With the international break now upon us, I figure its time for some reflection on my first season as a Premier League fan. So far I couldn’t be happier about my experience. Villa came out with a great start (10 points in 4 games including a win against Liverpool), and even though they’ve struggled of late (3 losses to Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester City) that was to be expected, and they looked good anyway. Paul Lambert has somehow rebuilt Villa’s back line in one fell swoop over the summer (taking Alan Hutton out of the dog house back to the starting lineup at Right Back and playing new signees Philippe Senderos at Center Back and Aly Cissokho at Left Back). Missing the captain Ron Vlaar is obviously not ideal but both Ciaran Clark and Nathan Baker haven’t looked bad at all filling in for him at Center Back. However, both of them have missed what looked to be sure fire goals off of set pieces which is not ideal. Particularly worrisome because goal scoring and even shot generation appear to be major problem areas for Villa thus far.
With Vlaar out Lambert seems to play much more conservatively, using Kieran Richardson in the midfield as an extra defender of sorts instead of someone such as Joe Cole (still dinged up) or Jack Grealish (still too young to really be the guy anyway, as assistant coach and beard aficionado Roy Keane has elucidated), both of whom would enter the game more offensively minded. So as much as I love the hard working, gritty defense of this Villa squad, its a little painful to see the lack of offensive creativity and a seeming refusal by Lambert to push the ball forward.. like… ever…However, even with that said the team has still been incredibly fun to watch, and there is ample reason for hope on the horizon. Vlaar should be returning soon, and perhaps with his captain back anchoring the back line, Lambert will take the risk to inject a guy like Cole (as long as he has anything left in the tank at this point in his career) into the starting line up and generate some scoring chances. Moreover, star striker Christian Benteke (Villa’s leading scorer the last 2 seasons even with a season-ending injury last year) finally made his return to the first team against Man City, which will obviously be a huge offensive boost.
But all isn’t completely rosy moving into the international break. For one thing Senderos appears to have gotten injured on international duty and will miss the Everton game. But the larger issue is the persistent issue of money at the Villa of recent times. With all the uncertainty around Randy Lerner’s attempted sale of the team there is no knowing what kinds of funds are available to Lambert to build, or even maintain his squad. He, along with new Chief Executive Tom Fox, flew to the US this week to meet with Lerner and discuss finances and contracts. Specifically (we assume) contracts for Ron Vlaar, Fabian Delph, and Jack Grealish, all three of whom will be out of contract this summer, meaning the club could potentially lose them for nothing.
The Grealish issue appears to have largely resolved itself as he seems close to a new deal with the club, as evidenced by his pulling out of Ireland’s recent match to hammer out contract details during this international break. If all goes as planned and Grealish re-signs it will be a huge boon for the club. Locking up Grealish (only 19 and considered a bright rising star in the league) will mean the club has secured a cornerstone for its long term future.
The larger concern, however, is the short to mid term future of the club. And here’s where we come to Delph and Vlaar. Vlaar’s importance is obvious. He’s the captain and the anchor of that defense. Without him the club needs to play more conservatively all over the pitch which as we’ve seen during his time out with injury, means little offense and fewer goals, which I’m sure you’re aware is not a winning recipe.
Losing Delph, however, would perhaps be even more damning. His offensive creativity represents one of the few bright spots of Villa’s offense. He’s a rising star in the league, and for England, and losing him would absolutely set the club back on its current rebuilding stint.
Lerner is obviously reluctant to sink too much more money into a club which he apparently has lost interest in owning. Moreover, Vlaar and Delph may not even want to return to a Villa side that has nearly been relegated 3 years in a row. Delph appears primed to become a major piece for England’s international squad, and even to become a top player in the Premier League. He may value a chance to play for titles on the top clubs in the League over staying with the rebuilding Villa. Vlaar meanwhile, has already proved himself to be a major international player after Holland’s run to the final 4 of the 2014 World Cup.
As far as I see it Villa is set to make the next (perhaps first) big step in their rebuilding process this season. This is primed to be the year that they leap up from the relegation danger zone (15th-20th) to solidly mid table, which in light of recent events (16th – 2011/12, 15th – 2012/13, 15th – 2013/14) is a much bigger deal than it would seem at first. They could probably land anyway from 7th to 14th in the table this year, and I’d take that happily I think. It would mean we secured our status as a Premier League team for next season, but more importnatly it would give us the opportunity to build on that improvement and keep on growing. Young players like Grealish, Benteke, and Ashley Westwood could continue to grow and develop. We could ensure that the Tom Cleverly loan becomes permanent. And we could use both the January and Summer transfer windows to further improve the team, hopefully with as resounding a success as the signings of Senderos and Cissokho have proved to be thus far.
However, Delph and Vlaar might not take such a finish so happily. Vlaar is nearly 30, and with his former international boss now at Man United his days with Villa may be numbered. Moreover, United appear to be hoping to buy up Delph AND Vlaar in one fell swoop, but even if they don’t land the package, Delph is being courted by Arsenal. Both players could leave Villa for their respective new homes this summer on free transfers if things don’t go right at Villa, and if we don’t sell them during the January transfer window that means losing these key pieces for nothing.
I’d much rather keep both of them as losing them in any capacity sets back the rebuilding clock significantly so I certainly hope Lambert’s talks with Lerner have gone well. This may very well be the most important part of Villa’s season this year. More important than the Arsenal win or a much hoped for Europa League berth. If not it may very well mean back to the bottom with Villa, and a return to relegation scares for a long time to come. I really don’t know if staying with Villa is whats best for thsoe two guys. At Manchester United and Arsenal they may very well have the chance to win Premier League AND Champions League titles. And they can probably grab a lot bigger pay day than they can get from the floundering Lerner. But I really see a future for this club with them. I really think this club can make some major leaps and bounds if they continue to grow and hang on to this core they’ve developed. I guess all I can do for the time being, however, get down on my knees and beg Moses Keane to lead us to the promised land.
Please Lerner, let me go on dreaming.