After a devastatingly drab season in the 2011/12 campaign, Aston Villa will enter the new season with reserved optimism under the management of Paul Lambert.
With the dark cloud lifted from overhead, Villa players will tentatively walk out onto Villa Park next season, desperately searching for the fragments of pride they left there a couple of years ago. It won’t be an easy season for Villa, and it won’t be one filled with glory, but there is serious optimism that this Aston Villa side is still good enough for the top ten.
Villa’s almighty collapse following O’Neill’s departure has most probably reached the base of its decline, and fans are now hopeful of an upswing beginning under the exciting leadership of a man that breathes success.
The reasons for Villa’s rapid descent are still debated, and there has certainly been increasing agreement amongst fans that O’Neill’s tenure, although relatively successful, with three 6th place finishes and a league cup final, probably wasn’t worth the £120 million in transfer fees and £80 million per year wages. Without seeing a substantial return on these figures (i.e. champions’ league football or a squad with a lasting legacy) it is no surprise Villa fell flat on their face.
After the unfortunate illness of Houllier, McLeish, in fairness, inherited Villa ahead of a difficult year, as the ageing squad was thin, and needed further thinning to reduce the enormous wage bill. Many have sympathy for him; in my opinion it does not excuse the awful, negative style he tried to instill upon the players, and some have begun suggesting McLeish is the worst Villa manager ever.
So, entering the new season, Villa don’t really have anything left to lose. And this is why there is a cautious optimism about the campaign. With a young manager and a rejuvenated squad, there is no pressure on them to achieve success – although Villa fans expect to be entertained. What can Villa realistically expect from the new season?
Who has Left?
After a thorough scrub down of the playing squad over the last couple of years, there is no real dead weight at the club anymore, with perhaps the exception of third choice goalkeeper Andy Marshall. It is unlikely that anyone else will be leaving, after Emile Heskey and Carlos Cuellar already left after their contracts ended, for being a useless donkey and being out of our wage range, respectively.
Who has Arrived?
As well as resigning Brad Guzan, Lambert has signed Matthew Lowton, Karim El Ahmadi and Brett Holman. Lowton is a young right back from Sheffield United, known for his attacking intent. The other two players are interesting and exciting signings for a Villa supporter, because they both represent talented players that, although unknown in England, are well respected in Holland and Australia.
After years of an appalling scouting network, that seemed incapable of getting on a plane and watching anything outside of the Premiership, Villa finally have a boss that is prepared to introduce players into the league. El Ahmadi has impressed for several years for Feyenoord and FC Twente, whilst Holman has won several accolades in Australia for his excellent performances.
Who else are they looking to sign?
As indicated by the purchases already made, Lambert does not have the budget to buy household names, but he still appears to have some good-looking names on his radar. Tongo Doumbia has been linked with a club, a 22 year old who is loking to move after a successful season in France with Rennes. Villa also look close to securing a deal for Ron Vlaar, the Dutch defender that featured twice in the Euros this summer. Vlaar has already openly admitted he would love to join the club.
The only other serious rumour at the moment (although Lambert has expressed his desire to make more signings) is a move for Andy Carroll, who could strike up a partnership with Darren Bent at Villa. Rumours of signing Holt have never really surfaced; it may be that he is outside Villa’s price range.
What do Villa need?
With a squad of 19 (including 3 youngster that have rarely played for the club), Villa need to do more strengthening.
Villa may have eight defenders, but many of them are ageing, slow, and inconsistent. Collins, Dunne, Warnock, and Hutton all fit into that category, whilst Clark, Stevens, Lowton and Lichaj are all inexperienced. The situation is pretty dire, and needs addressing immediately. Villa need a leader at the back, as well as a defender with pace. The current selection is very slow indeed, whilst Villa could do with a more charismatic defender, since it is clear that Dunne is beginning to decline.
In midfield, Villa are relatively strong, although a winger or playmaker, to replace Downing and Milner, certainly wouldn’t go amiss. It is unlikely, however, that Lambert has the funds to strengthen this area.
Villa’s strikers are hardly reliable, with Bent offering nothing else other than goalscoring, and Agbonlahor rarely managing to maintain his form after Christmas. Andy Carroll would be a great replacement, particularly following the departure of Heskey. Lambert shuffles between 4-5-1 and 4-4-2, meaning he will need at least one more senior striker at the club – assuming that Holman will not instantly become a first team player.
With a couple more key signings, there is no real reason why Villa cannot finish in the top ten. Ireland, N’Zogbia, Bent, Agbonlahor, Given – it isn’t a bad squad. Add to this that the team are expecting little after the McLeish season, the fans are behind the new manager, and they can’t realistically get any worse than they were last year, things look nice and pretty at Villa Park for the time being.
Alex Keble runs www.thechalkboard.org.uk, a website that offers Premier League match reports with in-depth tactical analysis each week. Using diagrams and statistics, The Chalkboard offers a deeper insight into the weekend’s action. Follow @ak_chalkboardLike what the TT have on offer? Sign up for more notifications!