Premier League Team Preview: Aston Villa

Clearly these aren't in alphabetical order at all. Aston Villa had a wild year, going through approximately twenty five thousand three hundred and forty two managers within the past year (a rate of one every twenty one minutes, for those counting). Now they've gone and hired Alex McLeish, which according to certain Villa fans is apparently a sign of the impending apocalypse. Aaron Campeau of 7500 to Holte weighs in on whether doom really is about to hit Villa Park.

About this time last year Aston Villa fans were concerned. Concerned that it was going to be impossible to take the next step in their revival by qualifying for the Champions League without any movement into the club during the summer transfer window, concerned that the previous season's player of the year James Milner would be poached by Manchester City, concerned that an out of control wage bill would limit their options should reinforcements be needed in January and concerned that the upcoming season might be manager Martin O'Neill's last at Villa Park.

In retrospect, most of these concerns were well placed. O'Neill left the club just days before the new season was set to begin, forcing the board to hire a manager from a far shallower pool of desirable applicants than would have been available at the end of the previous season. That the club was put in a difficult circumstance does not excuse their delay in appointing a new man however, and it's clear that the turmoil and uncertainty had cast a shadow over the club. A heartening 3-0 win over West Ham on opening day gave way to a 6-0 loss to newly promoted Newcastle and soon after a second consecutive early exit from the Europa League.

The side was strengthened in January with the additions of Darren Bent and Jean Makoun but the club still made several forays into the relegation zone. Most people forget that Villa ended the season on a very high note, finally beginning to play some very nice and cohesive football and picking up 15 of 24 points over the final two months, closing out the year with wins over Arsenal (at the Emirates no less) and Liverpool. But by that time, Gerard Houllier had already suffered a recurrence of the heart problem that nearly killed him while in charge of Liverpool-a condition that is specifically linked to extreme levels of stress, it must be said-and Villa faced yet another very public managerial search.

That the search ended after several embarrassing false starts with their selection of Alex McLeish, the man that had just overseen the relegation of Villa's great rivals Birmingham City, was a shock to many. There were protests at Villa Park before the even the decision to interview McLeish was made public; his appointment was met with a defacing of the club's training ground. There were remote but very loud calls for Randy Lerner to sell the club and some that attempted to draw parallels between /the chairman's stewardship of Villa and that of some of his American counterparts at far higher profile clubs. Outside of the fringe, however, the sense of disappointment was largely for footballing reasons. Birmingham City had some success under McLeish, but they were also one of the more consistently dreadful teams to watch in the Premier League. Many of the manager's high-profile signings-Nikola Zigic, Jean Beausejour, Alexander Hleb chief among them-turned out horribly. Most damning of all, McLeish enjoyed very little success in his time with Villa's Second City rivals, presiding over two relegations (though it would be more than a bit disingenuous to place much of the blame for the first on his shoulders.)

Fortunately for Villa fans, there are reasons to think that McLeish was more a victim of circumstance than a bootball-loving, over-his-head disaster. While it's unlikely Villa will wow many people through the beauty of their football, McLeish-led teams haven't always been as drab as his Birmingham City sides. Under his leadership, Motherwell and Hibernians had great success playing rather attractive-if uncomplicated-attacking football and he had tremendous success in his time with Rangers, winning more trophies than Martin O'Neill's Celtic during the years their tenures overlapped. In looking at his time with City, it would appear as though McLeish-rightly, it should be said-saw a strong defense as the best protection against relegation given the club's financial situation and was forced to go the dumpster-diving route to fill in the rest of the squad. Players like Beausajor, Zigic and Hleb were always going to be risky propositions, but there were reasons to think they could work out and in fact McLeish was widely praised for the summer he had. Many predicted that Birmingham would build on a 9th place finish to challenge for Europe. It didn't work out that way, but it's revisionist to claim that there wasn't some validity to the approach.

In terms of Villa's forays into the transfer market this season, it's been something of a mixed bag. Ashley Young and Stewart Downing were easily the club's most recognizable players and arguably their two best as well, and any time you lose that much talent all at once it's a difficult adjustment. In Downing's case the sum paid so outstripped most reasonable estimations of his value that for Villa not to accept Liverpool's offer would have been a shocking decision. In Charles N'Zogbia, Villa have replaced Downing with a player that is likely equal (and some would say superior) in quality for half of what they received. The Ashley Young situation is another matter. It was clear for the majority of last season that he would be moving on. It's time for Marc Albrighton to take on a bigger role, and though he's not the player Young is (and likely never will be) he has the potential to be quite good. Unfortunately, the swap isn't so simple; Young spent very little time on the wing last year, with Martin O'Neill moving him behind the striker in pre-season and Gerard Houllier continuing to deploy him there upon his arrival. Villa lined up most of the year in a 4-2-3-1 and the switching between all three in the second band gave them a dynamic and frustrating attack, one that really looked to be coming into its own towards the end of the season. That means Young is being replaced (at least initially) by Stephen Ireland, and unless he's able to regain some of the form that made him such a promising young player once upon a time, that's a pretty significant downgrade.

If Villa's pre-season is any indication, this team might not be the boot-and-run bus parkers many people assumed they would become when McLeish's appointment was announced. With the exception of the Asia Trophy final against Chelsea, Villa have played a very patient and possession oriented style. McLeish has tinkered with the shape quite a bit, but for the most part he has opted to stay with the 4-2-3-1 favored by Houllier. It seems reasonable to think that the approach taken during pre-season (fluid attacking play, little in the way of advancement through the air against weaker sides and a more defensive, more long-ball heavy approach against stronger sides) is what we're going to see from Villa this year. McLeish has managed some very attacking sides that have played some very nice football over the year when he's had the talent to do so; that was never the case at Birmingham. This isn't a team that's going to set the world on fire or do anything ground-breaking tactically, but with the majority of talent on the attacking side of the ball they're rightly going to emphasize that phase of the game. Villa are going to score some goals; the question is whether they can keep the opposition from doing so often enough to swing the balance their way.

That's going to be the key for Villa this season. If the defense can perform at a level approaching their 2009-10 season, this is a team that might surprise quite a few people. But there's not a whole lot reason to expect that to happen. Between Richard Dunne, James Collins, Carlos Cuellar and Ciaran Clark there's a decent central defense pairing in there somewhere. The bigger concern is with the outside backs. At present McLeish seems to favor Stephen Warnock on the left and Luke Young on the right. Young is a rather anonymous figure, which is far from a terrible thing for a defender, but it's hard to think of him as an asset. Warnock is a different story altogether. One of the better defensive left backs in the Premier League for much of 2009/10, Wanock's form began to dip noticeably towards the end of the season. That was largely attributed to fatigue, as Warnock was an almost constant figure for Villa that year. But his performances at the start of last season were a whole different kind of bad, and by January he was training with the reserves. He's looked at the very least competent so far this pre-season and to be certain an effective Stephen Warnock would be a massive boost to Villa. There's some solid depth at center back, but it's a different matter altogether at the outside positions. Habib Beye is an active detriment to his team's chances and though Eric Lichaj has shown promise in the reserves, on loan spells and in his time with the US National Team whether he could step in and perform effectively as a regular in the Premier League is an entirely different matter.

At this point, Aston Villa is a mid-table team with a bit of wiggle room to either side. If things go well, they could make a half-run at a spot in Europe. If things go bad, there could be some minor flirtation with the relegation zone at times. Another rash of injuries to key players could make things very interesting, and not in a good way. But in the end, this is a team that's most likely going to finish somewhere between 8th and 12th and maybe make a run at either the Carling or FA Cup. And honestly, Villa fans should be happy with that. Villa have a host of promising young players and they've managed to clear a significant amount of dead weight from the wage bill. Darren Bent still has a few seasons as an elite goal-poaching machine. Whispers and accusations that Randy Lerner has lost interest, ambition or the will to invest seem obscenely premature. It's far more likely that this is a season for Villa to assess what they have, to give significant minutes to some of those promising academy graduates and to take stock of the talent in-house before investing in players from outside. Martin O'Neill had some great success at Villa, but he went all-in in getting there. If McLeish can avoid disaster, he'll get his chance. But it's not unreasonable to ask him to give it a year to find out where investment is needed the most.

It's been a very rough year for Aston Villa. And while this year doesn't seem likely to have the same level of anxiety attached, the success that the club was so close to attaining under Martin O'Neill isn't going to come just yet. This isn't a club that has the resources to go out and buy success, despite the thoughts of those that seem to think Randy Lerner should bankrupt himself to bring silverware to Villa Park. This club has the resources to be successful, but it's going to take some time. It's not going to come this year, but by the time all is said in done we'll have a far better idea of how far off it might be.

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