Last season Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert convinced chairman Randy Lerner to dole out £7 million for a relatively unknown 21 year old commodity out of Racing Genk. At the time the fee seemed a bit rich but fast forward nine months and there is not a club in the world that would pass on such a cut-rate price for Christian Benteke.
And while the Benteke deal is Lambert’s shrewdest to date, a deeper look at his portfolio suggests the Villa manager has a keen insight on picking up young, quality talent in the transfer market.
Last season he snapped up 22 year old Matthew Lowton from Sheffield United for a fee of £3 million, 21 year old Ashley Westwood from Crewe Alexandria for a fee of £2 million and 22 year old Yacouba Sylla from Clermont Foot for £2 million. Lowton quickly established himself as one of the best young right-backs in the league while Westwood made the holding midfield role his own and Sylla impressed in the same position with a marauding style that brought bite to the claret and blue.
In addition to bringing in new players, Lambert has recently re-signed the talented youth in place before his arrival at Villa Park, penning 22 year old defender Nathan Baker and 21 year old winger Andreas Weimann to new deals this summer. And as the youth are locked down, the non-impacting veterans – James Collins (29), Jean Makoun(30) and Stephen Warnock (31) – have all been put to pasture.
It’s all part of Lambert’s youth revolution, which has continued this summer by bringing in five new faces all under the age of 23 – Antonio Luna (22), Aleksandar Tonev (22), Jores Okore (20), Leandro Bacuna (21) and Nicklas Helenius (22).
So, which one of these players could be the next Benteke or Weimann? Let’s take a closer look at each one and note their potential impact.
Luna signed with the West Midlands on a three year deal from Sevilla, where the left-back made his debut in 2010 and went on to make 20 appearances over three seasons. After a perceived drop in play he was sent on loan to Almeria in 2011 (making 13 appearances) and to Mallorca last season (making 10 appearances). Although not expected to come in and start for the Villians, if Luna hits form do not be surprised if Lambert’s plants the Spaniard at left-back and moves Baker into the center of the defense.
Bulgarian midfielder Tonev comes to Villa from Lech Poznan where he netted seven times in three years. The winger played alongside Villa midfielder (and now assistant development coach) Stilian Petrov in the Bulgarian national team and hopes to emulate the impact of Petrov and fellow countrymen Dimitar Berbatov in the Premier League. Like Luna, Tonev is unlikely to start but will provide competition for Weimann and Gabriel Agbonglahor and is likely to be utilized by Lambert as a spark late in matches.
Okore (pictured) is a big, physical center-back who played a key part of FC Nordsjaelland’s strong run in the Danish Superliga and earned vital experience in this season’s Champions League stint. He is fast, big, strong and good in the air but his youth makes him prone to positioning mistakes. Okore may not start immediately but he very well could prove the most valuable of the lot in a few years down the road. For this season, however, he’ll serve as serious competition for Ron Vlaar, Baker and Joseph Bennett.
Leandro Bacuna is a pacy and versatile Dutch midfielder came through the youth ranks at Groningen and spent four seasons with the senior side making 109 appearances and scoring 10 goals. At 6’1″ Bacuna is physically imposing player prone to more of a power orientated approach that sometimes finds his skill lacking. His engine could see him inserted anywhere in the midfield but Lambert is most likely to let him challenge Westwood, Sylla and Fabian Delph in the center of the park.
Helenius is a striker from Danish League side Aalborg BK, where he made 102 appearances and scored 40 goals. The Danish international is a threat in the air due to his towering height (6’5″) and also on the ground where he possesses a delicate touch in the box. The 22 year old would make a fearsome strike partner for Benteke, could be a wonderful target for both Weimann and Agbonglahor and may be the man who prompts Villa to cut ties with Darren Bent.