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Guardian Premier League Preview - Aston Villa


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Premier League preview No2: Aston VillaThe departure of Alex McLeish has transformed the mood at Villa Park – the feelgood factor is so strong that expectations could be a little unrealistic

Guardian writers' predicted position: 12th (NB: this is not necessarily Stuart James's prediction, but the average of our writers' tips)

Last season's position 16th

Odds to win the league: 1500-1

Optimism is the word. Not something that was mentioned much, if at all, at Villa Park last season, but Alex McLeish's inevitable departure followed by Paul Lambert's arrival has transformed the mood at the midlands club. Supporters who almost lost the will to live at times under McLeish's management – Villa finished just two points above the relegation zone and won only seven league matches all season – have a spring in their step again. If anything, the feelgood factor is so strong that expectations could be a little unrealistic.

Villa, after all, have flirted with relegation during the past two seasons and as much as McLeish and his predecessor, Gérard Houllier, must take a fair chunk of the blame for the club's regression during that period, the players are also culpable. Some of the high-earning underachievers have departed this summer (Emile Heskey and James Collins), more are likely to be on their way (Alan Hutton and Stephen Warnock) while a couple remain at the club and badly need to repay Villa's faith in them (Charles N'Zogbia and Stephen Ireland).

Four new faces have arrived (Brett Holman, Karim El Ahmadi, Matt Lowton and Ron Vlaar) and all the indications are that several more will follow before the end of the window. It is, in other words, a major rebuilding by Lambert and one that will not be completed overnight, which means Villa fans need to be patient. There is no quick fix, not least because the days of Randy Lerner spending £50m in a summer are gone. Villa lost £54m in the year from June 2010 to May 2011 and the figures for the latest period are unlikely to be a whole lot better.

All of which means that progress on the pitch over the next few years will need to come through shrewd recruitment, astute management and the development of more homegrown talent from the club's excellent academy. Ambition, however, can still burn brightly. Newcastle proved last season, when they finished fifth, that it is possible to ruffle a few feathers at the top of the Premier League without spending a fortune (it is interesting to note that their wage bill was £29m less than Villa's in the most recent accounts filed). This season, though, is about Villa taking a step rather than a leap forward. A top-half finish would be quite an achievement.

At the very least the club will be unified. Lambert's welcome appointment has seen to that, and there is understandable excitement among the players, as well as the fans, at the promise of a much more attacking approach. "There's real optimism about the season ahead," Darren Bent said after reporting back for pre-season. "We felt it in our first session when [the manager] came in and told us how he wanted to play. It was great because he said he wanted us to play with real freedom. He wants us to be an attacking outfit… he wants us to have a right good go at every single team. That's how it should be."

The big challenge for Lambert is to turn Villa into a vibrant, entertaining team that also gets results which, on the basis of the shortage of genuine quality and depth in the current squad, promises to be no easy task. Lambert could certainly have done without losing Richard Dunne and Gabriel Agbonlahor to injury for the first month of the season and possibly longer, even if the latter has lost his way during the past couple of years (eight goals in his last 62 Premier League appearances) through a combination of poor management, lack of form and injuries.

Bent remains Villa's greatest asset, although he will need much better service this season as well as a far greater contribution from his team-mates when it comes to weighing in with their share of the goals. Agbonlahor was Villa's second-highest league scorer last season with five while Robbie Keane was the fourth-highest scorer with three, despite making only five starts during a loan spell from LA Galaxy. Andreas Weimann, who has just turned 21, had a crucial impact towards the end of the season (Villa would have been relegated but for his goals against Fulham and Stoke), although there is an obvious need for another proven centre-forward to ease the burden on Bent's shoulders and provide more firepower.

Assuming Lambert makes that signing, Villa require the sort of penetration from the flanks and creativity from central midfield that was conspicuous by its absence in 2011-12. In terms of the wide men, this is a big season for both N'Zogbia, who was a major disappointment under McLeish, and Marc Albrighton, who endured 12 months to forget on the back of a breakthrough year when he was so impressive that Bent had tipped him as an outside bet to make the England squad for Euro 2012. Holman, who can play out wide or off a main striker but was McLeish's rather than Lambert's signing, provides another option.

In central midfield the worry at the moment is that Villa have quantity rather than quality. El Ahmadi, Lambert's first signing, looks to be a certain starter and it will be fascinating to see how the Morocco international adapts to the Premier League after arriving from Feyenoord. Ireland, if he could reproduce the form that led to him being named Manchester City's player of the year in 2009, would be a shoo-in but nobody knows what to expect from the Irishman these days.

Others that come into the equation include Fabian Delph (injury-plagued and hitherto a disappointment), Chris Herd (full of endeavour but limited in midfield), Barry Bannan (technically strong although yet to establish himself as a first-choice Premier League midfielder) and Gary Gardner (only 20 years of age and one for the future).

Further back, the defence feels like a jigsaw puzzle missing a couple of pieces. Ron Vlaar, who has followed El Ahmadi from Feyenoord, is a replacement for Collins but it remains to be seen who will partner the Holland international in central defence at West Ham United on the opening day in the absence of Dunne. With Carlos Cuéllar allowed to leave on a free transfer, Ciaran Clark and Nathan Baker, who have yet to play 50 Premier League games between them, are next in line.

In the full-back positions, Lowton, who was playing League One football for Sheffield United last season, should get the nod over Eric Lichaj on the right while another new face (possibly Ipswich Town's Aaron Cresswell) is expected to fill the left-back berth in place of Warnock, whose Villa career started promisingly but has been in decline almost since the day Antonio Valencia gave him the runaround in the 2010 League Cup final.

Villa's defensive frailties were collective as well as individual last season. They conceded 25 goals from set pieces, which was more than any other Premier League team and more than twice as many as Norwich, Lambert's former club. Norwich, of course, had no shortage of aerial strength, which also helps to explain why they registered three times as many set-piece goals as Villa, whose record of six from 38 games was the poorest in the Premier League (they were the only club to fail to score from a corner). It would be a surprise if such damning figures had escaped Lambert's attention.

So, all in all, the new Villa manager has quite a job on his hands, although it is one that he should relish. The fans will be right behind him and the only immediate pressure Lambert will be under is the pressure that he puts on himself. Serve up some expansive football and avoid being mentioned in the same breath as a relegation battle and Villa, after two miserable years, will be heading in the right direction. That, together with some more good news about Stilian Petrov winning his battle against acute leukaemia, should give Villa supporters something to smile about.

Taken from The Guardian.

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Yep, think its pretty much bang on i think. I think it's where 99% of us see us being at the minute.

We are still nowhere near strong enough depth wise. I think the starting 11 is good enough for a top half finish, but 1 or 2 more injuries and we could be back scrapping again.

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Can't argue with that, well apart from under GH we did finish 9th in the end :P

Just shows there's still plenty of work to be done but I do like:

all the indications are that several more will follow before the end of the window

Let's hope we get a forward, left back in before West Ham

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yes same you you guys, but i dont think that us fans expect too much, just no relegation battle, and some more positive football and we will be laughing. Just want to see us heading in the right direction, even if its not fast...

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Seems to have fallen into the 'excellent academy' trap - then goes on to highlight the shortcomings of nearly all the academy players.

If our season hinges on the form of Nzogbia and Ireland - then I fear for us. Ireland is at best 'holding his own' while nzogbia has never impressed me with his 2 or 3 good gamnes a season. I hope lamert has replacements for these 2.

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Typical quality from the Guardian. The fact they accurately break down the pros and cons of our central midfielders shows they actually know what they're on about and it isn't just a slightly modified template report.

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Interesting discussion of Albrighton, recalling how good Bent thought he was in 2010-11. If Lambert can help solve the conundrum of a player who looked so very promising in his breakthrough season, but failed so badly to make progress last season (in fancy probably went backwards in almost every aspect of his game), that would add some much needed quality to the squad.

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