I don’t mind admitting that last season, after Southampton made wholesale changes in the summer, I half expected them to go down. The Saints had sold their best players (mainly to Liverpool) and in Ronald Koeman, had a new man in charge with no Premier League experience. It was going to take a minor miracle to gel it all together for Southampton to have a decent season.
Koeman and his team came up trumps though and even qualified for Europe.
Now it’s Aston Villa’s turn to try a similar revamp trick, after a squad overhaul that included 13 new players coming in. But Tim Sherwood’s attempt hasn’t been going so well.
Newly-promoted Watford brought in 15 new players and find themselves five points above Villa after seven games.
After seven games, Villa are now slumped in the bottom three with a paltry four points. Southampton last season in comparison, were in the top three with 16 points including five wins on the trot; it was this start that allowed their newly formed team to build momentum to carry them through the season.
Last season a cocky Tim Sherwood claimed that the club wouldn’t face another relegation battle on his watch, even if he started the season with the same team.
“I’m allowed to sign whoever I want in the summer, as long as i can justify it, but I believe even if we didn’t make a signing we wouldn’t be in this position again,” the Villa manager boasted.
Of the players he would bring in, Sherwood claimed he would be buying players with a winning mentality.
Villa fans have long learned in recent seasons from the Villa PR machine, their former club captain and manager that talk is cheap. Villa are now in real trouble with no win in their last six league games after their opening day triumph at Bournemouth. Villa are also winless in the league at Villa Park, continuing the woeful home form of recent seasons.
Yes, it’s early days, but newly-promoted Watford brought in 15 new players and find themselves five points above Villa after seven games. We’re fast coming up to a quarter of the season gone and Villa actually had a relatively easy fixture list to start with and it’s about to get harder with the likes of Chelsea, Spurs, and Manchester City coming up.
The main problem with the Villa team was it simply wasn’t ‘prepared’ for the new season, after buying in many players later on in the preseason period. Sherwood never really got to shape his new acquisitions together in a series of pre season games. Instead they are very much learning their Villa trade on the job.
Christian Benteke leaving the club was inevitable, yet Randy Lerner didn’t seem to want to present Sherwood with much in the way of funds upfront to allow him to get his players in earlier to get them ready for the season ahead.
Currently, it’s very much as if Villa are still in preseason with a handful of players still not properly fit. Also, Jordan Ayew and Jordan Veretout are clearly not ready, and Adama Traore would have also benefited greatly from more preseason game time, if he was bought earlier.
Also, there’s gaps in the team, with Veretout not ready (he should be at £7m+) and Gana’s recent injury, we’ve seen that Carlos Sanchez and Ashley Westwood are not a midfield pairing with much gravitas against Premier League opposition. Maybe the team can get away with one of them playing, but not both.
Old Guard Issues
You have to put sentiment aside as a fan, when judging some of Villa’s more longer-serving players. Are Gabby Agbonlahor and Brad Guzan cutting the mustard anymore?
Sherwood so far has treated Agbonlahor as Villa’s top striker, which certainly presents a problem. Gabby hasn’t scored since March and the last time he scored double figures for the club in league goals was the 2009/10 season. Has he really done enough to be picked so regularly?
The goalkeeping situation perhaps shows a lack of ambition at the club. While they were in the market, Villa should have made even more of an effort to obtain a new number one in the summer.
Instead, they sold the man Sherwood had reinstated as Villa number one last season and gave the No.1 job back to the man that he dropped. Who did they get in to provide Guzan with the competition to help him lift his game? Well, essentially a third choice no-name keeper who could never be a number one in the Premier League.
Surely the situation needs addressing in January?
Considering Villa’s net spend was the third lowest in the division, they were £20m behind the likes of Watford and West Ham, and £15m behind West Brom. There was certainly room to purchase a couple of more decent players to improve the first team and that includes a goalkeeper and a better quality right-back.
Losing a Safety Blanket
An experienced striker would have helped Sherwood’s options, and he did at least try to remedy that situation in courting Emmanuel Adebayor. While Rudy Gestede has scored goals, he’s certainly hasn’t demonstrated himself as an all-round striker yet, ala Christian Benteke.
The Belgian striker was essentially Villa’s ‘get-out-of-relegation’ card, for the past few seasons. The player that gave supporters belief that relegation would never be a reality for the club. There’s no such safety blanket now.
Has the money gained from the sale of the Belgian been spent wisely? It is of course too early to judge properly (whatever your knee-jerk reaction is). Does Gestede look like a double-figure league goal scoring striker in the Premier League? Despite his decent start boosted by his brace of consolation goals against Liverpool, Villa haven’t offered as much threat down the flanks as perhaps they would have liked.
“We will improve next season” – Tim Sherwood, May 2015.
The Key to Villa
The key for the Villa team in my opinion is what quality can Gana, Veretout, Ayew and Adama Traore ultimately bring to the team.
Both Gana and Veretout in theory at least should be a midfield upgrade on last season. Ayew will need to score double-figures to prove his worth and really help the team. Traore gives Villa an extra dimension, which Grealish and Gil also offer the team, but he’s still young and plays with a single-minded selfishness. But if these four step-up that’ll be half the battle won.
The Old Problem
There’s also concerns about the defence. My pet concern is Micah Richards as a centre-back. If you watch all the goals Villa have conceded from the Wolves pre season friendly onwards, half of them are due to Richards losing the man he’s marking behind him as he is drawn to the ball.
While he has athleticism and determination, he does switch off in his reading of the play. It was a criticism levelled at him at Manchester City and a reason he fell from favour there.
If Jores Okore comes back stronger, surely a backline of Richards, Okore, Clark/Lescott, Amavi is the strongest one that Villa can field? But will Richard’s ego allow for a switch to right-back? While he still has the legs, he should give it a go. It would certainly give the Villa rearguard a solid look to it.
Further alarm bells are ringing for Villa in the way the three promoted teams have acquitted themselves this season. They are organised, spirited and most importantly are well drilled as a teams. Bournemouth, Watford and Norwich all have two wins to their names are comfortably above Villa already and playing well.
This time last year both Burnley and QPR were already in the bottom three and that’s where they finished. I would be surprised if two of this year’s three new boys drop.
Villa have been lucky in recent seasons that there have been three worse teams than them to fill the bottom places, but this season, bar Sunderland (Newcastle have spent enough to potentially improve), it’s not clear to see where they will come from.
Villa cannot rely on other teams to be worse than them this season and they shouldn’t. It’s a myth that in terms of team strength the Premier League is the greatest league in the world. Look at the fortunes of English teams in the Champions League and the fact that a disjointed and unimpressive Manchester United are currently top of the league. As teams like Swansea and West Ham have shown in recent times, the top ‘Sky Four’ teams are very beatable.
If Villa can get their act together quickly and string some results together, they can rise swiftly.
Tim Sherwood was a good short-term appointment for Villa in terms of shaking the club from its Paul Lambert coma, but big question marks existed regarding his viability for the club in the long-term. Those who appointed him clearly didn’t see that, but large sections of Villa supporters certainly did. He was a risk.
Tim Sherwood has most fans backing though and it’s time for the Villa boss to give serious thought to the task ahead instead of making bravado-fuelled empty promises. He doesn’t need anybody to tell him that it’s a result’s business and they have been lacking this season.
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