By Chris Kemps
The week began with international glory, was headlined by domestic glory, and ended with the best news Villa fans have had in five months.
Fabian Delph proved he can not just step up to the pace of the international stage with England, but can be a big influence in rebuilding the team. The win at Liverpool was packed with learning moments for the Villa faithful and then a tweet from Benteke tells us the wait to see him return may be coming to an end.
What we learnt…
VILLA CONTINUES TO HELP ENGLAND
Fabian Delph doesn’t always stand out in a Villa shirt. Sometimes he works thanklessly and tirelessly and largely unnoticed (until in games last season, he would pick up a booking). He would net spectacular goals (Chelsea, West Brom and Southampton spring to mind) but not enough of them. But in becoming the 72nd Aston Villa player to turn out for England (the first since Stewart Downing in 2011, the first to win his first cap as a Villa player since James Milner in 2009) it is both a timely reminder of Villa’s great history, the club’s relevance and perhaps rubber-stamps an end to the rot that had set in over the last few seasons.
His performance in Basel was blemished by an early yellow card (something familiar to Villa fans) but he fitted into the team like he had been a regular for a while. He tidied up for Jack Wilshere and kept his cool after his booking while Sterling got the “Grealish” treatment from the Swiss. He was unlucky with a blocked shot after he had drifted out of the game and had a strong case for a penalty at the death.
Mixed reviews in the newspaper meant little: England were convincing – something we hadn’t seen for a while, and that is certainly down in part to Delph’s contribution.
The calls for Westwood and Lowton to maybe get an England call-up in the last couple of seasons surely only came from those fans seeing them regularly as standing-out among mediocre overall perfomances. Lowton lost his form and his place in the line-up while Westwood will continue to benefit from a healthier, stronger defence behind him but is not yet up to international standard (though let’s see if that’s still true at the end of this season). In fact, if the team continues to excel in defence and perfect their counter-attacking football, who’s to say Gabby couldn’t get another call-up? AVFC and England’s “special relationship” will continue.
Love him or wait-and-see him, Tom Cleverley continues to do and say the right things. His Instagram singing of Ben E. King classic “Stand By Me” taught us he shouldn’t give up his day job, but while you can take his pre-match comments about the run of tough games ahead as rhetoric (saying “why not?” to winning again at Anfield) he continues to do and say the right things.
Cleverley’s admission that his Manchester United career is as good as over, and that stick from fans at Old Trafford did nothing for his already shrinking confidence, is good news for Villa. Nothing better than a point to prove (and a new contract to earn – his is up at the end of this season) to motivate a player after all. It’s fair to say his debut was overshadowed by that of Baker, Senderos, Hutton and the early goal, but the feeling is that an impact game could happen sooner rather than later.
A TALE OF THREE RIGHT-BACKS
Alan Hutton’s transformation from fan’s whipping boy and PL’s unwanted inheritance to fan favorite and a significant reason in the improved Villa defence is amazing. Hutton earned a reputation for being careless when being caught out of position, then crashing back, kicking someone over and earning a booking in seasons gone by.
About a year ago, Hutton had played just four games – all for Scotland – and wasn’t even included in Villa’s 25-man squad (probably for a few reasons, led by his salary compared to Leandro Bacuna’s for example). How Villa fans scoffed when his Scotland boss Gordon Strachan sang Hutton’s praises, saying he was doing all the right things, working hard and how it was “strange” that Villa didn’t see him as their regular right-back when he saw players that weren’t as good as him, in his opinion, turning out for Premiership teams every week.
Now, perhaps, we are seeing what Strachan saw. He is obviously fit enough to cover the ground required of PL’s counter-attacking system. He is confident and calm, cool under pressure, and reliable – not something that could be said of Bacuna, who arrived as a raw winger and struggled with defensive basics. He will definitely benefit from time learning in the reserves after making just one substitute appearance this season.
Third choice right-back Matt Lowton will have a very hard time displacing Hutton if he can continue with this form and may have to leave Villa Park to play regularly again.
SHAKE AND BAKER
Nathan Baker is another player, like the Hutton of seasons gone by, who is picked on by Villa fans – and that’s understandable after some of the mistakes attributed to him. But with the calming influence of Senderos beside him doing the dirty work (literally, right Mario?) he was a pretty-unanimous choice as man-of-the-match against Liverpool.
Baker’s last-ditch slide blocks don’t always work like that one at the end of the game, of course, but it epitomised the difference in the defensive outlook: confidence and calmness in the 80 minutes of soaking up pressure that followed one of Villa’s worst enemies of sorts: an early goal.
Should he start instead of a healthy Vlaar? Probably not. Should he start ahead of a still-unfit Okore? Probably so. Should he start instead of Ciaran Clark? It’s probably a coin-toss between the two of them.
Baker’s development is largely over now, and if he’s not going to outshine the other central defenders at the club, that’s one thing. But to sell him or even loan him out at this point would be short-sighted. After grafting through the bad times, isn’t it only fair – now he’s shown he can contribute – he gets to experience the good times?
Of course, one swallow does not make a summer, but it was good to see a strong, young defender step up for Vlaar and put in such an accomplished performance.
BENTEKE’S COMING BACK
Following a Sunday tweet, it appears Christian Benteke will get back to work training tomorrow. It’s hard to say how long his rehabilitation will take from here, and whether he will come back the same player we remember, but if you needed a cherry on top of a fabulous week, this is it.