Aston Villa quarter-season review
By Jeremiah Paschke-Wood | Only Love Soccer
Ugh. Can I just write that? No, I probably shouldn’t. After narrowly avoiding relegation last season, in what was arguably the worst of Villa’s 138-year existence, a new manager (Paul Lambert) a bevy of new players and a slew of jettisoned highly paid, underperforming players had most fans at least hopeful for the future. Unfortunately, most of the doom-and-gloom talk about the players brought in by Lambert – “Can’t win with kids,” “Can’t win with lower league players” has proven true as Villa has limped to, well, the same position they were in this before. So far, Villa has one win in nine matches – and if you go back to last season, only one win in their last 19 – which is the worst start for the team in 43 years. And with owner Randy Lerner seemingly no longer willing to invest the money in the squad that he would when Villa was a consistent competitor for one of England’s four Champions League spots, the team’s presence in the Premier League looks a bit tenuous at best.
Positivity. As bad as Villa has been to start the season, they are trying to introduce seven new, young players in the squad, so a bit of a struggle at the start isn’t too big of a surprise. Luckily, fans have been largely patient, especially in light of how miserable everyone was last year, when a decent team struggled under Alex McLeish, who remains a reviled figure.
Ron Vlaar. “Concrete Ron” has been a big hit since signing from Feyenoord – he’s already been named the team’s captain and is emerging as a fan favorite while also being certainly the team’s most solid defender. As a point of fact, the defense has been just fine for the team so far – their problems lie elsewhere, as we’ll discuss.
Brett Holman. The Australian international’s energy and attacking play have been fun to watch. You’d think that with a little more solid play in midfield for him to build upon, he might start chipping in some goals. Certainly seems more up for it than some other players on the team.
Brad Guzan. After spending an eternity backing up Brad Friedel and then Shay Given in goal, the American has taken the opportunity to replace Given as starter and has been one of the better goalkeepers in the league this season. Without him, Villa would surely be in the relegation zone already.
Fullbacks. Sure, Matt Lowton and Joe Bennett are young and had to make the step up a couple divisions, but they’ve struggled. There is no doubt that the two players – particularly Lowton – show some promise, but it’s questionable whether Villa might be better served restoring Alan Hutton and Eric Lichaj to starting places – or letting Enda Stevens or Chris Herd give it a shot.
Forwards. Darren Bent looks like he is already playing for some other team in daydreams in his mind – while he’s on the pitch. Christian Benteke is another player who shows great promise, but his finishing has often cost the team points. Gabby Agbonlahor is a longstanding servant for the club who seems no longer capable of scoring goals on a regular basis, and Andreas Weimann hasn’t played enough to make a difference. After being the second-lowest scoring team in the league last year, it was thought that Lambert would turn Villa into a high-scoring squad that can’t defend. Unfortunately, the opposite has occurred, and it’s largely because none of these players are scoring.
Lack of Width. The idea of a team playing with two or three narrow attacking midfielders is that the fullbacks will move forward and create width down the flanks for the team. Unfortunately, with Lowton and Bennett’s struggles in defending, that hasn’t happened. What that means is that the team is failing to create much in attack because Holman/Ireland/Albrighton are all bunched up in the middle with no outlet for a pass. So why not just move back to two wingers? Big questions, people.
Midfield. I’m a fan of new signing Karim El-Ahmadi, who is one of the best passers we’ve had in midfield in a long time. Unfortunately, he’s not a big physical presence and he’s a poor tackler. What this means is, Villa needs another big, strong midfielder to keep other teams from dominating the midfield. What has happened, though, is that Lambert has stuck with Fabian Delph, a once highly-thought-of England youth player who Villa bought for a lot of money four years ago who has never looked good enough to be a Premier League player. He certainly isn’t imposing physically, and he’s a terrible tackler. The only other option Lambert seems keen on using is Barry Bannan, who is a better player than Delph, but probably even more lightweight. So Villa’s midfield has been largely dominated by the more powerful midfields of teams like Tottenham, Everton and, well, everyone else. Why didn’t we sign Mohammed Diame or Stephen N’Zonzi?
With the likes of Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea coming up, Villa is looking increasingly likely to head into November in a relegation spot. Though being in the Bottom 3 in December is no guarantee of a team getting relegated, it’s certainly not where fans thought the team would be when McLeish was dismissed. So what’s the answer? Well, it’s become increasingly apparent that the team’s 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 diamond formation isn’t working. There are players in the squad who could be serviceable, if not great, wingers. (Holman, Albrighton, Charles N’Zogbia, Agbonlahor) Why not make the team a traditional 4-4-2 with N’Zogbia and Holman or Albrighton on the wings, and then start Benteke and Weimann up front? It’s true that Bent is a better striker than either player, but he doesn’t work hard and doesn’t seem interested in being at Villa anymore. Then Lambert could pair El-Ahmadi with Stephen Ireland, Holman, Bannan or, I don’t know, Ciaran Clark in midfield, which would at least give the team some decent passing in midfield and an outlet on the wings. Restore Lichaj to left back and start giving Hutton playing time again at fullback.
What we need in January
A good, experienced midfielder. How about Frank Lampard on loan, since he seems so set on leaving Chelsea? Stephen Warnock back from loan could help the squad as well. PSG’s Mathieu Bodmer might be a good signing since he’s no longer first choice at that club and would offer the strength and size we’re missing.
Wide players. Midfield is more important, but we’re severely missing the likes of Ashley Young and Stewart Downing who excelled for us in the past. Bringing Downing back might be an option – as well as signing Joe Cole, who has hardly featured for Liverpool. Looking to the U.S. for one of its highly rated young wingers like Brek Shea or Graham Zusi might be a good (and cheap) option as well.
Experienced fullbacks. Lambert seems committed to his young fullback project, but unless they start to turn some of their potential into actual solid play soon, he will need to add some experience at those positions. Since buying new players seems unlikely in this position with our new cost-cutting system in place, why not let Hutton and Warnock fill in, at least occasionally. They might be slow and mistake-prone, but based on our performance so far, they wouldn’t be that much of a step down – they might even be a step up.
Sell Darren Bent. I’ve been a fan of the England forward for a while, but it’s clear that his time at the club is almost over. It’s not totally his fault – injuries have played their part, and he surely wouldn’t have joined the team had he known Young and Downing would be sold. He is a pure poacher in the sense that if you create chances, he’ll score goals, but he isn’t a hard worker, and it’s questionable whether he should be with the team at all with the style of football we’re trying to play; he’s not going to track back or try and win the ball, and he’s not getting very many scoring chances when he does play. Plus, the 15 million (roughly) that we would get for him would likely finance some players in midfield.
Will we be relegated this season? I still say no, but it’s clear that some changes need to be made by the manager, whether in formation or changing what players play regularly. If he doesn’t make them, or if he does and they don’t work? Well, the Championship will give me an opportunity to see some new stadiums and players I haven’t watched before. I guess.