After Tuesday night's impressive and perhaps slightly unexpected League Cup romp in Norwich, Villa rather annoyingly dropped another place in the league owing to one of the teams below us beating one of the teams below us. That's twice this weekend that has happened *grrr*. I think most can agree that we are playing better than results or league position would suggest. Indeed our trouncing of one of the form sides in the league in their own back yard would point at that fact. Yes they were full strength.
But we now need to start translating those good performances into league wins. The positives are as follows. We have stopped shipping goals. In fact we are now keeping regular clean sheets even against sides like Arsenal. We are unbeaten in 4 league games and our team is now playing the kind of football that suggests the players really know how to play with and find each other. The only thing missing is that we start to pick up 3 points in the league instead of 1. We need to transfer Tuesday's cutting edge into Saturday's away trip.
For a start, in my view that means starting with a front 2 of Benteke and Weimann. Two assists for Benteke and a brace for Weimann was just the attacking ticket that was needed and I would hope that Paul Lambert would see fit to continue with that forward line-up; indeed that whole starting 11 in the game against Liverpool. The one exception being if Captain Ron Vlaar becomes available again after injury. But even then it would be harsh on Baker to drop him.
The League Cup is a great distraction and now that we're in the semi-final for the umpteenth time it is a little more than that. We're 1 round away from a 'day out'. But if we don't bottle that momentum over the next fortnight then the Christmas turkey might stick in the throat a little.
I wonder is it the pressure of the league getting to them? These lower division players who have played in the League Cup before but not in the Premier League. Is that why they're not phased by the League Cup and why they are so good in it? Is the PL that daunting in comparison or is it simply the way the fixtures fell? I dunno.
Anyhoo, Liverpool and Tottenham are two of our next three games and I think both are potentially vulnerable. While Liverpool's form has improved of late, they did scrape past Southampton 1-0 (I know they beat us earlier in the season) and leave it late against West Ham. Neither of whom I'd describe as being particularly impressive sides. The worry for me is the return of everyone's favourite buck-toothed Uruguayan who will doubtless be up for the occasion after his enforced absence. If we can stifle him then I'm quietly confident that our young charges will be under-estimated and could maybe pull off a shock.
Meanwhile, Spurs still seem to me to be slightly disjointed without knowing what their best 11 is. Or certainly their best front 6. They are still a team in limbo. If we can take our newfound cohesion into that game then we could over-match them tactically and come away with the points. It's far from the Spurs of Redknapp. They're not rolling over sides anymore. They're giving teams a chance and again I think we could do it.
Sandwiched between these ties is an away trip to Chelsea where I don't expect much joy to be honest. Even allowing for my disdain of Rafa Benitez, I think his Chelsea side are improving and the quality of his players will be too much for us. Without checking, I can only hope the World Club Cup dates and travel somehow mess with their fitness and fatigue and that we can capitalise on it. You never know.
After those 3 we go on a fairly soft schedule for a while. Well, as soft as a Premier League schedule is ever likely to be. So even if it doesn't go to plan in the next 3, it won't be doom and gloom. If we can start (or continue?) scoring goals while keeping it tight at the back then it doesn't take a genius to work out the end result. I think we're pretty close now.
Let's start on Saturday.
I hate the term 'must-win'. Apart from being over-used, it is more often than not mis-used too. Saturday's early kick off (12:45BST) against Norwich City in isolation is probably not must-win for our prospects of staying in the league, any more than say a match against any likely-struggler like Norwich would be. After all, it is only game number 9 of a 38 game season and we're not currently in the bottom 3. So technically it's not must-win. Now in saying all of that, having not won in 4 matches, losing 3 of those, we could certainly do with the win to give everyone a timely boost. Also, being at home against Paul Lambert's former side with both parties currently locked in a litigious battle over the manner of his exit from Carrow Road means the match is guaranteed to have some 'needle' attached to it.
But all of the above aside, I think it probably is must-win for other reasons. I feel it is a must-win because of the context of the fixture list. If we don't win this game then it becomes very plausible to say that we won't be likely to win any league game until we entertain Reading on the 27th of November, which would be a month to the day after the Norwich game. In between those 2 matches we face trips to Sunderland and Manchester City with home ties against Manchester United and Arsenal. A quick check tells me that; on paper; this is the most difficult consecutive set of fixtures we face this season.
So if we fail to beat Norwich then we might go into the last November game with a solitary league win from 13 league games. That's not just relegation form. That's comfortable relegation. Now I'm old enough and ugly enough to know that the fixtures rarely work out like that. Results you think are nailed on don't happen and hidings you expect to get turn into points you never thought you'd get.
But I certainly wouldn't want to leave our fate up to the results-Gods if we failed to garner 3 points from Norwich. You don't want to be playing catch-up on the rest of the league over the Christmas period. History tells us that while it is possible to escape, it is not the norm.
It will be interesting to see the approach we take against the Canaries. As studious as Lambert no doubt is against all opposition, he will know Norwich better than the rest. If he can beat anyone it'll be them. We are due a big result and a big performance. We are at home and the players have been very vocal on the official site about wanting the fans to help them along and about how they are motivated to do this, that and the other. But we need to see it. We need the talking to be done on the pitch and we need to put in 90 minutes of high intensity and flawlessness if we're to get anything from one of the hardest working sides in the league. Norwich haven't pulled up any trees this season but they are in a similar position to us with a new manager finding his feet. They are also coming off an impressive victory over Arsenal so they won't be lacking in self-confidence and belief nor will they lack motivation for similar reasons to those of Lambert.
Basically in a nutshell, we need 3 points by half past 2 on Saturday afternoon.
Come on Villa. I know you have it in you.
The metaphor I would use to describe Villa at the moment is that of a car that is stuttering to start. But once it does it will be fine. I don't mind that our start has been poor. Most would not have expected an easy transition from a McLeish side. Granted we probably didn't expect the worst start in a generation, but that's what we have. We still need to look at it objectively and not start self-harming over statistics though.
We are going through a phase where it appears that we can't buy a result. We didn't deserve to lose to Fulham but the fact is we did lose. As a team we are getting better and the results will eventually start to come. We are going through the hardship of learning our new system in an arena that is very unforgiving towards any kind of weakness. And our weakness is merely an unfamiliarity. There is no solution to unfamiliarity other than practice and repetition.
We will start to click. The engine will fire. It will be an almost imperceptible change. The play on the pitch mightn't even improve to the naked eye. But what will start to happen; as is the case with familiarity; is that players will just start to be in the positions that they need to be in. Passes will just happen to become more incisive. The strikers will start to find the net and the defence will just happen to become a more cohesive unit. And by extension the results will just happen to improve.
It is happening slowly. More slowly than we would like and more slowly than is ideal. But it is happening and once this car starts and properly warms up, we will move up the league. How far we climb is open to discussion. But it will be enough for this season; a season that I feel is so important to the midterm future of this club. As I've said before and will no doubt say again, if we can just get through this difficult transitional season in one piece then we will be very healthy going forward. As fans we just need to stay patient and trust Paul Lambert. I know that he knows what he is doing and I also appreciate that it is not the usual behaviour of the Villa fan to be calm and optimistic (that's true of most fans I'd imagine), but for the greater good we must remain supportive from the stands.
Next up is the rather epic grudge match against his former side Norwich City. Hopefully that will give the lads the extra few percent of motivation required to get a result and kickstart our season. One thing's for sure. After watching them beat Arsenal the other day, the manner in which they did it tells me we'll have to match their phenomenal workrate or be left for dead.
Come on Villa, just give her a bit more throttle
First off, let me say that just because this blog is called 'The Optimist' it doesn't automatically follow that I will fly in the face of criticising things that need to be criticised. Believe me, if I want to moan I will moan. But if I don't then I won't. I called it 'The Optimist' because in my years on VillaTalk I have come around to the realisation that on average I do tend to see the positive side of things more than most. So it seemed an apt name.
Anyway, on to Villa.
As a first post I may aswell give my $0.02 on what is happening this season and what I see happening from here onwards. I like it. I like what's happening. I think most people do. OK the results haven't been there yet in any consistent way, but then considering what has gone on in the past 2 years you wouldn't exactly demand that results change overnight. You'd like them to, sure, but you wouldn't demand it. In my view it would also be an unreasonably harsh (or blind?) critic that would try to argue that our style of play has not improved markedly over the past year. "Not hard" I hear you say. True dat. In fact it could be argued that we're trying to play a more expansive passing game now than we have since the days of Gregory or Little (the managers, not the players...) or even before them.
I also like what we are buying. Who they are, how old they are, where we're buying from and how much they are costing. Some are saying that Lambert is cleverly following the Borussia Dortmund model that he should know pretty well having played there and won the CL there and with it being where he allegedly took most of his coaching inspiration from. We can not compete with the monster budgets of the teams fighting for Champions League places and that leaves us with fewer options. You either buy the next tier of player who tends to cost more than he should and who; while playing for you; is thinking about where he'd rather be playing. Or you go lower down and cherry-pick the top talents who are gut-bustingly hungry to prove they can mix it with the big boys. And that's the key word - 'Hungry'. Something the 2nd tier players I mentioned can often lack if they see you as a 2nd option. We have a few in the squad right now ... Anyway, I digress. Bringing in players like Lowton, Westwood, Bennett et al is the way we have chosen to go. By supplementing that tactic with the kind of canny purchase like that of an up-and-coming Belgian national striker in Benteke, Lambert has created the kind of vibrancy, spirit and hunger in our squad that we have rarely seen at Villa and he is trying to align it with a playing philosophy that we hope will ultimately be successful but which will also be pleasant on the eye and frustrating on the opponent.
We will suffer bad days along the way. Indeed we are suffering bad days already. But we can see what we're trying to do and in some cases; Man Citeh away; it clicks and superior opposition on paper gets blown away. OK maybe that's putting it strongly, but I doubt many sides will go there this season and beat them 4-2 even allowing for the changes they made.
We are also going through this transition at quite a good time I think. There are poor teams in this league. This gives us potentially more of a safety net than you might ordinarily have. Of course it's not like you can go out and lose every game, but that's not what we're suggesting is required nor is it what we're currently doing. I think we will gradually click as the season goes on and we will pick up more than enough results to both keep our fans happy and keep us enough away from a fight against the 'R' word. Those 2 things being basically 2 ways of saying the same thing.
Anyway, I just thought I'd start off with that general overview of how I see it at the moment. Check back for the odd brainfart as and when they bubble to the surface.
There is no question that he is in the decline stage of his career and will almost certainly play less games each season that he continues. That doesn't mean he wouldn't be good enough for us next season, but each season the risk to his club increases. If we had have signed Terry again, we would have needed more cover than we will signing a younger center back which in our financial situation has got to count against us making him an offer.
Tells us a lot but means very little at this stage. Spain won in 2010 and lost their opening match 1-0 to Switzerland.
Spain, Portugal and Mexico have impressed. Russia and Croatia have beaten some really poor teams so it's hard to really judge
Uruguay, Serbia and France have struggled to victory. Denmark did a real smash and grab job on Peru. Who, like Germany and Brazil tonight and Argentina would be alright if they shot on target and not at the keeper and didn't miss penalties etc. All of them could easily improve.
Iceland and Switzerland will be happier with the draws than the South American giants but none of them lost their opener either.
Iran beating Morocco seems pretty inconsequential in the great scheme of things. Egypt offer little without Salah. Australia miss a Cahill/Viduka type focal point. Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Costa Rica have been pretty poor.
2 days to go till the second round of group games kicks off with Russia Egypt on Tuesday night. Salah had better be fit really or Egypt are off home.
Sweden v S.Korea should be feisty after Mexico's shock win. England and Belgium get stuck in against Tunisia and Panama and I'm looking forward to Japan v Colombia much more than Poland v Senegal although Lewandowski is one of those players who could set the tournament alight with goals and more goals as is Mane and that Senegal team is no Nigeria.
Still bloody love the World Cup me