After challenging the established top 4 under Martin O’Neil, Aston Villa have tumbled down the Premier League in recent seasons with fans now more accustomed to being in a battle against survival. Top scorer Christian Benteke and club captain Fabian Delph have both moved on to pastures new during the summer, meaning Tim Sherwood’s recruitment will decide the outcome of the Villains’ campaign. Liverpool and Tottenham have both struggled to get new squads to gel in recent seasons where as Southampton flourished last year despite selling many of their major stars showing that Sherwood’s task is tough but nonetheless achievable.
Story of last season
Having endured dismal seasons under Gerard Houllier, Alex McLeish and Paul Lambert, last year was a new low for the Midlanders. Their negative approach saw the team score just 12 goals in their first 25 fixtures, a run that left them in the relegation places. With Lambert’s position coming under increasing scrutiny throughout the season, he was eventually relieved of his duties after a 2-0 defeat to relegation rivals Hull in mid-February. Tim Sherwood was brought in, a move that split opinion amongst fans and pundits. It turned out to be a masterstroke though as Sherwood re-energised the players, guiding them to safety and the FA Cup final. The final ended in disappointment though as Arsenal ran out 4-0 winners.
Tim Sherwood has already brought in seven players during the transfer window as he looks to bolster a squad that has finished in the bottom six for the past four Premier League seasons and had some high profile departures over the summer. Scott Sinclair’s move to Villa Park has been made permanent following a loan spell at the end of last season. The flying winger impressed during his time in Wales with Swansea but struggled for game time under both Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini in a star-studded Manchester City squad. Villa fans will hope to see the Sinclair of old as the Englishman looks for increased game time to restart his career. Micah Richards has also swapped the Etihad for Villa Park after a largely unsuccessful spell at Fiorentina last year. The England international will add much needed Premier League experience to the Aston Villa back line and his versatility will also be a useful asset for Sherwood.
Shay Given has moved to Stoke so Mark Bunn has been signed from Premier League new boys Norwich to provide competition to Brad Guzan. The American lost his place to Given at the end of last year but will expect to start the season as number 1 with Bunn waiting in the wings for any mistakes, but likely being reduced to just cup appearances. Benin international Rudy Gestede has also been brought in from Championship side Blackburn Rovers after scoring 22 goals in league and cup last year. The 6ft 4in striker appears to be a direct replacement for Christian Benteke and will provide a focal point to Villa’s attacks.
With the price for British players being extremely inflated in the current market, Villa have followed Newcastle’s lead and looked to Ligue 1 for squad improvements. Defender Jordan Amavi , central midfielders Idrissa Gueye and Jordan Veretout and striker Jordan Ayew and have arrived from Nice, Lille, Nantes and Lorient respectively, all for undisclosed fees. 21 year old Amavi made his debut for Nice in the 2013-14 season having previously played for their B side whilst Gueye has had a similar rise through the Lille ranks after starting his career in his homeland with Senegalese outfit Diambars. French youth international Veretout has made 130 appearances in Ligue 1 for Nantes, despite only being 22 years of age. The diminutive midfielder has represented France at U18, U19, U20 and U21 levels but has yet to be selected by the senior team so will be hoping a move to the Premier League will see him representing Les Bleus. Ghanaian Ayew rose to prominence during 5 year spell at Marseille but was loaned to Sochaux for the second half of the 2013-14 season before signing for Lorient in the summer. Ayew has made 28 international appearances, winning his first cap 6 days short of his 19th birthday and boasts Champions League experience from his time with Marseille so will bring more much needed experience to Villa Park despite being just 23 years of age.
Villa’s have also signed 28 year old fullback Jose Angel Crespo, who has played all of his club football in Spain and Italy to date. The former Sevilla academy graduate has already played for 7 clubs in a sporadic career and will be hoping to settle down for a longer period with the Midlanders.
Ashley Westwood – With club captain Fabian Delph moving to Manchester City and Tom Cleverley’s loan spell ending, Westwood is the only surviving member of Villa’s main midfield axis last year. The 25 year old plays a crucial role in linking defence and attack and if Villa are to utilise the pace of Gabriel Agbonlahor and Scott Sinclair on the counter attack then Westwood’s distribution could be key to their success.
Micah Richards – Ron Vlaar has left meaning Aston Villa’s defence is extremely youthful. Richards will provide much needed experience to the back line and be the leader of the defence, a role he should be suited to at the age of 27. Richards’ performances could be key to Villa’s survival and Sherwood will be hoping he brings control to a defence that conceded 57 goals last year.
Gabriel Agbonlahor – Agbonlahor has flattered to deceive in recent seasons, but 2015-16 is shaping up to be an important one for the Englishman. With Andreas Wiemann leaving in addition to Benteke, he is the only remaining member of Villa’s attack from the past two seasons. Although that was a strike-force that stumbled and stuttered at times, Agbonlahor will be key as new signing try to find their feet. In the second half of the season, the pressure and reliance on him may be reduced but it appears the Aston Villa academy graduate will need to be on top form at the season’s start. If Agbonlahor fails to get out of the blocks quickly, he may find his place in the side under threat, so needs to start the season strongly on a personal note too.
It seems unlikely that Sherwood will throw too many of his new signings into the fray immediately, particularly those without any Premier League experience. Therefore, it appears he will stick with the 4-3-3 formation favoured by Villa in recent seasons to begin with, although the players at his disposal provide flexibility. With the absence of a dominating midfielder, Villa could find their defence under continual pressure, as occurred last season. Other defensive options include Kieran Richardson, Nathan Baker and Jose Angel Crespo, who could rival Amavi for the left back spot at the start of the season. Leonardo Bacuna, Jordan Ayew and Idrissa Gueye will provide plenty of competition in more advanced roles as Sherwood looks to try and keep the whole squad happy.
The arrival of Gestede means the manager will have the option of switching to a 4-2-3-1 formation with Sinclair, Grealish and Agbonlahor playing behind the striker. Villa have also been heavily linked with Emmanuel Adebayor, someone with previous Premier League experience who would also be able to play the lone striker role.
For all the criticism he has received whilst at Spurs and Aston Villa, there is no doubt Sherwood has done a good job at both clubs. The Villains looked destined for the Championship when he took over last season but his positive persona rubbed off on the players as he guided the club to safety. This season will be a much greater test though with the need to become more tactically astute and not just giving the players a short three month confidence boost. The losses of Benteke and Delph will undoubtedly make the task more difficult but Sherwood will believe in his methods and his side and look to guide Villa through a less troublesome season.
First Six Fixtures
Villa open the season away to Premier League new boys Bournemouth, a fixture that most clubs would want to avoid. There will be a party atmosphere on the south cost and Sherwood would probably settle for a point to open the campaign. Fixtures at home to Manchester United and away to Crystal Palace follow in a tough opening to the season that could easily see Villa pointless after three games. However the following three fixtures are the ones that will define Villa’s season. The Midlanders face Sunderland and West Brom at Villa Park with a trip to Leicester in between, three clubs that could well be finishing around them in the final League table. If they can take a point from their opening three games and a further seven in their next three, then an eight point return would represent a good start for Sherwood and could set Villa up for a more promising season. Less than six and it could be another gut-wrenching season for the Holte End faithful.
Final Standing Prediction – 14th
A lot will depend on how Villa’s new signings settle and Sherwood’s ability to get them to gel. Despite the losses of Benteke and Delph, the incoming Richards and Sinclair both bring Premier League experience to the club whilst the numerous youngsters have another season under their belt. After his breakthrough at the end of last season, the impressive Jack Grealish can expect more game time as he looks to help his boyhood club push on up the league table. With Sherwood’s positivity, The Boot Room expect Villa to improve from last season and finish towards the top end of the relegation battlers.
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