2012/13 Build-Up – The Barclays Premier League: Aston VillaJordan Florit | July 30, 2012
2011/12 Campaign (16th in the Premier League)
Aston Villa’s season started amid controversy: they hired their arch-rival’s manager, Alex McLeish, who, whilst winning the Carling Cup with Birmingham thus securing Europa League football for the 2011/12 season at St. Andrews, ran the Midlands side down the table and into the Championship. However, The Blues were not too keen to lose their Scottish manager and demanded that the aptly-named Villans paid off the remaining two years of his contract, amounting to £5m. It turned out to be a costly appointment.
Perhaps the Carling Cup had hidden it, but Alex McLeish hadn’t adjusted his style of play appropriately to achieve sustainable success in the Premier League and with Aston Villa last season the point was reinforced. Having been relegated with Birmingham in 2008, McLeish achieved an instant return to the Premier League and recorded an excellent league position of ninth in their return season in the top flight. However, second season syndrome was apparent and relegation followed. Although McLeish joined Aston Villa with a win percentage of 36.9%, simply put, Aston Villa chiefs failed to notice his form was on the turn. In the season Birmingham were relegated his win percentage had slipped to just 21%.
Of his move across Birmingham to Villa Park, Villa’s chief executive stated that, “unquestionably, Alex meets the criteria we set out at the beginning of our search which was based on proven Premier League experience, leadership, a hardworking ethic and, most importantly, a shared vision for Aston Villa.” However, this “proven Premier League experience” amounted to a win percentage of just 27.5 from his two full seasons in charge at St. Andrews. Certain sections of the Villa faithful were rightly dubious, as McLeish himself alluded to, “I know that some of our fans have voiced concerns and I can understand why.” It wasn’t just his crossing of the footballing border that divided England’s second city and almost predictably Aston Villa finished 16th – their lowest finish since the 2005/06 campaign.
Much of Aston Villa’s preseason has unsurprisingly focused on two things: appointing the right manager for the long-term, as his eventual hiring would make him Villa’s fourth manager in the space of two years (compare this to the average lifespan of an English Football League manager – 2 years); and, secondly, addressing a defensive fragility that was either masked by McLeish’s unadventurous football or created by it.
For the O’Neill fans that undoubtedly remain in the Villa camp, it may well be the latter, considering the former Aston Villa boss has just signed Carlos Cuellar on a free transfer following his release from Villa Park, just one season after his now former employers had agreed a deal to sell him to Rangers. It was the Northern Irish manager who brought the Spaniard defender to the Premier League in 2008 for just under £8m. It may well be the same man to benefit from the same signing four years later at £7.8m less.
The defence, which was most commonly comprising of Stephen Warnock (38 appearances), James Collins (34 apps), Richard Dunne (32 apps) and Alan Hutton (34 apps), had consistency, as the stats show. However, it was often left exposed: firstly, by a deep-lying midfield that didn’t lack, but was restricted in, creative output; and, secondly, Shay Given.
A few seasons ago the Irish #1 was among the best – recently he has slumped and this might be an area Paul Lambert wishes to address, either with Brad Guzan pushing for the jersey or a new face providing a third man to fight for the starting spot. Take this data, for example:
The stats at the midway point last season:
Shay Given: 1,208 minutes; 18 goals conceded; 2 from outside the box; 43 saves; 4 clean sheets; 70.49% shots to save ratio; 67 minutes per goal conceded.
Brad Guzan: 592 minutes; 8 goals conceded; 0 from outside the box; 20 saves; 1 clean sheet; 71.43% shots to save ratio; 74 minutes per goal conceded.
At that point last season only four ‘keepers had avoided conceding from outside the box: not only was Guzan one of them, but he was the one with the most minutes to his name too. Pair this with his shots to saves ratio tippling Given’s and his 7 minutes more on average of no concession and a case can be made for the transition in the #1 jersey. As it stands, Brad Guzan has started in both of Aston Villa’s preseason friendlies stateside and The Sun reported in early July that Given was no longer Villa’s first-choice shot-stopper.
This neatly ties in with the man calling the shots as a change transmits across the Aston Villa camp – new manager Paul Lambert. Having beaten Villa 2-0 with his promoted Norwich side on the final day of the season, Lambert chose to switch alliances between the two sides, in a move reminiscent of when he left Colchester for Norwich, having disposed of the latter in a 7-1 mauling. Villa will be hoping Lambert continues to repeat history as Norwich then returned the favour later that season by hammering his former club 5-0.
Paul Lambert is Aston Villa’s fourth manager in the space of two years and the second Scot on the trot. Yet, unlike McLeish, this Scottish-born ex-player is a prime example of the success of the influence of Sir Alex Ferguson on the influx of Scottish managers into the Premier League. The great Scot himself wasn’t the first – Jock Stein, Kenny Dalglish, Matt Busby and Bill Shankly all influenced British football to exert a stereotypical view that Scottish managers were powerful and vociferous speakers with the mind of a sharp tactician.
Paul Lambert isn’t just a tactically sound choice, though: at Norwich he proved himself a shrewd force in the transfer market, signing ten players – two of which didn’t come until January – with just one coming in on a permanent deal from a team that was then playing their football above the Championship. Six of the ten signings came from teams in the Championship and League One. A finish of 12th place went to prove there were gems outside the Premier League capable of the step up – and at a seeming ease. More importantly, Lambert proved he was the man that could identify them and purchase them.
So far this window, £8.25m has been spent on new recruits at Villa Park: Matthew Lowton has made the step-up from League One to the Premier League for a fee of £2.95m – and Villa fans will be hoping he can emulate the success of Lambert’s last League One signing, Anthony Pilkington; Australian forward Brett Holman on a free transfer from AZ Alkmaar; Moroccan midfielder Karim El Ahmadi from Feyenoord for £2.1m; and Euro 2012 Netherlands defender Ron Vlaar from Feyenoord at the cost of £3.1m.
With the signings of Ron Vlaar and Matthew Lowton, Paul Lambert has quickly and efficiently highlighted a worrying ineptitude of the McLeish regime and has brought in these two faces to see about forging the solution to the pressing issue at hand. With Guzan likely to grasp the #1 spot, three changes – at least – may be seen at the back. Drastic times – the worst win ratio ever recorded by an Aston Villa manager – calls for drastic measures – replacing the old guard in the space of a preseason.
Furthermore, since Ashley Young departed Villa Park for Manchester United and Stewart Downing for Liverpool, much of Villa’s creativity has had to come from one man – Charles N’Zogbia. Marc Albrighton also carried a threat, but his nor N’Zogbia’s partnership with Agbonlahor could match their predecessor’s. In Young’s final season at Villa he contributed with 11 assists and Downing added 9: last season, not a single Villa player surpassed five. In Brett Holman, a 28-year old winger from AZ, who last season made 10 assists in 25 appearances, Lambert has addressed this concern and the new signing’s praise for fellow signing Karim El Ahmadi, a defensive midfielder, points towards a more balanced Villa midfield next season. Expect the Moroccan to sit deep to allow the two wingers (from Albrighton, N’Zogbia, Holman and perhaps Agbonlahor) to support the lead striker (Bent.)
With all of this in mind and Paul Lambert’s so far faultless three previous seasons, a comparatively strong season should be expected from Aston Villa. Although heights such as top eight finishes, which were a regular occurrence under Martin O’Neill are perhaps too optimistic, a mid-table finish would satisfy most, given that the top six or seven sides of the Premier League continue to pull away.