By Patrick Gleeson
If I told you that I thought it would be a successful season for Aston Villa this time round, I would be lying.
What worries me about Aston Villa, is the way the club seemed to implode last season. After a solid finish of 9th in the 2010/11 campaign under Gerard Houllier, The Villains changed the management team and ended the 2011/12 season in a miserable 16th place and only two points above the relegated Bolton Wanderers. When Houllier fell ill in April 2011 he left Villa by mutual consent leaving chairman Randy Lerner to fill the vacancy; a vacancy which was met by someone the Villa fans detest. The ginger Glaswegian Alex McLeish. The fiery Scot joined in June 2011 but due to being in charge of fierce rivals Birmingham City just days before (and also getting them relegated) Villa fans held a protest outside Villa Park.
McLeish made two strong signings in ex-Newcastle and Manchester City shot stopper Shay Given and Frenchman Charles N’Zogbia from Wigan Athletic. However, a dismal season which the club are still trying to put behind them eventually ended with what the supporters begged for. McLeish was sacked. The former Scotland manager is now statistically the worst manager the one time European champions have ever had with a measly win record of 21.4%.
The Gaffer: A Champions League winner while playing for Borussia Dortmund, Paul Lambert has been in management for seven years. His managerial career started at Livingston but Lambert left the club after less than a year in charge winning only two games. He then took charge at both Wycombe and Colchester before making his name at Norwich City.
Let’s be avin’ you!
On the first day of the 2009/10 season, Norwich City took a beating by a Colchester City side managed by Paul Lambert. Following this game, Norwich replaced manager Bryan Gunn with Lambert and quickly reaped the rewards as the Canaries went on to win the League 1 title and then marched to promotion into the dizzy heights of the Barclays Premier League, where they previously competed in the 2002/03 season. Undeterred by being one of the favourites to go down, Norwich finished in an impressive 12th place.
Lambert offered his resignation to the Norwich board and although they originally declined it, he was confirmed as the new Aston Villa boss shortly after.
Between the sticks:
The usually reliable goalkeeper Shay Given had a shaky time at Euro 2012 with Ireland. Although not fully fit and not always to blame, he conceded 9 goals in just 3 games. If the Newcastle United favourite can pick his confidence up then he could play a major part in keeping Villa up this coming season.
Back up shot stopper Brad Guzan had actually been released by the club following his contract expiring this summer but was then resigned after linking up with the squad for Paul Lambert’s pre season tour of USA. A clumsy keeper but a knack of saving penalties, I’m sure Guzan will be keeping the bench warm for a lot of the season as long as Given is fit.
At the back:
Big Dutchman Ron Vlaar (below) has been recruited from Feyenoord to add a bit of muscle to the back four and with a nickname of ‘concrete’ Villa fans can look forward to the 27 year old cementing the cracks in the defence. The Holland international has signed a 3 year deal and has already impressed the Villa fans during their pre season games, being described as ‘capable of looking after himself ‘.
Youngster Ciaran Clark will be hoping to keep his place in the starting line up after impressing last season. The 22 year old has played 35 games and scored 4 goals in that time. An impressive record for a centre back/left back!
However, the rest of Villa’s defence, to me, looks fragile. It consists of stalwart Richard Dunne (injured for an estimated eight weeks with a groin injury), ex Liverpool player Stephen Warnock who’s career is in serious decline and tough tackling full back Alan Hutton. Throw in American Eric Lichaj and newly signed Matthew Lowton and to me that looks like a defence likely to leak goals. A lot of goals.
In the middle:
Boyhood fan Marc Albrighton has recently been ruled out for six weeks after the 22 year old broke a metatarsal in a pre season friendly, a big blow for Lambert. A bright young player who is all too happy to run at defenders, he has the sheer determination that is essential for a top professional and is always eager to chip in with a goal or two.
“He is an intelligent player, he can read the game well and adapt well. I don’t think Xavi and Iniesta, who are outstanding players, are of huge size. They are intelligent, they have the skill, they have the desire – young Barry has all of that.” This was Gerard Houllier talking about Barry Bannan (above) while he was in charge of the Midlands club. Inspiring words for the young Scotland international. Bannan will be hoping to secure his place in the midfield this season after being loaned to Derby County, Blackpool and Leeds United respectively and leaving a positive memory for those who witnessed him play. Bannan is known for his gifted left foot which he uses to navigate the ball to team mates all over the field and at only 5ft7 his vision and passing abilities have led him to be labelled ‘a young Paul Scholes’.
Another product of the youth system who is looking to get some first team games under his belt is Gary Gardner. Already playing 14 games for the first team despite only just turning 20, the younger brother of Sunderland’s Craig Gardner will be hoping Paul Lambert gives him a decent run in the starting eleven to prove his worth at this level.
With a head resembling a boiled egg and a reputation for telling porkies, Stephen Ireland needs to prove he still has the hunger to go with the obvious talent he possess. After struggling with injury, the Irishman had a tough start at Villa and was sent out on loan to Newcastle. His luck was still out when after just 49 minutes of football for the toon army, the sick note injured his ankle which ruled him out for the rest of the season. A highlight though for Ireland, was when he picked up the Aston Villa’s ‘Player Of The Season’ award, albeit the performances from some of the players over the course of the season some might say he was the pick of a bad bunch.
With over 200 games in the Premier League, Charles N’Zogbia has established himself as one of the most impressive wingers in the league. Following his £9.5m move from Wigan Athletic in 2011, N’Zogbia made 32 appearances last season and had the Villa faithful on their feet on more than a few times due to his dribbling style and his lightning pace. Descirbed as “one of the most naturally gifted players he’d ever seen’ by the late great Sir Bobby Robson (N’Zogbia’s former boss at Newcastle) I’m expecting N’Zogbia to have a monster impact on the league this year and I sincerely hope he proves me right.
Karim El Ahmadi was Paul Lambert’s second singing of the season, the Dutch born, Moroccan international El Ahmadi is a defensive midfielder who was signed from Eredivisie side Feyenoord. Although he has previously been linked with almost every club in Europe, I haven’t actually seen much of the Villa newbie but everything I have heard about the player has been positive and I’m told he is a very technically gifted individual, something for the spectators to look forward to.
A midfield that lacks both aggression and a creative spark will need to work hard for each other this year, playing as a unit rather than individuals if they want to better last seasons points tally.
Other first team midfielders in the squad include: Jean Makoun, Chris Herd and Fabian Delph.
On a side note, I just want to wish Captain and 2003 Bulgarian Football Player Of The Year Stiliyan Petrov a very speedy recovery from his recent illness. ‘Stan’ as he is known, was diagnosed with acute leukaemia in March of this year and has since put his footballing career on hold to concentrate on recovering.
You cant win a game if you don’t score a goal. It will be up to Villa’s strikers whether the club sink or swim this year, in my opinion.
A man that needs no introduction is Darren Bent. Bent has scored goals wherever he has played throughout his career and finished Villa’s top scorer last term despite being out with an ankle injury for over 3 months. Bent will play a pivotal role this year as the speedy striker looks to rekindle the form he produced for the two years he spent at sunderland, scoring 32 goals in 58 games. A reputation for scoring important goals against the big teams, Bent has also been known to miss a few sitters in his time. None more famous than an opportunity whilst playing for Tottenham against Portsmouth when he missed an open goal in the final minutes of the game, leaving Harry Redknapp (manager at the time) seething. Redknapp was reported after the game as saying “You will never get a better chance to win a match than that. My missus could have scored that one”.
Which Darren Bent will we see in the rapidly approaching new season? Only time will tell.
A player which has massively disappointed me is Gabriel Agbonlahor (below). Born in Birmingham and a product of the Aston Villa youth system, Agbonlahor looked so promising. His raw pace and eye for goal made him shine as a youngster and I fully expected to see him playing for one of the ‘top four’ for the likes on Manchester United and being an important player in the England set up. The upheaval of managers at Villa Park has not helped the moody looking striker and has previously hit out at former boss Gerard Houllier and mentioned that he even considered quitting the club while the Frenchman was in charge. The 2011/12 kicked off and ‘Gabby’ was back to his best. I thought it would be the season to see him finally make use of the ability he owns but as the season grew old, his form dwindled. If he is played the correct way, he will score goals. I am very confident in that. It is now up to Paul Lambert to keep the brummie happy.
21 year old Nathan Delfouneso will be keen to impress the new manager and will be desperate to get a few early season goals to help him on his way. I see this as a make or break season for Delfounseo. With only 3 goals in 30 appearances for Villa, he has been sent on loan to Burnley and Leicester City over the last few years but has not found the sort of form he will need to be a permanent name on Lambert’s team sheet. He netted just once in 11 games for the clarets and failed to score at all for Leicester in The Championship and although the England under21 star has bundles of potential, he needs something to kick-start his form in front of goal. Whether this will be the case or Delfouneso will be shipped out on loan again is another matter.
Villa have also signed Australian attacker Brett Holman, who has scored 2 in 2 during pre season. He was snapped up after his contract expired at Dutch side Almaar Zaanstreek commonly known as AZ where he finished 4th last season in the top league in The Netherlands. Holman looks very dangerous going forward and I for one can’t wait to see him go up against some of the best defenders in the world. Will he shine or will be yet another Premier League flop?
There are a few key components that will be decisive in Villa’s season in my opinion, the most important one being getting behind the manager and showing the players that there is still belief in the stands. Lambert has proved he has the formula for success with back to back promotions with Norwich and a very respectful finish of 12th last time round and will be looking to inject some confidence and a sense of pride into a depleted Aston Villa changing room.
Sadly, I see things going the other way. I expect Villa to still be hurting from a poor showing last season and will be a little less patient as a result, the squad lacks the quality needed to compete and with no real driving force in the squad I see the season being a disappointing one and ultimately ending in RELEGATION.
Sorry Villa fans!