Aston Villa Season Preview - Another relegation scrap beckons for Lambert's boys
After two disappointing seasons at Villa Park, Paul Lambert begins his third campaign as Aston Villa manager as one of the favourites for this term’s “sack race”. Last season the Scot oversaw possibly one of the most inconsistent teams in the football league, wins against the likes of Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea were frustratingly coupled with poor home form. At times Villa’s counter attack looked one of the fastest and most deadly in the league but a shaky defence would often hold them back. However, there were positives to take from the season. Brad Guzan continued his brilliant form in goal, Andreas Weimann continued his development as a dangerous forward and Fabian Delph was one of the most improved players in the league.
With owner Randy Lerner wanting out of the club, it is little surprise that the summer transfer window has been underwhelming. Limited funds have meant that Lambert has been restricted to free transfers and cheap deals, with the main transfers in being Joe Cole, Philippe Senderos, Kieran Richardson and Aly Cissokho. With additions on the playing side at a minimum, perhaps the most interesting addition to the squad is that of Roy Keane as assistant manager. The controversial Irishman is expected to take most training sessions and if Villa’s fortunes improve his appointment could be seen as a master-stroke.
The news that Alan Hutton and Darren Bent are back in training and in first team contention, and the return of Jores Okore, Charles N’Zogbia and Libor Kozak from long term injuries mean that Villa’s team could have a different look to it this season.
Kieran Richardson (in): Left back has been a problem position over the last few years at Villa park. Antonio Luna came in last season but did not impress leading to the eventual loan signing of Ryan Bertrand. In Keiran Richardson Aston Villa have got themselves and experienced and versatile player who can be relied on. Being able to player in midfield or at left back is an asset Paul Lambert will probably need to utilise as Villa’s squad is thin. With 232 Premier League appearances the former Manchester United man has been there and done it, the 29 year old should provide the left back stability Villa fans have been craving.
Joe Cole (in): 32 year old Cole needs no introduction to Premier League fans and arrives on a free transfer from West Ham United. It is fair to say the attacking midfielder’s best years are behind him but the former Chelsea man could still prove to be a coup. Cole is sure to be a leader in the dressing room and will be valuable to Lambert in this sense. If Villa can get Cole fit and playing well they still have a very intelligent player on their hands and one with the ability to see a pass that split second earlier than others.
Marc Albrighton (out): Few players have left Villa park this summer, the main outgoing transfer being 24 year-old Marc Albrighton. The winger, who made 86 appearances for Villa since breaking through from the youth team, signed for newly promoted Leicester City. The Englishman represented genuine width in the squad which the no longer have. Lambert will now have to look for a couple of wide-men to avoid becoming one dimensional. Albrighton has had his injury worries but is a big loss to the overall balance of the squad.
Ron Vlaar: After a strong showing at the world cup demand is high for the no nonsense centre back and it is imperative Paul Lambert keeps hold of his most experienced defender. After a tricky start adapting to life in the Premier League, last season saw Vlaar really show what he is capable of. With a relatively young contingent of defenders around him the captain’s leadership qualities are vital and the defence is unrecognisable without him.
Fabian Delph: For me, one of the most underrated players in the league, Fabian Delph is the engine that drives Aston Villa forward. Last season saw the 24 year-old really come of age, Delph formed a great understanding with fellow midfielder Ashley Westwood and added goals too his game with a couple of goal of the season contenders. Delph has always has great athletism, a brilliant work ethic and a calmness on the ball, but it wasn’t until recently he found the consistency to become a vital member of the starting line up. If Delph can continue his development he could outgrow Aston Villa and move on to bigger thing so the Villans would be wise to make to most of his talent while they still can.
Christian Benteke: The news that Benteke could return from injury as early as September will be music to the ears of Villa fans. The big Belgian is the one player in the Villa squad who can win games on his own and his record of almost a goal every other game is irreplaceable. Benteke’s power and strength can frighten the meanest of defences and it will be very hard for Villa to hold onto him much longer after this season should he stay injury free. If Benteke is fit and firing he should have the fire power to fight off the threat of relagation.
Possible starting line-up:
It’s going to be a tough start for Villa without Benteke for at least a month. It will be important they get the Belgian firing instantly on his return as starting in September they face Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Man City and Everton consecutively. If they can’t get a few points in their early games they could be drasticaly off the pace by November and Paul Lambert will be under serious pressure. Having said this, goals have started to come from other areas of the team with Delph, Agbonlahor and Weimann all chipping in last season. The return of Darren Bent and Charles N’Zogbia to the squad could also lift the goalscoring burden on Benteke. If Villa can find a way to get Darren Bent scoring again they will have two reliable strikers on their hands, something many other lower half teams struggle with. Depth is still needed in central midfield and fans will be hoping for a couple more signings here in order not be too affected by injuries. If Delph and Westwood can continue their growth together and forward players find form Villa will be looking up instead of down. I predict a hard start for Villa and they may well find themselves around the relegation zone early on, but if Lambert sticks with his counter attack philosophy Villa should just about be fine come the end of the season.