Aston Villa drew against Crystal Palace last Thursday. Their seventh draw on the season to go with 8 losses and only 5 wins. What’s more disappointing, however, is the fact that this recent stretch of mediocrity has been against the league’s worst competition. Early on in the season I thought that Villa’s woes were due in large part to multiple key starts (in fact… ALL the team’s stars) missing time for various injuries (Benteke, Vlaar, and Delph), but even with those guys back Villa have STILL looked mediocre on whole.
Now, I’m not saying I thought Aston Villa were supposed to be world beaters this year. In fact, they’re performing only slightly worse than I thought they would. The defense is far better than I expected but the offense has been practically nonexistent.
So with the January Transfer Window now upon us I can’t help but wonder about a couple key concerns from earlier in the season. That is to say, the fate’s of both Fabian Delph and Ron Vlaar. Both guys’ contracts are up at the end of this season, and like many fans I was rather desperate to see the team find a way to keep them beyond this season when the year began (even though Delph for one showed little to no interest in returning to the club). However, I have a new series of thoughts.
Vlaar I would obviously love to keep because he’s a staunch defender, a great team player who doesn’t really complain or vocalizes frustrations, and he’s the friggin’ team captain for pete’s sake. HOWEVER, with the burgeoning (apparently although its been a very small sample size) pair of center backs we have in Ciaran Clark and Jores Okore, and considering the sturdy play of veterans Philippe Senderos and Nathan Baker earlier in the year, it is entirely possible we don’t NEED Vlaar. During the long stretch Vlaar missed this year the defense remained stout even without the captain. If we’re going to be solid on defense and slightly below average as a team with him, and solid but slightly below average without him, then why worry about it? If Vlaar wants to join his Dutch countrymen Van Gaal and Van Persie at Manchester United, and refill AVFC’s coffer’s in the meantime then so be it.
Delph is an even more bitter case for me. He has openly expressed interest in leaving the club, and at this point I see no reason why Villa shouldn’t accomodate. The guy is constantly hurt and even when he plays he hasn’t been producing. He’s made a handful of great runs this year, but has yet to score a goal. His runs often end in a bad shot (not caused entirely by Delph’s selfishness but also poor positioning by his teammates… but the result is the same) and no goal, so who cares? He doesn’t want to be here. The offense is atrocious without him, but its atrocious with him as well. He’s on pace to miss half the season anyway, and the possibility only becomes more likely with his national team duties. We have noone to replace him with, but I’m kindof fed up with Delph at the moment. Maybe we need to make way for the Jack Grealish Era and hope for the best.
But transfer’s aren’t what I’m here to talk about. What I really wanted to talk about was the idea that Villa (as foolish as this may sound considering preseason expectations) are squandering a real opportunity here. By all accounts this year began as a wide open Premier League season where it appeared anyone could make a run. Indeed, Southampton have spent nearly the entire year in the top four. Newcastle, after their disastrous start (losses against everyone but Villa with whom they drew…. of course… EVERYONE can beat Newcastle, but Villa…) had a stint in the top four. West Ham looked like real contenders for a couple weeks. Hell, Villa themselves were even in the top four for a hot minute.
Now, none of these showings has proved to be all too lasting with the exception of Southampton who remain in the 4 slot as I’m writing this. My point, however, is that the Premier League narrative is generally about the dominant big clubs. Five/Six giants (Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester City/Tottenham) fighting it out over the top 4 slots. Occasionally their narrative of dominance is upset by some upstart (yet still big) club like Everton tried to do last season or Newcastle tried in 2011/12, but its generally the same teams near the top. This year, however, things have been blown wide open for large stretches of the season. Arsenal and Tottenham have looked mediocre for large stretches and Liverpool appears to be downright bad without Luis Suarez. That’s 3 of the Big 6ish who could easily be overtaken, and multiple clubs have tried.
Villa, however, outside of their great start to the season (10 points in 5 games) have done nothing to take advantage of the fact that this year seems to provide an opening for the lesser clubs of the premier league. Now, in truth they simply don’t have the horses to do so, so I can’t be too disappointed. However, as a Kentucky football fan I can’t help thinking that Aston Villa are squandering an opportunity here.
You see, the SEC East (the division in which Kentucky plays) is much like the Premier League in that it has traditionally been dominated by 3 powerhouse schools: Tennessee, Florida, and Georgia. This left “bottom-feeders” like Kentucky, Vanderbilt, and South Carolina to languish at the bottom of the table, so to speak. Recently, however, there was a 3-4 year gap from about 2010 to the 2013 or 14 where those traditional powers (ESPECIALLY Tennessee) were been down, opening a window for the lesser schools to jump into the upper ranks.
In practice this meant South Carolina. Here are the standings of the SEC East from 2009 (the last year of traditional outcomes before the shift) to 2014/15, this season the first year where the shift appears to be reversing.
Now, the SEC expanded before the 2013 season and Missouri joined the SEC East which throws things off slightly, but the larger point is still valid (just imagine Missouri isn’t there). South Carolina gained the most by Tennessee’s large downfall and the relative downfalls of Florida and Georgia. They became a year in year out power in the SEC East. They’re Southampton in this parallel. A team that appears poised to cling to a top 4 spot all year, and punch their ticket to the Champions League next season. Vanderbilt (under then coach James Franklin) represent the West Hams or Newcastles of the league. A team that gained a lot by this down period, but never quite parlayed it into a division crown (or top 4 berth) the way South Carolina and Southampton did respectively.
And then there’s Kentucky. Under then coach Joker Phillips Kentucky did absolutely nothing during this period where the division turned itself upside down and traditional “worst” teams could jettison themselves up to “first” status. They completely squandered a 4 year period where the division was wide open. Moreover, even though Kentucky now has a new head coach, Mark Stoops, who is making all the right moves, and has the program better than it has looked in decades, it may be too late.
Stoops is now competing against the old powers again. The old boogeymen are back, meaning Stoops has to fight a battle 10x harder than Joker had to fight. He may still succeed, but his task is much harder than it would have been to make a move during those down years. And that, my friends, is your Aston Villa parallel.
Aston Villa are honestly making me happy just by not getting relegated. With how bad that offense looks I’ll be happy if we can just start new next August and still be in the Premier League. But it is incredibly frustrating to watch a golden opportunity like this slip through your fingers. A team with Delph, Vlaar, and Benteke shouldn’t be this bad. And they should be able to compete in a season where the big powers are down like this. Aston Villa are using this down environment to simply “survive” rather than “thrive.” This is frustrating as a fan, and worrying for the long term. If we can only “survive” in a season where we AREN’T getting pounded on by everyone else, what happens when the big clubs bounce back?
If things really go sound and Villa end up relegated, what then? Look at other Big/Dormant type clubs like Villa that have been sent down. Sheffield Wednesday were a founding member of the Premier League, but they got relegated in 2000 and haven’t been back up since. A full decade and a half. That could easily be Villa’s fate if they fall down to the championship. There is no reason to think the current ownership (considering the fact that Lerner is trying to sell the team) will pump any money into the club at the Championship level than he is diong at the Premier League level. Things can only get worse, and if Villa are relegated I doubt they’ll come back up until they get new owners.
Overall I think Villa will do enough to not get relegated this year. They won’t take advantage of this opportunity and make a run. It’s too late for that with their record anyway, and they can’t even score goals against bad teams at this point. But hopefully their cavalcade of draws will keep them in the BPL for another year. Things need to change though or Villa have dark days ahead. Kentucky has been saved by the fact that they are now the best they’ve been in years, even though their rivals rose too. If Villa’s rivals raise the ante, and they don’t answer we’re in for a rough ride. Hopefully they can do it, but I don’t know… as I write this they’re in the 80th minute of a nil nil draw with Blackpool in the FA cup… so I don’t exactly feel confident.
But Benteke just scored a beauty in the 88th minute to win the game for Villa 1-0! So maybe I’m too pessimistic, and there’s hope after all. In Benteke we trust. Just score goals baby.