I'm a big fan of the Africa Cup of Nations. Held every other January and February, it combines some of the world’s best international sides and players with a bit of unpredictability that allows nations like Zambia to take home a crown. And it does all that while breaking up the monotony of the league season that sets in during the cold, dull northern winters we share on both sides of the pond.
But unlike the last couple cycles, the 2017 edition AFCON could well provide a big problem for Roberto Di Matteo; barring transfers, Villa are likely to lose at least two, if not three, first-team regulars for a month in the middle of the Championship season. Both Jordan Ayew’s Ghana side and Idrissa Gueye’s Senegal team are qualified for the finals, set to begin 14 January, while Rudy Gestede and Benin are one win (and not getting suspended by FIFA) away from making the trip to Gabon, too.
That’s… not ideal for the Claret and Blues.
Granted, until the window shuts at the end of next month, things are understandably up in the air. Both Ayew and Gana have reportedly attracted interest from other clubs, and for good measure; they’re probably two of Villa’s three best players, alongside Jordan Amavi. And just as there’s interest in the duo from other clubs, there should be interest for each in orchestrating a move, with first-team football a much better way to get into an AFCON XI than playing in the Championship.
But as currently constructed, if Villa are to make a promotion push this term, Ayew and Gana are almost certainly going to have to be catalysts for that success — and given how thin the margin often is between promotion and another season in football purgatory, losing two or three key players for even five matches could well be what keeps Villa out of the Premier League.
It’s why Villa’s need for two new forwards, not just one, becomes so paramount. For a hypothetical, let’s say Villa are done with business in this transfer window. (Clearly they aren’t, but stick with me.)
If Benin qualify for the finals, something we won’t know the result of until after the window closes, it would mean Villa’s striking partnership during the tournament would be Gabby Agbonlahor and Libor Kozák. Please, no. And while guys like Rushian Hepburn-Murphy could get the call too, you can’t count on kids to give you what you need there.
Even if you think Gestede and Ayew can get things done — which if Gestede gets enough service, I truly think they can — you still have to back the push to buy a couple forwards this window. Combine the forthcoming absence for AFCON with a grueling 46-game season, and Villa are really going to need four strong first-team forwards to make this thing work.
Gana’s departure, while impactful, wouldn’t be as detrimental to Villa (as currently constructed), given the relative depth at the central midfield position: New signing Aaron Tshibola is joined by Carlos Sánchez, Ashley Westwood, Gary Gardner and Jordan Lyden as players that can fill one of the roles in a 4-2-3-1.
And while we’ve focused on what happens if Ayew and Gana stick around, the tournament could also affect each player’s ability to move this season, with the AFCON absences likely to decrease what other clubs are willing to pay for the players. All things considered, Villa should be willing to play the “long game” with these two, but for interested clubs — relegation-threatened Premier League sides immediately come mind — that luxury might not exist. Why spend £7 million on Gana, for example, when you can spend £7 million on a comparable player who isn’t leaving your side for a month in the middle of the season?
Needless to say, the AFCON storylines will be a little interesting to follow as the season ticks on. But the tournament also punctuates the need for further acquisitions, focused up top, in the transfer window.