Johan Lange will hope he has the blueprint to make Aston Villa a European force again

Denis Vavro and Thomas Delaney would not turn many heads if they wandered around Villa Park on a typical matchday yet they provide key clues to the club’s appointment of Johan Lange as their new sporting director.

During 10 years across two stints at FC Copenhagen, Lange recognised that the world of football was changing. Conventional wisdom once had it that clubs could not sell their best players and expect to win trophies.

Yet as the wealthiest grew richer, Lange recognised that the only way for Copenhagen to stay strong in Denmark and hold their own in European competition was by selling the best players.

In the period 2016-19, Copenhagen sold 11 players to Europe’s five strongest leagues – England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France, turning a profit of about £12.1million on transfers in that period. They have remained competitive at home, too, winning the title 12 times since 2001 and regularly reaching the group stages of the Champions League and Europa League.

In the week Lange starts his new job, his old club have a chance to reach the quarter-finals of the Europa League if they can overturn a 1-0 first-leg deficit against newly-crowned Turkish champions Istanbul Basaksehir.

No doubt he will be watching closely but for now, Lange is back for a second spell in English football, following a brief stint as assistant to Stale Solbakken – now in charge at Copenhagen – at Wolves in 2012-13.

The signings of Vavro and Delaney capture perfectly the cohesive unit Lange helped established in the Danish capital.

Vavro was the centre-back identified by Copenhagen’s data analysts and watched live four times while playing for Slovakian club MSK Zilina in 2017.

When he was signed for about £500,000, he barely spoke a word of English but language teachers were quickly sourced, while other members of Copenhagen’s liaison team ensured the player settled quickly in a new country. Had they not been so diligent, could Vavro have made the strides on the pitch that persuaded Lazio to pay nearly £10m for him less than two years later?

It was a similar story with Delaney, with one Danish source estimating that ’30 or 40’ people worked on his progress from academy graduate during Lange’s first spell at the club, from 2008-12, to a midfielder on the radar of Europe’s top clubs when Lange returned as technical director in 2014. In January 2017, Delaney was on his way to Werder Bremen for about £2m and 18 months later, joined Borussia Dortmund for nearly 10 times that sum.

Yet what if Copenhagen never had to sell these players? What if they had the financial muscle to back their impressive infrastructure? How far could they have gone in Europe if they had billionaires like Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens, the owners of Aston Villa, to give them greater power in the transfer market?

This is what the new trio of Lange, chief executive Christian Purslow and coach Dean Smith hope to achieve at Villa: a fusion of Lange’s expertise in the fields of data and scouting, Purslow’s experience in the boardroom and Smith’s ability on the training ground, to help fulfil the ambitions of their owners and fans to make them a force at home and in Europe once more.

The idea is that if Villa sign Vavro’s equivalent – perhaps Ezri Konsa, bought from Brentford for £12m last year – they will only have to sell him if they choose to, thanks to Sawiris and Edens. Ditto an academy product like midfielder Carney Chukwuemeka, who Purslow has labelled ‘the best 16-year-old in England.’

Lange, 40, could have happily stayed in Copenhagen. He understood the club perfectly and operated within an efficient, effective structure – not always the case at Villa in recent years. There have been three different owners since 2016 and the club risked going out of business two years ago.

Don’t be fooled into thinking there is no pressure in Denmark – Copenhagen fans demand the title every season and had become irritated by the recent success of FC Midtjylland – yet the Superliga has attracts little of the worldwide attention that makes the Premier League the game’s market leader. So Lange’s decision to return to the English game is a brave, confident one.

Copenhagen will miss Lange. Aston Villa hope the Danes’ loss will be their great gain.

Post a Comment