Aston Villa Season Preview

aston villaThe Football Lab spoke to Aston Villa fan @The_W_Address ahead of the new season. You can order his excellent book The Way Forward, which offers ideas on how we can improve the standard of youth development in England. Here, he discusses a change in Villa’s transfer policy, the need for a more natural holding midfielder, and the arrival of a certain Mr Keane.

Paul Lambert, and his new assistant Roy Keane, seem to have very different approaches to management. Is there potential for a power struggle?

It was an interesting appointment with a similarities between Martin Jol and Rene Meulensteen at Fulham last season in which the successor was brought in before the coach was inevitably sacked. However it does appear that Lambert and Keane have a bond together which has been strong for many years and that the Villa squad may require a Keane type coach/personality to instil focus and discipline. Ian Culverhouse did not seem a suitable assistant in terms of developing a style and preparing the team and of course the issue around bullying was very concerning. Keane may actually be a positive appointment for Villa and Lambert.

From the 30 games in which Ron Vlaar has played, you’ve kept 9 clean sheets. In the 8 games in which he hasn’t, you’ve kept none. How important is Vlaar to this defence?

As we’ve just seen from the World Cup Vlaar proved his potential to be a formidable defender. He possesses strength as well as surprising speed (his 1v1 with Hazard last season proved that) and his tackling is of a high quality. No doubt Villa miss him when he’s not there, as the truth is behind him we don’t have much quality. Ciaron Clark has not progressed in to the player he promised to be, and his poor quality in possession is a big concern. Nathan Baker can’t seem to go a game without getting injured, yet it probably has to do with his inability to read the game effectively meaning he finds himself having to make last ditch challenges which cause injuries. New signing Phillipe Senderos is one of the worst defenders I’ve seen in the Premier League and for all his ‘experience’ I worry that Villa have a very weak defence. Vlaar is important and rumours of him leaving are worrying, yet saying that even he suffers from moments of focus and concentration blips. Villa have not replaced Martin Laursen and it is no surprise we have been poorer defensively since he and Mellberg departed.

Phillipe Senderos contributed to Fulham’s poor defensive record last season, while Joe Cole has started just 33 league games in the last 3 years. Are you disappointed with these signings?

The transfer policy was summer was an attempt to scout young, foreign talent who could become gems. It is a common approach by many sides these days, especially those who aren’t blessed with money. Yes you face the risk of inexperience, or failure to settle but at least it showed a positive vision in terms of developing young talent. However that appears to have been thrown out this summer and instead we hire players all who past their best days years ago. Richardson is the best signing as he can offer the team more quality at left back, a position we have struggled with for a few years now. However Cole is not fit or dynamic anymore and will be a passenger in games, putting more pressure on the midfield defensively. And as mentioned before with Senderos, I rate him in the same bracket as Titus Bramble.

According to Who Scored, your side has picked up the highest number of bookings (78), but are one of three teams never to have picked up a red card. Do you think pragmatic fouling has been a ploy?

I’m not sure if tactical fouling is the reason for this or just that we have some sloppy tacklers in the side like Delph and Lowton. We don’t have a malicious player in the team and perhaps it is because of this that we avoided a red card. Yet I think we got a few the year before and so it may just be an anomaly. The most yellow cards does highlight a recklessness in our approach and I feel that our tactical shape and defensive setup leaves the team open too often, which sometimes means a yellow card has to be taken.

Ashley Westwood started all but 3 league games last season. Are you happy with him in the holding midfield role?

I think Ashley Westwood is a very good footballer, yet I’m not sure he offers Villa the kind of defensive quality the team needs. We miss Petrov in that holding role, breaking up play. If we have this type of player with Delph and Westwood given more freedom to push forward then I think we would see more of Westwood’s quality. I think he is stretched in the midfield and can be easily overran, Lambert needs to give him more support to enable him to play his game, which is more about building and switching play.

Kieran Richardson only played 45 times in the space of 2 seasons for Fulham. How do you look at this signing?

As mentioned, Richardson is the only signing I have any positives about and this is because we are in desperate need for a good left back/wide midfielder. I thought Richardson did very well for Fulham under Meulensteen and hope that Lambert/Keane can bring out that drive and intensity to his game.

Playmaker Jack Grealish impressed on loan at Notts County last season. Given you’ve lacked creativity in midfield, should he get a chance at Villa?

Absolutely and I think that Lambert will look to use Grealish more this season. We have a good academy in which we have proven to produce good players. Yet most often they don’t get the chances and playing time required to go from good to great. Grealish possesses good skills and confidence as well as the creativity you mention. He is still young yet the key is to play and develop like Raheem Sterling has done at Liverpool. Grealish may benefit playing out wide at first to give him more space and offer more 1v1 situations, yet I can see being a modern type forward if he is developed positively in the coming seasons.

Notorious for his pace, is Gabriel Agbonlahor better out wide or through the middle?

If you play a 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 then Gabby is perfectly suited to play either wing in this formation. His speed is so impressive that Villa can and should build their system around him and his attributes, something Martin O’Neill did to great effect. His goal against Southampton highlighted what he can offer in transition and with space ahead he can attack wide or central. Gabby’s problem has always been poor technical quality especially in tight areas and he excels in space and in 1v1’s. Therefore I would play him wide and embrace a counter attack style which will bring out the best in him.

Christian Benteke ended last season strongly, with 6 goals in his last 11 games. Can he rediscover the form of his first season at Villa?

Of course Benteke suffered from injury last season which was a killer blow to Villa’s expectations and season. He was so important for the team in 12/13 that it was going to be hard without him. However, the injury may have helped Villa retain him as it was possible he would be leaving this summer. Therefore if he can get back to fitness I am sure he will score goals, as many as his first season though? Probably not. I think the element of surprise helped him greatly at first and he needs to develop his game to be less predictable yet Lambert also needs to not pump balls up to him all the time in some desperate attempt to get him the ball – quality of balls/deliveries is the key for bringing out the best in Benteke.

Most bookmakers have Aston Villa at around 7/2 for relegation. Where will you finish?

I think outside of the top 7/8 every side is a possibility for relegation. Villa have loitered on the precipice of the drop zone for several seasons now and it does feel as though we have been riding our luck. Many believe that a club like Villa “can’t go down” yet this naïve. One only has to look at how much we are spending compared to those around to see there is a big gap in terms of spending power. Lerner wants to sell and is not willing to put more money in, Lambert is therefore working on a shoestring transfer budget and although our wage bill is still high, he is being told to cut it continually. This is not the approach or mentality of a club who wishes to progress, Lerner took a gamble on that before, realised it wasn’t going to happen and has left Villa in a bad state after. Lambert is doing a good job of keeping the team together and there are positive moments where it looks as though the team can push forward. Yet the worry is we will be in the same place again, which although not a great season, anything but relegation must be seen as a bonus until the club get a new owner. A top 10 finish would be great, yet I see 15th as a more realistic. I expect more moaning and complaining in the season from the fans, and another season of mediocrity, but with just enough to stay up.

TFL Verdict

Uncertainty at boardroom level, potentially strained relations on the managerial front, and a team lacking in creativity. Relegation is a very real danger. 18th