Brittle for most of last season, Aston Villa have fond a new toughness
There’s no doubt for most of 2012/13 season Aston Villa were regarded a soft touch. Opposition managers, in their pre-match press conferences stopped talking up Villa games as tough fixtures, instead they preferred to diplomatically praise Villa’s young players. In short, they fancied their chances and invariably Villa had sand kicked into their face.
Admittedly, at times, it was men against boys in several games last season. The way Everton rolled over Villa in the opening fixture at Villa Park was a warning of what was to come; such as a newly promoted Southampton over-powering Villa twice to complete a double, and the sight of Villa’s budding players wiltering over the winter period.
Paul Lambert knew there was a problem, going on record to say more presence was needed in the centre of the midfield. The only player to come in though, was Yacouba Sylla. While Villa’s record improved when he came into the team, with him strengthening the midfield off the ball, he didn’t really add authority when Villa are on it.
Yet this season, despite perhaps the toughest start to the season of any Premiership team, Villa have stood up and been counted. Villa have remained in every game, with no team beating them by more than one goal. Instead of taking beatings off the very top teams, Villa have actually shot down the likes of Arsenal and Manchester City to pick up three points. The surprising thing is it’s been done without any real influence from the new signings.
The New Boys
The player that was tipped to toughen up the defence and more importantly give it an injection of pace, Jores Okore, has missed most of the action. The Dane’s injury was a cruel blow, with many Villa supporters and MOMS alike, considering him the most important acquisition to the team in the summer.
The costliest signing, Czech striker Libor Kozák, while offering a six-foot-four presence up front, still needs to bed down into the team and has a way to go to be an effective part of Villa’s forward line; he wasn’t too effective with either his hold-up play or flick-ons against Hull City.
The two new signings that have also had a taste of the first team, Leandro Bacuna and Antonio Luna have been competent, but have they improved the first eleven? That’s open to debate. Have they toughened up the team? Not really.
The answer to Villa’s evident new toughness – on top of the team’s growing experience – lies with the players that were already in the team.
The Old Guard
Brad Guzan was a revelation last season, but increasingly his growing command of his box has been an improvement on last season. His claiming of crosses and authority in the penalty area has largely neutralized those shaky last ten-minute periods Villa tended to suffer, that led to frayed supporter nerves and the conceding of late goals.
Also aiding Guzan has been Ciaran Clark’s more measured performances. He hasn’t been so tight on his man and the shirt pulling has lessened. After Okore’s injury, Villa have needed Clark to be more assured and he’s certainly stepped up to the plate. After going 26 games without a clean sheet, Villa have now had two in their last three games.
Much has been made of the speed of Villa’s forwards and their counter-attacking prowess this season, but they also carry a physical threat. Gabby Agbonlahor moves like a steam train rather than a greyhound, the harassing Andi Weimann with his never-say-die attitude doesn’t allow the opposition’s defence to settle, while an on-song Christian Benteke can rip an entire defence apart on his own.
The Main Man
If you were to single out one Villa player that has contributed the most to increasing the team’s overall bite, it has to be Fabian Delph.
Against Hull City Delph provide pretty much all of Villa’s fight, muscle and drive. It was a real ‘captain’s performance’. If the game overall was a bit low on excitement Delph’s personal battle with Tom Huddlestone was an intriguing affair, and if it was a boxing bout, it would be one Delph would have won on points.
The player’s former rashness and over eagerness to impress perhaps made Delph less effective in previous injury-plagued seasons and led to unnecessary yellow cards (on a weekly basis).
The ‘Delph for England’ brigade though is perhaps taking things a little too far. Noticeably, Huddlestone was receiving the same treatment in the media prior to the Hull vs Villa clash. Delph is still some way short to being the kind of inspirational midfielder that is capable of winning games ala Gerrard or Lampard. Adding goals to his game, would help immensely. For example, the game at the KC Stadium would have been prime time for a Delph strike to provide a 1-0 winner.
Before we get over-excited about Delph, let’s see what he can do over the coming months including the demanding Christmas period.
Certainly last season, Westwood was the first midfield name on the Villa teamsheet, a position that Delph certainly has now. For further growth in Villa’s strength and resilience, the other two midfield positions are key. At the moment, Karim El Ahmadi, Ashley Westwood and Yacouba Sylla on their best performances, are 7 out of 10 midfielders. If they improve like Delph has to an 8/10, then we’ll have the makings of a decent team.
Overall, if last season was a baptism of fire for some of the young players, this season they’ve never allowed their heads to drop. Witness the celebrations for each of the goals against Manchester City. There’s a belief there and a never-say-die attitude that may just lead to great things for Lambert’s young team. For the moment though, it ensures that Villa are no longer a soft touch any more.