Season Preview: Aston Villa

by Thomas Gaunt

The placards have been laid down, the dust has settled and Aston Villa fans have had to begrudgingly accept that Alex McLeish, once their enemy, is now their manager. On reflection they may well realise he is probably a much better fit than Gerard Houllier ever was.

That said, McLeish has a big, but not impossible job on is hands. This summer Villa saw three of their top performers sold, but reassuringly for a handsome amount. Whether McLeish can replace like for like is to be seen but the acquisition of Shay Given will go a long way to appeasing the fans. In Given they have found themselves not only a great Goalkeeper but also a true leader.

Injuries badly effected Villa last season and this combined with some internal conflict led to a dramatic drop in form. The up side was that youngsters like Barry Bannon, Nathan Baker and Chris Herd were brought into the first team squad. With Marc Albrighton likely to find himself a more regular starter the future does not look so bleak. Although they will be without the impressive Kyle Walker, he has now returned to Tottenham Hotspur following his season-long loan. In Darren Bent they have a man guaranteeing goals and his acquisition in January, even at £24, million seems like value for money. His goals no doubt were a big factor in them eventually comfortably avoiding the drop.

The fans will never be happy settling for simply staying up. They can still remember the days when they were challenging United at the top of the table (although you would have to have a good memory), and the reality is they are still a big club. If Villa can capture Charles N’Zogbia and Randy Lerner is happy to add to the Young-Downing kitty, next season should be a more comfortable one for The Villains. Let’s not forget that they also have their captain Stiliyan Petrov to return to the side after he missed much of last season through injury, he was sorely missed.

Manager: Alex McLeish
Last season: 9th
Odds: 350/1
In: Shay Given (Man City, £3.5m)
Out: Ashley Young (Man United, £17m), Stewart Downing (Liverpool, £20), Brad Friedel (Free, Tottenham Hotspur) John Carew, Nigel Reo-Coker, Robert Pires (released)

Keys to the Season

Regardless of the fact that Birmingham went down we do know one thing for sure, Alex McLeish know how to organize a defence. He will be looking for some form from Richard Dunne and James Collins and with Given behind them I have no doubt that Villa will be much more robust defensively next year.

Young and Downing will need replacing for sure and although Bent has said he is very happy at the club, that may change if the service he had grown accustomed to dries up. N’Zogbia is a target but things seem to have slowed down on that front. As I mentioned earlier Albrighton should have a role to play and Bannon looked quite some player last year, but McLeish will need to bring in 4 or 5 experienced players if they are to have the squad strength necessary for at least a mid-table finish.

At Birmingham McLeish was criticized for not having any fire power up front and he will have to be smart with his purchases at Villa. Bent desperately needs some support and there is little depth should he get injured. He will hope that Gabriel Agbonlahor stays injury free as he certainly has the potential to act as an excellent foil for Bent. Beyond these two Heskey has probably seen his best days and Delfouneso is still unproven.

Whilst Petrov’s return will be a bonus, central midfield was probably Villa’s weakest area last season, with Ciaran Clark ending up as an auxiliary centre mid and whilst the 22 year old did well it was not ideal. Jean Makoun seems the obvious choice to partner the captain, although he only had a handful of appearances last year since his £6m move from Lyon in January, partly due to injury and partly due to suspension. If McLeish can get the best out of Stephen Ireland then Villa will have a fairly strong starting eleven, but that is a big if. The one area where there is still a glaring hole is on the left wing and it is believed that area is currently a priority in the transfer market.

The Team

It remains to be seen how the new Villa will be set up. At Birmingham McLeish tended to prefer one man up front with the midfielders bombing on, and with the playing staff he has one would imagine he will set the team up in a similar fashion. In the recent preseason friendly, a 3-1 win over Walsall, he had Bent on his own in a 4-2-3-1, but I am not sure how much can be read into this.

The back four picks itself with Luke Young likely to be reinstated at right back and after Warnock’s season in exile seems to be behind him he will slot in on the left. Dunne and Collins will form the central defensive partnership in front of Shay Given. With a fresh start and a defence with individually highly competent defender there should be a vast improvement on last season, which shouldn’t be too difficult as they shipped 59 goals and only kept 7 clean sheets.

Makoun will offer the defence cover whilst Petrov pushes forward, with either Ireland or Bannon filing the last position in the centre. With only one recognized winger, the style of play which was heavily reliant on Young and Downing will need to be altered and it is likely that McLeish will look to a slightly more direct and high tempo game to compensate.

Should McLeish elect for two up front then Marc Albrighton will remain the sole winger and Bent will be joined by one of Heskey, Delfouneso or Agbonlahor. Both Delfouneso and Agbonlahor can play wide but without reinforcements options are limited in what is a thread-bare squad.

Key Player

Villa fans can’t really get a break, can they? Having lost a number of key players in the past few years, there squad keeps taking steps in the wrong direction. They recently splashed out on Darren Bent, and the England striker may still justify his £24million price tag with his goalscoring ability. If he can open the tap this season, Villa will look to him as their main man. But having lost two top class providers, it may be a little more difficult.

Opening Fixtures

Fulham (A), Blackburn (H), Wolves (H), Everton (A), Newcastle (H)

Aston Villa could not have dreamt of a kinder opening 5 fixtures, and after that it is QPR and then Wigan. So McLeish will be looking to get a good total on the board early doors and win the adoration of the fans. Should they not pick up the points then the fans will be baying for his blood.

Where will they finish?

I expect a mid-table finish for Villa. With the league so competitive outside the top 6 it is difficult to predict exactly where any team will finish. I will take the easy route out and say between 12th and 14th. This is a rebuilding year for Villa, but nonetheless with money to spend in the transfer window it may still be an exciting one. 12th

8 Responses

  1. villaparkb6 says:

    on one hand you say things are looking a lot brighter what with Mcleish being a better fit, a united squad, and a full squad then on the other hand you say we’ll only finish 12th, when we finished 9th last season how is that better than last season with loads of injuries and 3 different managers. Bit of a contradictory article me thinks

    1. Thomas Gaunt says:

      Thanks for the comment. McLeish is a better fit, Houllier took you to the brink of relegation – and not to 9th. You will be more united and have a better defence (IMO), but dont forget you have lost 2 massive match winners who almost single-handedly carried you to 9th last season. Also the places from 7th-17th are so tight i just plumped for bang in the middle… bit of a kop out but think 12th is where you’ll end up.

    2. Allon says:

      Spot on Thomas, even if we do finished 12-14 the difference may only be 6/7 points, which would be points that Downing or Young would’ve won us last season.

      Maybe I’m being overly negative but I think we’ll find ourselves around mid table and beyond.

  2. Allon says:

    Nice preview Thomas, unfortunately as a Villa fan I agree we’ll struggle to hold onto the top ten this season, unless we can replace the wide players we’ve sold.

    The squad as it stands at the moment isn’t good enough. We’ll be relying on Bent too much to deliver the goods.

  3. Dean says:

    I am a bit more optimistic. We won’t go into the new season without getting in one or two players capable of filling the boots of Young and Downing, and at least McLeish has had a pre-season to work with the squad unlike O’Neill who bailed at such a shitty time of the season to do so.

  4. Thomas Gaunt says:

    If McLeish doesnt buy, and buy well, I stand by my prediction as I made it based on current squad. But if he gets N’Zogbia and 2 other quality players then top ten is definitely achievable, and perhaps even better. Part of the issue is the squad has no depth, any injuries and you’re fooked.

  5. Villa seem to have become a selling club which if they are aiming to replicate the success of O’Neill, they’ll need to reverse. Over the past couple of seasons they’ve lost Barry, Milner, Downing and Young which is a more than decent midfield line up. Even the loss of Reo Coker will affect a team who for more than a few years have complained about a lack of depth in the squad. Good article but I wouldn’t be as optimistic as you on Villa’s chances even if they do add to the squad.

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