The buying, the selling, the bidding, the negotiating, the race to be first to break the news – the transfer window has become its own industry, separate from events on the football field.
But while they aren’t averse to tantalising their fans with a potential new arrival – Philippe Coutinho’s arrival from Barcelona was anticipated for a number of days before finally being confirmed – Aston Villa are one of the few clubs that remain capable of pulling off high-profile transfers away from prying eyes.
Danny Ings’ signing from Southampton last summer came out of the blue, as did Calum Chambers’ move from Arsenal in January. The defender was on the fringes at the Emirates and admits he knew the time had come, with just six months left on his contract, to find a new challenge. But even he acknowledges the speed at which Villa moved to secure his signature.
“It moved pretty quickly,” Chambers tells Sky Sports in an exclusive interview. “I was at that point in my career where I wasn’t getting a chance at Arsenal and it felt like I needed to move on and have a have a fresh start.
“Then in January the opportunity came up to come to Villa and as soon as I heard that I remember thinking: ‘Wow, what an opportunity to come to a club like this’. I needed a new challenge, something fresh. This was perfect. It was a no-brainer to be honest. As soon as I heard it, I was like: ‘Yeah, let’s get this done, let’s do this’. After that, it all happened pretty quickly.”
Chambers’ need to move on from Arsenal was obvious – he played just twice in the first half of the Premier League season – and his decision to move to Villa has been vindicated, with eight league starts under his belt and regular appearances in his favoured centre-back role.
Speaking to Sky Sports earlier this week, Villa boss Steven Gerrard revealed Chambers and his fellow January arrivals – Coutinho, Lucas Digne and Robin Olsen – were all targeted because they are “used to the responsibility of winning” after spending time at some of the biggest clubs in Europe.
It is a responsibility that Chambers – an Arsenal player for nearly eight years – embraces, saying: “I’ve sort of had it drilled into me that every game is a must-win game, so you can’t get complacent. If you draw or lose a game, you’re always disappointed and that’s just now become part of me.
“I think just having that sort of culture and that winning mentality all the time is only going to benefit the squad and that’s something we look to bring – to have that drive, every day wanting to improve yourself. There’s a great bunch of lads here anyway who do that every day, but it’s just getting as many players like that as you can.”
Gerrard has been open about his desire to improve the squad he inherited when he replaced Dean Smith in November, even suggesting some of his players have been “on trial” ahead of what could be a busy summer at Villa Park.
Only Newcastle, recently flush from their Saudi-backed takeover, were more active among Premier League clubs than Villa in the January market, but Chambers says he and his team-mates need to embrace the challenge of playing for their places if they want to move the club forward.
“You’ve got to know at a club like this, with the ambition the club has, there’s always going to be people coming in, always going to be people they’re looking at wanting to buy to strengthen the squad,” said Chambers. “For me, that’s normal and that’s what I’ve been used to in my whole career at Arsenal.
“I think competition for places is healthy. I think if you’re comfortable knowing you’re going to start every game, you can drop your standards, so knowing that there’s competition, it keeps you on your toes and keeps your performance levels high.
“To be a good team you need to have everyone at their best level of performance every single game, so I believe that having a lot of quality players and options is healthy.”
Gerrard’s desire to keep improving his squad is linked to their league position. While they were in danger of relegation when the former England captain arrived from Rangers, he is not satisfied with the fact that Villa go into the final weekend of the Premier League season in 14th after a 1-1 home draw against Burnley on Thursday.
Chambers has no doubt that Gerrard is right to be unhappy with their league placing – “definitely” he responds immediately – and is not shy about revealing Villa’s lofty ambitions for next season.
“We all want European football,” he explains. “I know the club do and we’re very ambitious. I think that’s the goal we need to set. What happens next season, I can’t predict that, but that’s going to be our goal.
“We need to aim high and I think we all need to believe that. I think that would be a good starting block going into next season with the ambition to be competing for a spot there and then see how the season goes.”
Given Gerrard was keen to sign Chambers because of his experience at the highest level, it’s no surprise the 27-year-old already has extensive experience of playing in the Champions League – as does Coutinho, who won the competition with Bayern Munich in 2020.
The Brazilian playmaker was undoubtedly a coup for Villa and he immediately captured the imaginations of Villa fans with a goal-scoring debut at home to Manchester United. Coutinho has racked up another three goals, as well as an impudent piece of skill that fooled Trent Alexander-Arnold against Liverpool earlier this month and reminded English fans of the talent he still possesses despite a tough time at Barcelona.
But it’s not just Coutinho’s quality on the pitch that will help to drive Villa towards Europe, according to Chambers. “He’s class. The thing I like most about Phil is the things you don’t actually see. He’s such a hard worker. Every day he’s in the gym trying to improve himself, his strength, his speed.
“Everyone sees him on the pitch and he’s world-class. He’s got that sharpness that I’ve only seen a few people have throughout my career, but it’s all the stuff off the pitch which makes him so good.
“He’s so humble, he works hard, and I think it’s those type of players that motivate everyone else. To see him with the quality he’s got on the pitch, but also the work he puts in off it, motivates everyone else and it shows everyone to get to that level, you’ve got to be doing everything on and off the pitch.”
Coutinho started on the bench for the visit of Burnley on Thursday, perhaps with the final-day trip to Manchester City in mind. Villa know a draw or a win at the Etihad Stadium, combined with a Liverpool win at home to Wolves, will see Coutinho and Gerrard’s former side claim the Premier League title.
Villa can finish no higher than 10th and no lower than 14th, but Chambers says the prospect of playing a decisive role in the title race could not be further from their minds, explaining: “I think our mentality is we want to go there and win for us and our fans. If we go and get three points there it can change our position in the table. It’s a big game for Aston Villa.
“Whatever happens in the title race happens. We’re not focused on that. We want to go there, give our fans something to cheer about and try and put in a good performance. It’s not an easy place to go, we all know that, but we’re going to go there and give it everything we’ve got, to give our fans something to cheer about.”
If Chambers and his team-mates can fulfil their pledge to push for Europe next season, Villa fans could have plenty more to cheer in the not too distant future.