Four points and two clean sheets from the first two matches undoubtedly represents a decent start to the 2014-15 season. Some aspects of Villa’s game already seem improved compared with last season, but in other areas it’s the same old Villa. Here’s the good, the bad and the ugly of Villa’s opening fixtures.
With the additions of Philippe Senderos and Aly Cissokho, as well as the return of Alan Hutton, we were all anxious to see whether Villa’s defence would be an improvement on the often worryingly bad backline of last season which conceded the fourth-highest total of goals in the Premier League.
Although it is still dangerously early for a statement like this, at this moment in time it appears the new and returning players have done the trick – Villa have been full value for their back-to-back clean sheets.
Senderos has looked relatively solid in the centre of defence – certainly a more calming and believable presence than Nathan Baker or Ciaran Clark – and his performances have hinted that he could form a strong partnership with Ron Vlaar. If Jores Okore can steer clear of a recurrence of his injury once he returns to full fitness Villa could actually find themselves with some stiff competition for a centre-back spot.
Aly Cissokho seems, so far, a pretty good acquisition. Apart from one heart-stopping moment when he lost his man at the back post against Newcastle he has seemed more than competent on the defensive front, whilst also displaying a huge amount of energy when joining attacks down the left.
Meanwhile, Alan Hutton has been excellent since his reintegration into the side. The amount of desire he has shown to prove that Paul Lambert was wrong to freeze him out has been superb to see, and the Scot has been a contender for Villa’s best player over the 180 minutes of the season so far.
Another candidate has been Charles N’Zogbia, another facing the exit door last season, who has been perhaps our key attacking threat. Willing to run at players with genuine ability to beat them (when he’s in the mood), the Frenchman has looked as hungry as Hutton to cement a place in the team this season and, despite having been substituted midway through the second half in both matches, he’s fully deserving of a starting place so far.
The introduction of Jack Grealish with twenty minutes to go at the Britannia was another positive. The 18-year-old is showing signs that he is up to the challenge of holding down a regular place in Villa’s matchday squad this season, and the fans have justified hope that he can make some vital contributions throughout the campaign.
Carlos Sánchez could be the quality defensive midfielder that we have been looking for. His half-an-hour cameo suggested that his nickname of ‘The Rock’ should hopefully be reflected in his performances in his debut season in England – by sitting deep and playing several excellent passes from the back of midfield he allowed Fabian Delph to drive at Newcastle’s defence more freely.
More good news is that Villa’s team should only get better from here. As mentioned above, Okore will provide competition for a centre-back slot, and the returns of Christian Benteke and Libor Kozák will be a huge boost for Villa’s attacking threat.
Roy Keane’s appointment as assistant manager seems to have given the whole team a lift. Although many, including myself, were dubious when his arrival was announced, the Stoke win saw Villa fighting with a passion typical of Keane during his playing days.
Although two clean sheets from two games is excellent, the draw against the Magpies showed that one aspect that threatens to continue from the Villa of the last few seasons is the problem of home form. At Stoke, Villa put in almost the perfect away performance – solid defence and breaking on the counter. The Newcastle game was a different matter. The defensive solidity was still present, for the most part at least, but Villa largely failed to dominate an average Newcastle side despite what should be the advantage of being at home. Villa ended up holding on for a goalless draw rather than coming anywhere close to winning the game.
This has been a recurring issue for years but last season Villa’s away form was as bad as the home form, meaning that points accumulated on our travels may no longer be enough to make up for our abject home form.
Villa have to learn to break teams down and start winning at home this season. Although no quality attacking midfielder has been signed (yet, Paul, YET), perhaps players such as a reinvigorated N’Zogbia, an eager Grealish, an experienced Joe Cole and a Fabian Delph freed by Carlos Sanchez’s presence in defensive midfield can provide the creative spark Villa need.
Where Villa’s defence have been solid, composed and impressive in the opening two games, the attack has been lacklustre, infuriating and, let’s face it, essentially absent. One shot on target at the Britannia – scored by Andi Weimann with the help of less-than-sharp goalkeeping from Asmir Begovic – and no shots on target at home to Newcastle.
The attack will undoubtedly improve from the appalling stuff currently on show when Christian Benteke and Libor Kozák return from injury in the next couple of months. Until then, however, neither Gabby Agbonlahor nor Weimann (despite the latter’s winner against Stoke) are good enough to be leading the Villa line.
I found myself realising during the Newcastle game that the sure-fire way for a Villa attack to break down is for the ball to be passed to Weimann. I admire his effort, and he occasionally pops up with important goals, but he looks desperately short on quality. The fact of the matter is that he was made to look better than he is by playing alongside a terrifically in-form Christian Benteke in 2012/13, and he has not been the same player since.
Gabby Agbonlahor has continued his poor form from last season into the start of this season. Villa’s record Premier League goalscorer has failed to hit double figures in the league since 2009-10, before Martin O’Neill left the club, and his link-up play also leaves a great deal to be desired.
He still has his turn of pace and on a number of occasions in the opening two games he got the ball in midfield and raced clear of midfielders deep into the opposition half. However, he has neither the skill to beat defenders in a one-on-one situation nor the footballing intelligence to make the right decision or weight the correct pass to set up his teammates. As mentioned on MOMS a couple of weeks ago, he is now potentially holding Villa back.
This is not to say that he cannot still have a positive impact on games from the bench. However, in the weeks before Benteke and Kozák are expected to return from injury, Villa would arguably be served better by bringing Darren Bent back into the starting line-up – Bent is at least a player who knows where the goal is, and a couple of the crosses sent into dangerous areas to no avail in the Newcastle game may well have found Bent on the end of them had he been on the pitch.
Four points and two clean sheets from the opening two games is nonetheless a positive start. If Villa can for once successfully navigate the potential humiliation of cup defeat to a lower-league team at home to Leyton Orient on Wednesday and secure a home win they desperately need against Hull next weekend, it will have been a very positive start going into September’s ominous run of fixtures. UTV
Follow Tom on Twitter – @tdnightingale