After a tough first year under Paul Lambert, Aston Villa confident
Villa. Aston Villa. You know, Villa. Play at Villa Park. Claret and blue. Scottish fellow in charge -- the one with a penchant for an upturned collar and a neatly pressed sweatshirt. Just about survived a topsy-turvy season in the Premier League. Thrashed 8-0 by Chelsea. Beat Sunderland 6-1. Villa! The Villans! What do you mean you'd forgotten?
You could be forgiven for a glitch in the memory, though. The off-season has been (for we are almost at the end of it, a mere fortnight separating us from the renewal) so utterly dominated by the transfer travails of Gareth Bale, Wayne Rooney and Luis Suarez that even Manchester City and Chelsea, who got the bulk of their business done early and smoothly, have dropped down the menu.
With everyone drooling over juicy fillets of Welsh wing wizard and Uruguayan amuse-bouches, a rustic mid-table ragu can be a hard sell. Villa and a host of other clubs probably won't see a back page until they play one of the top five or six -- in which case Villa will be in the news sooner than most, since Paul Lambert's side faces Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool in the season's first three fixtures. City and Spurs visit the West Midlands soon after.
Though Newcastle United meets City at the Etihad in the opening round of fixtures, none of the teams to have survived around Villa (also including Sunderland, Southampton and Stoke City) faces so tough a start to the new season. Lambert's men took not a single point from the corresponding matches last season and will not want to attack another campaign from the bottom of the table, as they did the last. They will rarely have felt so keenly the need to be ready.
Twelve months ago Lambert was new in the job, a fitting and rather exciting appointment to a club with a young squad, but the pairing was one that seemed as though it might need a practice season, a dummy run, before it was ready. There are no such gifts in the Premier League, of course, and a shoddy start seeped in to a mediocre middle. At one point in February only the dead men walking, Queens Park Rangers, had won fewer matches than Villa.
The 6-1 win over Sunderland at the end of April was crucial to survival and to giving Lambert's Villa its proper start. It was also an exhibition of what that Villa could do -- the pace and fluidity of the attacking play perhaps more overwhelming even than the optimists had imagined. "All the exuberance that Lambert has been nurturing in claret and blue poured out," said the Telegraph. "Paul Lambert's side snapped into tackles, moved the ball with purpose, attacked with menace, in particular on the counterattack and were ruthless in front of goal," reported the Guardian.
After a season in which only the goalkeeper, Brad Guzan, had really enjoyed many compliments, players earned plaudits all over the pitch, from Matthew Lowton and Ron Vlaar through Yacouba Sylla to the front three of Andreas Weimann, Christian Benteke and Gabby Agbonlahor. Agbonlahor's best performances are all the more delightful for sparing Villa supporters the agony of how close and yet how far most of the rest of his performances are, but Benteke, inevitably, stole the show.
He scored half of Villa's goals that night and 40 percent of the season's. Lambert always dismissed the suggestion that relegation would have been a simple calculation (Villa minus Benteke equals...), but holding on to the Belgian striker was hugely important. In fact, it is difficult to think of any single signing made by another Premier League club that is so significant to their chances next season. Roberto Soldado to Spurs, perhaps -- a deal that came about only after it became clear that Benteke would not be heading to north London.
"We've definitely got goals in us," Lambert said when Villa this week made it 10 goals in two preseason games. Though Benteke got four of them (maintaining that 40 percent average), it does not feel right to chalk Villa up as a one-man team. Benteke's presence has an almost chemical effect on Weimann and Agbonlahor, and together the three infect the rest of the side with conviction. In new signings such as Leandro Bacuna (£3 million from Groningen) and Nicklas Helenius (£2 million from Aalborg), Lambert has experience on the cheap and the kind of flexibility that he utilized so well as the Norwich City manager.
"I don't like to focus on one department of the team, everybody is equally important," Lambert added, "but we've got good spirit and hopefully a winning mentality which will stand us in good stead for the season. The good thing was we were pressing throughout the game. We are getting better and better."
Thrashing lower league opposition by five goals may not be much to boast about, but goals in such quantity always feel good. Last summer Villa existed almost as a proposition, a hypothesis, something that might be. The difference in the players once Sunderland had been bruised by its burgeoning reality was obvious -- who would have had Villa to make Chelsea look as fortunate in victory as they did a couple of weeks later?
To have kept the side together is Lambert's first achievement; steering it into the new season with some momentum, despite the obstacles, would be a significant second. "We've played a lot of games and we've found it beneficial," Fabien Delph said this week. "We've got a lot of game time under our belts, so going in to the start of the season we should be sharp." Perhaps we should be wondering about a new sum: Villa plus confidence equals?