September 27, 2012 by Socrates
So far it has been very difficult to judge the Aston Villa team this season. After a poor start, (losing away against West Ham and then at home against Everton) things started looking more positive for the Villans. A promising draw away at Newcastle won the praise of Alan Pardew and indeed MOTD. Pardew claimed he is unlikely to face such a hard-working side again this season, while pundits speculated that Paul Lambert’s management had begun to work its magic. This was followed by a comfortable victory over Swansea and after 45 minutes in their next away game at Southampton, Villa were a goal to the good. So it seemed that on a shoe-string budget, with a young side and their club captain still recovering from leukemia, the midlanders were defying the odds. Battling away in the premiership with a young British manager, playing mostly British players (and recruiting even more of them from the lower tiers of English football), Aston Villa were doing things the right way. Then a catastrophic second half occurred which witnessed the Claret and Blue shipping four goals and looking completely inept at defending against a side which are expected to struggle this season. This prompted Mark Lawrenson to claim that Villa have simply too many average players and will therefore struggle this season. So which is it?
While the optimists will point to Tuesday’s league cup victory over the Manchester City as proof that Villa will finish in the top-half this season, there are plenty of reasons to doubt such a prediction. Mark Lawrsenson’s comment that Villa lack enough quality players is a rather obvious one considering the wily old pundit is paid by the BBC but it still holds true. Charles N’Zogbia was brought into the club after the sales of Ashley Young and Stewart Downing. However, the Frenchman was disappointing in his first season at the club. More alarmingly, his complete lack of positional sense, low work-rate and even lower confidence has led to his current atrocious form. Despite all his skill, trickery and immaculate first touch, Charles may well lose his place in the starting eleven. The concern is not simply that N’Zogbia will not reach his potential at the club but rather it goes down as another failed investment. He was bought for just under £10 million and is one of the highest earners – hardly encouraging the owner Randy Lerner to invest in a marquee signing.
There are a few players which have the potential to prove Lawrenson wrong. Summer signing Karim El Ahmadi appears to be a very good central midfielder. Possessing a tenacity and focus that will match any ball winner in the premier league, El Ahmadi also has the technical ability to hurt even the best teams. The commanding centre back Ron Vlaar has been equally impressive at times. While his mobility will always limit him, the Dutchman has a composure on the ball that belies his doorman-like appearance. Indeed, his professionalism and leadership qualities have earned him the captain’s armband. The signings of Lowton and Bennett, who may well be Villa’s fullbacks for years to come have also made excellent starts at their new club. However, there are still question marks over several of Aston Villa’s players, even those that have been at the club a while now. For instance, fans are still divided over the abilities of Fabian Delph, one of Martin O’Neill’s many acquisitions. Barry Bannan, who is also 22 years old, is another yet to really show his potential. It looks as though Lambert is keen on the diminutive midfielder (though comically he did win a few headers against Marouane Fellaini earlier this season) playing him centrally in midfield. His technical ability is promising but his performances have still been somewhat mixed. And lastly, Ciaran Clark is set to keep his spot at centre back, at least until Richard Dunne regains his fitness after injury. Neither men however inspire too much confidence in the fans. Clark was out of his depth against the movement of Nikica Jelavic and Villa were almost better off with ten men. Similarly, the thought of Richard Dunne coming back into contention offers little comfort to supporters. The Irishman has been well off his best for more than two seasons now, and while he is deceptively quick given his colossal frame, he looks more clumsy and ponderous than he ever has. More to the point, his lack of concentration and rash decisions have cost Villa many points in the recent past.
Finally then, there is hope for Villa fans. Paul Lambert’s hard-working, high tempo philosophy has at times looked very effective. Furthermore, given his attacking mentality, the heavy defeat against Southampton is less worrying. After being in front, losing a few goals is surely just the downside of chasing results rather than accepting narrow defeats. If the likes of Christian Benteke can fit into the side next to the goal machine Darren Bent then Villa will look something of a force going forward. The return of Gabriel Agbonlahor with his unmatched pace and power and the gut-busting running of Marcus Albrighton can only be positive. Lawro’s comments may hold true but Villa are not after European qualification. What may be more the concern is the lack of squad depth, especially in terms of experienced defenders. However, if Villa are to fail and become once again embroiled in a relegation battle, there will be something almost worthy in the way Lambert’s team are set up. No ridiculous spending and no huge wage-budget – it is a youthful, mostly British and more importantlty an attacking Aston Villa which will be seen this season.