BY WASIM PARKAR – FAN FUEL BLOGGER
The Premier League previews on Fan Fuel shift to the Midlands, as Paul Lambert’s young Aston Villa squad strives to improve on last season’s relegation worries on the back of some good football.
Despite being involved in the relegation battle last season, Lambert earned the support of the Villa faithful by sticking to his guns and persevering with his young players in the face of some bad defeats. Lambert also managed to silence many critics who lambasted him for not playing Darren Bent, as his acquisition of Christian Benteke turned out to be one of the signings of the season.
The young guns at Villa Park can only grow stronger from the experiences of last year, and the football witnessed during pre-season has made fans of the Claret and Blue optimistic about the direction of the club under Lambert. Aided by the addition of more good young players to the squad and the significant boost to the morale of the club brought about by Benteke signing a new contract, Aston Villa head into the start of the season with a great vibe.
On defence: Brad Guzan supplanted Shay Given as the new number one in the squad last season. Like the rest of the defence, the first five months of the season was chastening for Guzan, as Villa simply couldn’t defend. Nonetheless, the American took everything in his stride and towards the end of the season made several priceless saves contributing to the Villains survival. Guzan has always been an excellent shot-stopper, and can now also count on better judgement when coming to collect crosses into the box as well as improved distribution with the ball.
Ron Vlaar’s signing was considered a coup last season, and after initially struggling, the Dutch international developed into the leader that the team needed. Vlaar uses his physicality really well, and is extremely strong in the air. Lambert trusted Nathan Baker to be Vlaar’s partner in defence, as the youngster’s ball playing skills were considered the perfect complement to the captain’s more robust style. However, Baker’s positioning was suspect especially against teams that interchanged their attacking players. Consequently in pre-season, Vlaar has been paired with the more solid Ciaran Clark, and they have excelled as a partnership, indicating they are likely to be the first-choice pair once the season starts. Baker will certainly get his opportunities, as he is still considerably young for a centre-back. Lambert can also call upon the versatile Chris Herd as cover if either of his first-choice centre-backs are injured or suspended.
Matthew Lowton was the one defender who escaped intense scrutiny last season. The right-back is extremely impressive going forward, and if Lowton can integrate better tactical discipline to his game, he can be one of the league’s best players in his position. New signing Antonio Luna has impressed at left-back in pre-season and should be first choice in the position ahead of the more limited Joe Bennett.
The midfield: Lambert specializes in mixing up his formations against different opponents, and he loves to switch between a 4-2-3-1, 3-5-2, 4-5-1 or 4-3-3. The manager can play different midfielders in the centre of the park according to the match situation, and even within different formations he has the flexibility of choosing amongst some extremely versatile midfielders.
Fabian Delph has taken a while to realize the potential that Martin O’Neill saw in him four years ago, but seems to have finally developed a better understanding of his game. Partly due to some injuries in the last few years, and partly due to experience, Delph has prioritized developing the technical side of his game and he has benefitted both himself and the team in doing so. Karim El Ahmadi was one of the most consistent players for the Villains last year, and the Moroccan will be expected to hustle opponents off the ball, while also assisting the team’s transition game with short passes to the more attacking players in the team. Yacouba Sylla flew under the radar, but made an impression by solidifying the centre of midfield after signing for Villa in January. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Malian paired with El Ahmadi at the base of midfield in tough away games.
The two central midfielders with a more creative remit are Ashley Westwood and Gary Gardner. Initially many thought Lambert’s decision to recruit Westwood from Crewe smacked of naivety. However, after a few appearances it became clear to observers that Westwood possessed footballing intelligence that belied his lower league experience. Equally comfortable spraying the ball around the park from a deep playmaking position, or providing assists for the forwards with cute passes further up the pitch, when Westwood is on song he can single-handedly elevate the level of the Villains play. Gardner is coming back after a long injury, nonetheless he has shown glimpses of his potential in pre-season with his dynamic runs into the box, and his powerful shots from outside the box. Like his elder brother Craig Gardner, Gary also has decent prowess from free kicks and set pieces. If Gardner can stay fit, he provides Lambert with a better all-round option compared to Marc Albrighton who stagnated slightly last season.
On the attack: Christian Benteke’s decision to sign a new contract was the most significant and positive event for Villa this summer. The young Belgian links up extremely well with Villa’s midfielders and wingers, is a physical match for the toughest centre-backs in the league, has finesse in abundance and is a cool finisher. Forwards in the Premier League simply don’t come more complete than Benteke.
Lambert still has to get rid of Darren Bent, but has already brought in Nicklas Helenius as back up to Benteke. One can hardly make accurate predictions about new signings on the basis of pre-season, but Helenius has already displayed good vision allied with creativity for a big forward. Another new signing, winger Leandro Bacuna has played in every pre-season fixture so far, and is clearly going to have a role to play in Villa’s season, although he will need to time to be the finished article.
Gabriel Agbonlahor is considered a veteran at Villa the ripe old age of 26. Agbonlahor took on a leadership role amongst the forwards towards the end of last season, driving Villa to some of their best performances with his relentless running off the ball, and intelligent runs into space to score some crucial match-winning goals. Another player who contributed with goals for Villa last season was the unheralded Austrian Andreas Weimann. He is another young player who possesses excellent tactical acumen and is extremely adept at finishing either through perfectly timed runs into the box, or running on to through balls. Agbonlahor and Weimann both also afford Lambert the flexibility of playing them wide in support of Benteke when he switches to a more attacking 4-3-3.
Conclusion: It has taken time for Lambert to win over the sceptics, but many seem to have finally come on board with the Scotsman’s long-term plan of developing the young players into a formidable, free-flowing and tactically flexible team. The easy prediction to make is that most of Villa’s good things this season will come through Benteke, but the real progress under Lambert is seen in the young midfielders and defenders buying into their manager’s tactical vision. The team is still quite evidently a work in progress, but Aston Villa look well on course for a season of mid-table security with the added bonus of some attractive football for the fans. After last season’s struggles, it certainly will be a welcome change at Villa Park.