BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 18: James Collins of Aston Villa battles with Luis Suarez of Liverpool during the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Liverpool at Villa Park on December 18, 2011 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)
This has so far been a relatively quiet transfer window for Aston Villa (fulfillment of Robbie Keane's boyhood ambitions aside) but one of the few recurring themes we've seen has been a steady trickle of stories about the possible departure of James Collins. The 28-year-old Wales international has been the subject of a multitude of rumors of varying degrees of believability have been kicked around, with Collins heading to Queens Park Rangers, Sunderland and Tottenham Hotspur for somewhere between £2.5M-£6.5M. Just your basic transfer-window spaghetti tossing, right?
Well, more yes than no. But still a little bit no. Despite being dismissed by Alex McLeish, the rumors of an offer from QPR have been persistent enough to move to the outskirts of where-there's-smoke-there's-fire territory and the London club have shown a willingness to spend, and they could well be gearing up to do a bit more shopping with new manager Mark Hughes in place. That's still just speculation, clearly, but it's at least plausible speculation; it's not as though Villa's fanbase just up-and-decided that Collins was a mercenary prick just itching to leave the club and concocted a boatload of transfer rumors from thin air in order to give credence to their claims.
More interesting to me than the veracity of these rumors, however, is contemplating the possibilities which the sale of Collins would open up. That's typically how I approach transfer rumor season; I ignore the stuff that has zero chance of ever happening and use the plausible rumors as a thought experiment. It helps keep me sane. And I find the idea of Villa selling Collins to be a particularly interesting hypothetical.
Straight away, there's a pretty massive problem with the idea of selling Collins, and that's Villa's depth in central defense. At the moment, Villa have six center backs in the squad; Collins, Richard Dunne, Carlos Cuellar, Nathan Baker and Derrick Williams. Shane Lowry remains under Villa's control for the time being, but his loan spell at Millwall was recently extended and there are strong indications that the Lions are very interested in making the move permanent. Cuellar has seen increased first-team opportunities as of late, but it's entirely possible he's being used to motivate Alan Hutton and a move back to Rangers is still a distinct possibility. Baker and Williams are both solid prospects, but neither is especially close to being a first-team regular and the 18-year-old Williams is in the mix almost purely as disaster insurance. I'm a huge Ciaran Clark fan and think he'd be an upgrade over Collins right this moment (especially as he brings a few things to the table Dunne doesn't, making them a more compelling pairing than the like-for-like of Dunne and Collins) but depth is an important consideration and there's no way around it; selling Collins really hurts Villa's depth.
So, I couldn't be in favor of selling Collins unless it means a replacement is lined up as well, which is where it gets interesting. (To me at least. Hopefully to you as well. If not I can go back to making things up.) I think it's entirely reasonable to assume that Villa will not be spending any significant money on new players this window unless such a purchase is largely (or entirely) funded by a player sale. I find it difficult to believe that Collins could possibly fetch more than £4M or so on the transfer market, and even that seems a stretch. That's not a ton of money, but it's certainly enough to buy a decent depth player. But why would a team sell a first-choice player and receive only enough of a return for a non-first-choice player?
There are a few reasons. The most popular seems to be that Collins is crap, but McLeish won't stop playing him unless he's sold. There are two fairly enormous problems with this line of reasoning; for one, I'm unconvinced that Collins is crap. Rather, I think Villa's defense has some pretty severe structural problems such as mediocre-at-best fullback play, and I similarly think that the aforementioned like-for-like pairing of Dunne and Collins is far from ideal. Collins has many of the same strengths and weaknesses as Dunne and isn't quite as good of a player, which makes his shortcomings stand out. Last-ditch-warrior types such as Collins (and Dunne) almost always work better in pairings with more dynamic center backs, and in the right situation Collins would likely thrive; I just don't really envision that situation presenting itself at Aston Villa. There's also the fact that, if McLeish continues to play Collins in spite of what others think is a better in-house option being available in Clark, what makes anyone think he'd want to sell him?
The more reasonable approach is to favor selling Collins because it can help fund an investment in the future of the defense, and that's where I come down on the issue. Ciaran Clark is a huge part of that future (presumably) but he's just one player and it's called a central defensive pairing for a reason; as good as Richard Dunne has been this season, he's 32 years old and I'm less than confident that he's likely to age gracefully; even if he's got a few good seasons left in him (and I think he probably does) there's absolutely nothing wrong with taking steps to secure the future in the present and if Villa aren't going to have much money to spend I'd certainly prefer they go that route than trying to paper over the cracks with aging, mediocre players; we kinda' went down that route before and it ended with Alex McLeish managing the team.
And the good news, in this situation, is that you can actually find some decent young central defenders for the kind of money Villa would likely receive in exchange for Collins. David Wheater moved to Bolton for just £2.3M a year ago; Tim Ream (who I wouldn't necessarily want, mind you, but is highly regarded for some reason I don't think I will ever understand) looks headed to the same team for a fee in the neighborhood of £3M. France is positively overflowing with young defenders that could be had for cheap. How much better would you feel about this team if it had two highly promising center backs under the age of 25?
And it's that possibility that is most intriguing. Villa have some promising kids, but they don't have enough of them that their current movement towards austerity doesn't make me just a little bit nervous. I see plenty of promising youngsters but I don't see a real core, at least not yet. Selling players like Collins to fund the purchase of prospects would be a pretty excellent way to get a lot closer, and with a promising player like Clark waiting in the wings it makes a lot of sense to do so. I don't expect it, and I think hanging on to Collins is completely defensible. But it could very well be a risk worth taking.