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
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.
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.
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.
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