Monday, 5 August 2013

Preview of the Season: Aston Villa

Morpheus: I'm trying to free your mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door. You're the one that has to walk through it.

In this scene Morpheus is mentoring Neo, trying to help him fulfill his potential as the One. This bares comparison with the role that Paul Lambert is playing at Aston Villa. Lambert took a huge gamble last season, playing an exceptionally young squad, barely out of nappies by Premier League standards, doing just enough to stay up. Injuries robbed Villa of experienced senior players like Richard Dunne (missed the season) and captain Ron Vlaar (missed 10 games). Cancer forced club captain and club legend Stilyan
True Legend. 
Petrov into an early retirement. Without these old heads to rely on, the playing squad’s collective lack of experience cost them huge away defeats at Chelsea, Man City and Southampton early in the season. Ill discipline, often an indicator of a lack of experience, plagued the side with Villa finishing behind only Stoke and Newcastle as the leagues dirtiest side with 72 yellows and 3 reds. Despite this, Lambert’s confidence, publically at least, never wavered in his squad.

As the season wore on results improved as Lambert was able to instill some confidence and know-how into his young side. The pacey duo of Gabby Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann behind young Drogba clone, Christian Benteke, began to strike fear into opposing defenses (the three of them combined for 35 of Villa’s 47 league goals). Villa were especially lethal on the counter attack, scoring 6 goals in this way, equal second in the premier league. This firepower culminated with a 6-1 destruction of Sunderland and 15th place in the league.

This season Lambert will look for progression from his young team. With Richard Dunne having been shipped off to QPR and Petrov retiring, Villa will need some of their youngsters to step into a leadership role to support Vlaar. Promising centre halves, Ciaran Clarke and Nathan Baker, and defensive midfielder Ashley Westwood will all look to progress in this department and improve their discipline as they become more experienced. Surprisingly both Clark and Baker were in the top 10 in the league for both blocks and clearances, with Clark leading the league in clearances per match. This says something about the promise the pair showed but it also highlights the pressure Villa invited onto themselves on a consistent basis. Though outmatched for much of last season the experience will hold all of them in good stead for this season and Lambert will confident of progression being made in a defense that conceded 69 goals, higher than any other team that wasn’t relegated.

Benteke playing a team of dwarves dressed in a Sunderland kit.
Primarily, however he will be concerned about a lack of squad depth, especially in the forward positions. Benteke was a beast last season for Villa last season scoring 19 league goals in his first season, amounting to 40% of Villa’s total goal tally. This figure is the highest in the league by some distance. If Benteke were to miss an extended period of time Villa would seriously miss his goal threat and his link up play. Benteke was brilliant in the air last season providing 4 assists and winning 7.9 aerial duels per match, putting him behind only Andy Carroll and Peter Crouch. Lambert will be delighted to have fended off interest from Spurs in Benteke in exchange for an improved contract for the big man.

Benteke’s lively wingman Weimann is just as important to the Villa cause. Weimann played in 26 games last season, winning 10. In the 12 games he missed Villa failed to register a single win. Though his stats, 7 goals and 2 assists, aren’t gaudy, its clear that his movement, work rate and ability are of vital importance to Villa’s chances next season. Local boy, Gabby Agbonlahor, also had a good end to the season with 6 of his 9 goals coming in Villa’s last 10 games. The alternatives to Weimann and Agbonlahor last season, N’Zogbia and Albrighton, failed to assert themselves when on the pitch last season and that is a cause for alarm.

Lambert has realized that without these two for any extended period next season Villa may struggle. To counter this Lambert has strengthened these areas with signings of Aleksandar Tonev (£3m left winger from Bulgaria) and Nicklas Helenius (£1.5m centre forward from Denmark). Lambert has also added four other players in a variety of positions, the most prominent of which is Okore, a young centre half costing £4m. All of these players are under 23, fitting the Villa transfer strategy of buying young talent in order to develop it.

Paul Lambert shouting at kids.
This concept of development was the key to Villa’s last season and will be the key to the coming one as well. Signs of progression on last season’s performance will be the signifier of success this season. Any improvement on 15th will be difficult, as Villa have not invested as much as the other clubs around them such as Southampton and Norwich but 12th is out of the question. Villa and Lambert are giving youth a chance; it is up for them to take their opportunity.