Jacob Ramsey and FFP fears threaten to undermine Aston Villa’s pursuit of progress

Even if injuries have consigned Jacob Ramsey to a supporting role in Aston Villa’s main storylines this term, he finds himself the bellwether in capturing the current mood.

Villa’s first home game of 2023 had been a long time coming. It marked a return to home comforts for a side in need of a second wind as they faced a rival for a Champions League spot in Newcastle United. Within the bigger picture, it also served as the start of a defining run of fixtures and the end of the transfer window.

Regardless of whether Villa kept their squad intact until the transfer deadline 48 hours later, only signing Morgan Rogers from Middlesbrough, it did not hide the luminous elephant in the room also known as Profit and Sustainability Rules (PSR).

PSR provoke anxious glances from most in the Premier League, yet Villa find themselves at the sharp end of things this winter. As The Athletic reported earlier this month, the inescapable feeling is that if Villa want to continue spending big or simply comply with PSR guidelines, they will likely need to move on a first-team player.

The mere thought immediately makes Villa more fragile and news of Newcastle making an approach for Jacob Ramsey the day before — akin to Chelsea and Jhon Duran last week — threatened to create an existential crisis. Bayern Munich and Tottenham Hotspur also hold an interest in Ramsey, but even countenancing an offer for their leading homegrown talent underlined just how mindful they were of breaching PSR.

A sale would be in the region of £50million and alleviate fears before the end of the financial year on June 30. Plainly, though, it seemed unthinkable that a player raised less than five miles away from Villa Park and among England’s most prodigious talents would have to be sold to a direct competitor. Ramsey is unlikely to move in this window now, with the can in danger of being kicked down the road.

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Jacob Ramsey is a target for Newcastle and other clubs (Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images)

Still, Villa have come out of January weaker. Performances had been on the slide, broadly speaking, while Leander Dendoncker’s departure and exasperating injuries to Duran, Pau Torres and Lucas Digne are testing the limits of Emery’s tight-knit group.

Newcastle was Villa’s 33rd fixture this season across all competitions. For context, Tottenham will only play 41 games in total. Providing they reach the UEFA Conference League final, Emery could manage up to 61 matches. History is not kind to threadbare squads competing across several fronts.

On reflection, those setbacks made the overall display and 3-1 defeat against Newcastle strangely unsurprising. Despite Villa having not lost in the league at home in 346 days and Newcastle labouring with the worst form of any side, the intangibles threatened to go against the grain.

Warning signs had underpinned Villa of late, starved of invention going forward and increasingly vulnerable within Emery’s structure. Players did not carry the same verve or precision in their work which, in turn, illuminated their shortcomings.

Newcastle and Eddie Howe had already beaten Villa heavily once, a 5-1 victory on the opening day. Afterwards, Emery understandably offered mitigation, pointing to the season-ending injuries to Tyrone Mings and Emiliano Buendia, not to mention early-season teething issues.

Yet the wounds which came from that August afternoon were still worn and Howe knew how to re-open them. Emery opted to go with the same team and shape that started the goalless FA Cup draw at Stamford Bridge.

Invariably the high line was targeted from the outset, coinciding with the eyes of Anthony Gordon and Alexander Isak lighting up due to wistful nostalgia and recalling the last time they faced Villa’s ploy.

The purpose of the notorious offside trap and 4-2-2-2 structure — accentuated by Emery playing a box midfield — is to condense the space centrally. Newcastle counteracted this by simply going around and over them.

Raking diagonal passes targeted Matty Cash while midfielders whipped first-time passes into the channels for Isak to run off Clement Lenglet. Villa were caught in a halfway house, unable to step up and catch offside runners or successfully retreat.

As a consequence, Villa were stymied in possession with the inclination of their two No 10s, John McGinn and Youri Tielemans, to want the ball to feet. This allowed Newcastle’s back four — physical but not the most mobile — to go man-for-man, following them into deep areas and contributing to intelligent pressing traps. Villa quickly became narrow, one-paced and suffocated.

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Without the fine-tuning from the spring and summer months, Villa looked careless both ways. Confidence and form are intangibles essential to Emery’s crafted build-up methods but, here, they were demonstrably seeping out of every pore during the first half. This was characterised by Moussa Diaby, whose early season powers have fallen off a cliff edge. His decision to pass instead of shoot inside the box elicited notable frustration and was indicative of his current mindset.

Only Leon Bailey, who Howe admitted “hurt” Newcastle when he introduced on the hour mark along with Ramsey, played uninhibited, setting up Ollie Watkins for his 50th Premier League goal to make it 3-1. Bailey then slid in Watkins again, only for the faintest hope of a comeback to be swiftly dashed by the assistant referee’s flag.

In some ways, it was ironic Newcastle’s two goals before the break came from set plays, given the structural problems they had caused from open play. Emery could have no complaints by the time Newcastle scored their third, exploiting the space left behind Cash.

Emery offered no excuses after either, repeatedly calling for “perspective” and pointing out matter-of-factly — as he had done all season — there are seven better teams than his.

Players trudged in single file at full-time, with Ramsey among those clapping supporters. In a subdued Villa Park, appreciation for one of their own remained. Pockets of the Trinity Stand gave a polite and knowing round of applause, relieved he will likely stay and be, according to Emery, “very important” for the remainder of the season.

Emery is correct in asking for one defeat to be put into isolation, but January’s warning signs, compounded by injuries, form and PSR, will test him and Villa’s broader operations in the coming weeks and months.

(Jacob King/PA Images via Getty Images)

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