr.
Ramsey was on the fringes of the England senior team before sustaining a broken metatarsal during the under-21’s tournament in July.
The 22-year-old was one of the rare positives during Gerrard’s troubled tenure and excelled in the second half of last season’s resurgence under Emery.
He suffered a recurrence of the same injury in October but is expected to return in the next few weeks, providing Villa with another major boost. Ramsey provides goals, energy and creativity.
His return will come at a perfect time. After the visit to Tottenham, Villa also have games coming up against Legia Warsaw, Manchester City and Arsenal, which will give us a clear sign of where this team is heading.
It will be the value-for-money midfield that provides the foundations for that top-four push.