So with pre-season well under way, with 3 new boys in and the squad for the U.S.A. announced; I thought I would cast an eye over our current team, assessing the strengths and weaknesses and looking to where Mr. Lambert may well be looking to strengthen.
Squad for United States Tour
Given, Guzan, Marshall, Siegrist (on Olympic duty)
I would say this is pretty strong and about as good as a club at our current level can expect. Yes Given had a poor Euros, but I think all true football fans know that he is a top class keeper who still has at least 3 seasons of Premier League football in him. He seems hungry to play and prove he is still one of the best and I think he could be a true Villa great of the modern era. Helping us get back to where we deserve to be. Remember how bad our back 4 was last season. To be fair to Given he didn’t look bad for us (apart from a few crosses he flapped at!). The back-ups are more than capable of stepping up and I think the re-signing of Guzan is very astute. To allow his development by us to go wasted at his age would be unforgivable considering the current climate and his performances during the winter months when Given was injured make me more than happy to have him as our number 2. In young Benji I would say we have a great prospect on our hands from what I have seen of the reserves and I look forward to seeing how he fairs at the Olympics. Marshall is there to play when everyone else is away, nothing more is needed than that.
Lichaj, Lowton, Hutton (left home)
With Hutton left at home, it seems his cards are marked despite a solid first half on Saturday. I think most Villa fans would be delighted to see him go after what was a fairly poor season last year. Lichaj has shown a marked improvement since that Man City game when he was massively exposed and I look forward to seeing him play more next season. His attitude and versatility are a massive asset and I think he will be a solid squad member for years to come. I don’t think he is good enough for a starting spot at RB though, so a lot rests on what else we bring in (I am hearing a lot of rumours around Simpson) and how Lowton develops. I have not seen Lowton play much, but my Blades mates say he is a great player and they think he is good enough for the Premier League. He looked solid enough against Burton playing at centre half and again his versatility will be a massive asset, but I would like to see him make a real grab at the starting RB slot and hope to see him play there for the rest of pre-season. An exciting prospect. It could go either way at this stage, but if he steps up I would suggest we don’t need any more players at this area with Herd being a more than capable back-up to these two.
Dunne, Collins, Clark, Baker
An area that needs strengthening and with the talk around Vlaar mounting, I would suggest he could be a much needed addition to this part of our squad. I think Dunne and Collins are more than capable of playing in the Premier League, but neither will get us to the next level. Dunne gets too easily exposed by pace and Collins makes too many rash errors of judgement and his distribution goes from the sublime to the shocking with each pass. If I was the gaffer I would fine him every time he passed the ball more than 20 yards! However, if Vlaar comes, I would suggest his physical presence, aerial dominance and vast experience would work beautifully with the ever improving Clark. These two would be a great long term partnership and both are future captains. I am unsure if this will be our pair this year, one is still quite young and inexperienced and the other doesn’t even play for us (yet) but Dunne and Collins will still have a large part to play in our squad if they both remain at the Villa. I just don’t like them both playing too much together for too much longer. Baker looks like a great prospect, although the games I have seen him play for the first team he seems a different player to when he is in the reserves. He seems to panic and react physically to nerves, but when he overcomes this; and I am sure that he will; I think he could prove to be a very good Premier League player for us. I just hope we keep him long enough to get him to this level and he doesn’t become another Cahill.
I would suggest that this area more than right backs needs strengthening. I think Warnock was worse than Hutton over the last season. He is rash in the tackle and is exposed positionally a great deal. His attacking threat is poor at best and I think his attitude is (allegedly) not one Lambert would enjoy working with (from what I have read). Stevens looked very good against Burton and I have read many good things about him but not seen him play that much myself. A good prospect for sure, but definitely not ready for a starting place. A new left back would be great, although not essential and perhaps Lichaj could come in here if Lowton was to start RB. A lot depends on Warnock and if he is still a player for us after the transfer window closes.
Carruthers, Albrighton (currently injured)
Two great prospects, but are either good enough to start? Albrighton flew onto the scene and has shown glimpses of brilliance. He works very hard for the team and seems to have an eye for goal, but his crossing and general distribution is not up to scratch and I fear he may never develop into the player we thought he could. Carruthers looks just as good a prospect as Albrighton did and although massively untested at this stage I think he will get a fair bit of game time in the States. I doubt, however, that he will be starting at Upton Park come opening weekend as I sense we may well play more of a 4-3-3 like we did in the second half of the Burton game. Either way, whatever formation we play, he is not ready to start consistently. A great impact sub and he may well get a run of 3 to 4 games at some point in the season, but he is not a current starter. With many of our central players being able to play here and of course the left wingers being able to switch, I would suggest this is not a priority, but on the other hand, I would also suggest this is currently our weakest area of the squad and as such it should be the next thing to address if we are going to play 4-4-2.
El Ahmadi, Bannan, Herd, Delph, Gardner, Johnson, Makoun (visa issues), Petrov (long term illness)
I am in two minds here. We have great depth, that is for sure. We have great players as well. El Ahmadi could turn out to be the buy of the season for us and the younger players are all good prospects. But do any of you have two players from this list that you are happy to see in a starting midfield pair in a 4-4-2? If we were to play 4-3-3 I feel a lot more comfortable with the likes of Herd and Bannan getting a game, but it does feel a little lightweight and exposed with any pairing as a two. I would suggest that if our captain Petrov is not going to play for a considerable amount of time to come, this area needs addressing. However, I would hate to see the opportunities of Bannan, Herd and Gardner further limited by new signings. This is the issue. We have so many great prospects here, I think we need to loan out at least 1 (probably Gardner), sell at least 1 (probably Delph), put Johnson back into the reserves for one more season and say to the others (Herd and Bannan), you will have to fight it out for game time between yourselves and maybe one more signing.
Very happy with this area now. In short, Holman looks like he is going to be a very good buy for us and perhaps one of the few good things Big Eck did! He looked very good against Burton, full of running, defensively responsible and with an eye for goal. It’s early stages and apart from this game I have only seen him play around 3 times, but I do like the look of him. He works well in a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 and his versatility I think will give him a lot more game time than many expect. Charley Boy needs to step up, but he has the ability to do just that. The stories I have heard about some of his absences last season are shocking, but with Lambert at the helm and with him pretty much wasting 1 precious year of his short career, I would hope that he gets his head down and starts working. A great talent and I hope he realises what a lucky man he is and shows us what he can do.
With Bannan and Holman being able to play here I would suggest this is OK to have just one player in the “hole” but of course Ireland, like N’Zogbia, hasn’t quite settled into life at Villa as well as we had hoped. However, he has shown glimpses of brilliance and he does offer something no other player at the club does. I fear for his game time though because at Norwich, Wes Hoolahan (the closest player in terms of style at NCFC) was very much in and out of the team. I sense he is a “home” player. Someone to play the unexpected defense splitting pass when we have more possession and need to break down opposing defenses, but I hope he steps up to become a regular starter for the club, because an in form Ireland is a very good player. Like Bannan and Herd, in a 4-3-3 I feel a lot more comfortable with Ireland, so perhaps a lot depends on how we play.
Bent, Gabby, Weimann, Delfouneso
I would suggest that like our GK department, this is as good as a club like us, in our current position could do. Bent is a natural goalscorer and a top top player. He clearly works better with a more creative team behind him and to judge him on games when he has played with the other 10 players behind him, doing what they were being told to do, is harsh at best, but despite this and despite his injury, he still remained our top scorer last season. He will score goals. He will offer players around him hope that we are a big club. He will draw the international manager to Villa park and he will win us games. Gabby is a similar player in terms of confidence I would suggest. He plays a lot better when he is not thinking, but instinctively reacting. He doesn’t like to play the main striker, we have seen that many times, so we shouldn’t judge him on the games he played pretty much alone without Bent when he was asked to lead the line, work the channels, hold the ball up and score the goals. That is too much for a player like Gabby. But ask him to float behind the front man, work the channels and cut in and cross or shoot and you have a very dangerous player on your hands. The one we saw at the start of last season and for most of his Villa career. I think Gabby and Bent could be a great front pairing and work well in a 3 with either N’Zogbia or Holman. Weimann is a great prospect. He seems like a real poacher and a real hard worker. It just looks like he wants to succeed. I think he will become a real star for us and is a more than capable back-up or impact sub for this season. Mr. Delfouneso on the other hand, I would suggest, is on his last chance. He has all the natural talent to be a success but his attitude does not seem to be right for whatever reason. Maybe he doesn’t like having to play the channels. Maybe he is a confidence player who finds it hard being a bit part player. Whatever it is, time is running out and I would suggest that unless he steps up he will be shipped out. At which point we would need to replace him, but for now I would suggest we are OK. If we sign another striker in the near future he will go either on loan or to a Championship club for £1m or so. Until then he has to take every chance he gets.
So in summary, if Vlaar comes, I would suggest we need a new RM, LB and CM in that order, unless other players leave. However, having already brought in 3, is another 4 a little greedy despite the fact that Cuéllar and Heskey have gone?
I do think we have a good mix of youth and experience. A solid if unspectacular squad and if the new recruits bed in as we hope, the younger players develop as they could and the older pros play as they should, then we could find ourselves having a much better season than we expect.
Up the Villa!
Source: Squad assessment