Season Preview: #2 Aston Villa
There was an air of inevitability surrounding the sacking of Alex McLeish as manager the day after the club finished an uninspiring 16th place, just two points off being relegated. McLeish had the ignominy of presiding over Villa’s worst home record in the club’s 138 year history – Villa only won seven games all season long. Many were initially sceptical of the appointment of McLeish, but not because he was manager of their relegated Birmingham the season previous, but for the negative football that his teams play. 17 draws highlights the fact that McLeish first and foremost was setting up Villa not to get beat.
Times are changing at Villa Park though, with the exciting appointment of Paul Lambert. Looking to the future, the Scot should certainly fare better than his predecessors, Messrs McLeish and Houllier. Back-to-back promotions with Norwich, along with a 12th place finish last season, the East Anglia side were never in danger of relegation. Lambert’s initial brief will be quite simple, to inspire Aston Villa on to great things, looking towards playing more attacking football, rather than the turgid stuff the was on display under McLeish – a top half finish for the season will represent a good level of success.
Injuries punctuated the Villa squad last season with the loss of Darren Bent for a large part of the season. Unfortunately, defender Richard Dunne and striker Gabby Agbonlahor are already on the injury list ahead of the new season. In preparation for that, Lambert has made five new signings – firstly, he has taken the opportunity to re-sign Brad Guzan who will challenge Shay Given for the number one spot. Brett Holman, Karim El Ahmadi and Ron Vlaar have all arrived from the Eredivisie while Matt Lowton will be making the step-up from League One having arrived from Sheffield United.
Something that Lambert should be able to make use of is the promising Villa academy, of which there are many players that have emerged and are emerging through the ranks – the reserve side has been Southern champions for four out of the past five seasons. The likes of Marc Albrighton, Eric Lichaj, Barry Bannan and more recently, Nathan Baker, Gary Gardener and Samir Carruthers have all made the transition through to the first team.
Defensively an issue that needs addressing from last season is the amount of goals scored and conceded from set-pieces – Villa had the highest amount conceded (25) but also the lowest scored (3) respectively. Lambert will have a tough job on his hands, but as he has proved before in his short managerial career he demands a certain level of commitment from his teams. The Scot will also need to get Villa firing on all cylinders up front also, as last season just 37 goals were scored in 38 league games, a really poor showing. Lambert is a shrewd appointment for Villa and should judging on his last season with Norwich drive them up the table.
Opening five fixtures: West Ham (A), Everton (H), Newcastle (A), Swansea (H) and Southampton (A)