With the 2012-13 English Premier League season on the horizon, Tezini’s crew of soccer experts is here to get you ready for all the cracking finishes, devilish challenges and unforgettable drama. Over the next two weeks, we’ll give each club its proper due in a free-flowing roundtable discussion. We continue with Aston Villa.
AJ: I’m happy for Aston Villa supporters. They are fans of a great club that not so long ago was knocking on the door of the UEFA Champions League. They’ve produced a ton of wonderful talent over the last decade. And so last season must have been a nightmare. They played ugly football under the now departed Alex McLeish and ultimately flirted with the unthinkable — relegation. Mercifully, the Villans survived and McLeish is gone. The question is, is there still enough there for Villa to start building back toward the upper-middle part of the table that seems more appropriate for a club of their stature?
I’m more bullish on the potential for growth than I thought I’d be. Villa never figured out how to properly utilize new signing Charles N’Zgobia last season. Marc Albrighton — a personal favorite — was marginalized. There was just no width to be found, even though there are the parts here for the right manager to play attacking football. That manager has never been Alex McLeish.
Anyway, about the only good thing to come out of last year was the revitalization of Gabby Agbonlahor, so if Paul Lambert can manage to get similar bounceback seasons out of N’Zogbia and Albrighton in this campaign and find a way properly utilize the likes of Nathan Delfouneso, I think the Villans can put the nightmare of last season well behind them. It can’t get worse, can it? Getting rid of McLeish lifts a cloud over Villa Park to be sure.
Mark: Given my affinity for claret and blue (and despite my lazy hatred of the Cleveland Browns), I’ve always had a soft spot for Aston Villa. Until last season, they played entertaining football and have had some real players over the past several years — Gareth Barry, James Milner, Ashley Young, Brad Friedel, and John Carew to name a few who are no longer around. Even so, there was enough talent on this team last year that the near-relegation was a disgrace, and enough to think that there will be at least a mild bounceback. I agree that they really need to see what they have in Delfouneso and Fabian Delph, though Villa are also one of the purported suitors of Andy Carroll, which would muddy up the striking contingent quite a bit.
The problem with this team, at least last year, was a lack of possession and sloppy passing, which presumably led to them ranking 19th in the Premier League in shots per game last season, meaning Gabby A. and Darren Bent’s talents weren’t quite being utilized.
Homer alert: I’m looking for a solid year from Eric Lichaj, who has shown some flashes with the U.S. Men’s National Team and whom I believe is definitely better than the recently departed Carlos Cuellar.
Also worth mentioning: Aston Villa only scored three goals (three!) from set pieces all last season (the next worst side, Swansea, had seven), which may have something to do with them being awful in possession and not getting opportunities — but I can not imagine that a team with a number of players with a nose for goal will have that low of a total again.
Sam: The set piece weakness also has a lot to do, in my opinion, with their general lack of size up front and at the back.
AJ: I’m glad you brought up Darren Bent, Mark, because, well, Darren Bent is a marvel to me. He is this throwback, play-off-the-shoulder, poaching center forward, and I don’t respect his game at all. He’s got to be the least respected really good player in the Premier League. And that’s the part that’s a marvel to me. He’s quite prolific, actually, and despite that I intend to continue giving him very little respect because there’s nothing about his game that really raises an eyebrow.
Other than that impressive goal total.
He’s got 50 goals in his last 96 Premier League games. Think about that. Had he not missed the end of last season, he might have kept Aston Villa from the relegation dogfight and maybe even saved Alex McLeish’s job. I guess what I’m trying to say is thanks for getting hurt, Darren. You rid the Prem of McLeish and I didn’t have to watch you pick up unimpressive poached goal after unimpressive poached goal at the end of last year — a relief on both counts.
Mark: The more I look at this team, the more I see some actual quality in the attacking midfield — which is probably a good thing given Agbonlahor and Bent are guaranteed to miss about ten games apiece. Marc Albrighton really needs to become Marc Albrighton, but a midfield of Steven Ireland, Charles N’Zogbia and Brett Holman is far from chopped liver. Further, I think the managerial swap from the stoney McLeish to the free-flowing Lambert has to allow a bit more movement in midfield, assuming he employs two strikers up top rather than the lone-striker formation that McLeish stuck with so fervently. It was something that Gerard Houllier made sure of, though of course Houllier had Ashley Young and Stewart Downing with which to work as well. Anyway, both N’Zogbia and Holman are capable of shifting and cutting inside from the wing, and Ireland at his best is someone who shifts all around the pitch when his team is either in or out of possession.
This team certainly lacks the sexiness and depth of its “glory days” — such as they were — and there are real questions at the back along with what happens upon the aforementioned injuries to Gabby and Bent, but I have no reason to think that there won’t be a substantial bounceback given the perfect storm of excrement that marked last season.
Sam: Mark, you omitted the Scottish badass Barry Bannan, who is a key part of the squad and who is constantly causing selection issues between him and Albrighton.