A Race to the Bottom: Villa’s Five Team Table

(Photo Credit Getty Images)

(Photo Credit Getty Images)

Another week and another much needed win for Aston Villa Football Club. The once moribund club has seen a resurgence under the eternally enthusiastic and exuberant Tim Sherwood, and it looks like Villa might just survive this season and give themselves a chance to achieve full mediocrity (good Lord what a delight that would be after this year) next season.

Over the last couple months Sherwood has taken a club which we all knew had more than enough talent to not just survive but succeed in the Premier League (but one which was horrendously devoid of confidence and energy) and finally got them to perform at the level we all knew they could. First and foremost among these player resurgences is the revival of Belgian Wunder-Striker Christian Benteke.

Benteke netted another two goals against Everton last weekend bringing his season tally to 12. This puts him staunchly in the League’s top 10 goal scorers (caught up in a 3 way tie for 8th actually) which only becomes more impressive when you realize that 9 of these have come in the last SEVEN games. Those are insane numbers. I don’t know what exactly Sherwood did, but whatever sorcery he employed on the brooding, sulky Belgian is much appreciated. Villa has gone from a team on pace to score the lowest goal total in Premier League history to a wide open flowing offence with the addition of Sherwood as manager.

And it isn’t just Benteke either. Delph’s play has shot up to top form in short order, and he currently looks like one of the best midfielders in the Premiership, and certainly the best midfielder on the English National Team. Tom Cleverley has recovered his long lost form with Sherwood’s blessing to embrace the kind of quick paced one touch football that compliments Cleverley’s game so well, and the Manchester United Loanee has netted two goals in his last two games. The defense has certainly suffered with the loss of Lambert’s discipline (along with injuries ravaging the back line) but the new Villa, Sherwood’s Villa, at least look like they want to go down swinging.

(Photo Credit: Kieran McManus via Daily Mail)

(Photo Credit: Kieran McManus via Daily Mail)

And hell, with this new style its looking more and more like they won’t go down at all at this point. Unfortunately, however, even after last weeks stellar victory, Villa don’t find themselves out of the woods just yet. Villa wasn’t the only bottom dweller to pick up points in a much needed upset last weekend as Sunderland pulled off a truly shocking upset over Southampton last weekend. This coupled with Leicester’s absolutely preposterous resurgence means that even though Villa has risen to 14th in the League Table, they’re still only 2 points out from relegation.

crappy 5 team table graphic

As my terrible MS Paint graphics will illustrate, moreover, Villa can more or less kiss an rise higher than 14th (or lower than 18th) goodbye. QPR and Burnley appear doomed to go down and Everton (in spite of the terrible form they were in last weekend) Crystal Palace (Fire Pardew!!) and sadly West Brom are all likely out of Villa’s reach now. The only thing left that matters, however, is that the Villans avoid relegation. And joining them in that endeavor, then, are apparently 4 other clubs.

Aston Villa are essentially now part of a 5 team table consisting of Villa, Newcastle, Leicester, Hull, and Sunderland. Of that bunch Villa are far and away the best team in my opinion. Leicester are certainly on a tear, and honestly I think they’ll finish ahead of us, but Newcastle is absolutely imploding, Sunderland may have dug themselves a hole too deep to crawl out of, and Hull, although not struggling per se, certainly don’t appear to be in as good of form as Villa.

In the end, then, I think (and hope) Villa will be safe this year and earn a chance to try again next season. However, I can’t help remembering that a very similar scenario was placed in front of Villa last season as well. Somehow in spite of the talent the club has been able to accumulate of late (major credit to Lambert there of course) they continually find themselves in a relegation battle to the end the season. This club is clearly sick, and while I’m certainly happy to see them turn things around at the end of the season here I can’t help but fear for the future.

(Photo Credit: Carl Recine, Reuters)

(Photo Credit: Carl Recine, Reuters)

Sherwood was undeniably the right hire to save the club this season and wake up the team’s sleepwalking locker room. However, several important roster decisions loom this offseason and Villa are new led by a man who has never once in his entire career signed a player. Lambert had undeniably lost the team and needed to go, but he was even keeled and an experienced manager on the business side of things. Sherwood is what this team needed on the field this year, but I worry that combining him with the disinterested Randy Lerner this offseason may be a recipe for disaster. Sherwood may be saving the team only to watch it fall flat next season.

Things may very well get better, but nothing will be “fixed” until Lerner manages to sell the club. Now, I’m not one of those people asking him to slash the price so that ANYONE (including someone who ALSO lacks money to pump into the roster) can buy the club, but I do hope that sooner than later this team can restore the excitement level from the top down, rather than relying on an excitable manager prone to pushing his club to simple mistakes and mental collapses. I am incredibly happy to see the way the club has come back to life to end this season, but I was equally happy to see them survive last season. I just want this attempt at redemption to stick. This season may have turned around, just like last season’s did, but if things don’t change at the top, Villa’s race to the bottom will continue in perpetuity.

Advertisements

New Blood and New Hope: The Signing of Carles Gil

(Image via AVFC.com and Getty Images)

(Image via AVFC.com and Getty Images)

Amid heavy pressure from Villa fans, and threats of a Holte End protest Paul Lambert has done what he does best and bring new, cheap talent into the club by purchasing former Valencia and Elche man Carles Gil for a price somewhere around £3.2 million. But before we get into this let’s start with why the move was necessary.

First and foremost, Villa can’t score goals. They are on pace to be a historically low scoring team. They have only scored 11 goals all season and are on pace for 20 goals all season if this keeps up. That would tie the Premier League record for fewest goals in a season, and to make matters worse, no club in BPL history has ever scored fewer than 28 goals and avoided relegation. So that’s cheery. And this whole “lack of goals” things sure makes it hard to win. Villa are win-less in their last 6 matches, and in that stretch lost games to midlands rival West Bromich Albion (a team flirting with relegation all year) and Leicester City (when they were bottom of the table no less). So clearly, as things currently stand Villa are flirting with disaster and relegation. Time for change then, yes? Yes.

Yup, definitely time for change.

Yup, definitely time for change.

But what kind of change? Well, Villa’s defense is clearly not the problem, and is in fact and massive, Herculean strength. The fact that they have only scored 11 goals all year, and are somehow in 13th place is absolutely astounding. The two teams with the next lowest scoring totals are Sunderland and Burnley with 18 and 19 respectively, so it isn’t even close. Aston Villa is the worst offensive team in the League by far, and yet Burnley is in 17th place and Sunderland is in 16th place (just outside of the relegation zone) while Villa sit (relatively) safe from relegation (for now) in 13th place. This shouldn’t even be possible, but thanks to Villa’s spectacular defense, it is. In fact, their 23 goals allowed number is 5th best in the League, and the only four teams who have allowed fewer goals than them this season? Are the 4 teams on top of the League. So clearly a defense this good belongs at the top of the table, not down in the basement flirting with relegation. Again, the offense is the problem.

Time to sign a flashy new striker then? That’s what struggling offensive teams do right? Wrong. In this case anyone. Christian Benteke has all the talent to be one of the ten best goal scorers in the Premier League. The guy is amazing. Seriously. Just check him out.

He basically just embarrassed the entire Crystal Palace team by himself there. And if you noticed there wasn’t a single other Villa shirt nearby helping him there. And then of course there’s the fact that he’s capable of this…

So clearly, the issue isn’t our Striker. The problem is that no one can ever find him with the ball. We have apparently 0 setup men on this team. Its the midfield where our offense stalls. Enter: Carles Gil. A natural central attacking midfielder, the hope is that Gil will be able to get the ball up to our freak of nature finisher and generate some goals. We’ll find out if that’s how this game-plan plays out tomorrow when Villa take on Liverpool, but from what I understand of the guy that shouldn’t be an issue. Gil’s main issues in Spain were playing time related, not talent related, so as long as Lambert gives him consistent time on the pitch (something he hasn’t been kind enough to do for other players in the past) things should work themselves out.

So… that’s how we ended up in this predicament of fan rage and potential protests, and Lambert’s plan to fix the problem. Honestly I have a fair amount of confidence that Gil will be a success. This is due to the fact that Lambert’s best attribute, as far as I can tell, appears to be finding quality talent at bargain prices.

(Photo Credit: Chris Brunskill, Getty Images Europe)

(Photo Credit: Chris Brunskill, Getty Images Europe)

Aly Cissokho (another signing from Valencia) has been great for Villa all season, and Lambert dug him up for only £2 million. Philippe Senderos was a great plug in for the injured Ron Vlaar early in the season until he himself went down, and Lambert brought him in off a free transfer. He also brought in Jores Okore (along with Ciaran Clark one of the two young players Villa fans hope will be the core of their defensive back line for a decade) last year for only £4 million. And let’s not forget that during his first year with the club Lambert brought in Benteke, Westwood, and Vlaar… three of the core components to this club. And Lambert has done all this without the budget of an Arsenal or a Chelsea. The man is clearly good at scouting talent and paying the right price for them, and under his reign Villa’s roster may be more talented than its been for years. So why aren’t they winning?

(Photo Credit: Laurence Griffiths and The Mirror)

(Photo Credit: Laurence Griffiths and The Mirror)

Villa fans, in my opinion, have every right to be angry. Villa is a big club. A huge club. They have more rich history than nearly any club in England, and are even the oldest club in the country. They’re a founding member of the Premier League, and they don’t deserve this. They are not a 13th place club. They are not a club that should score the fewest goals in Premier League history. And they are certainly not a club that should be worried about relegation.

I, however, still have mixed feelings. To put things in American terms, I have to assume that Lambert simply isn’t a good coach. He can’t make his players perform on the pitch no matter what his talent pool looks like. He has never succeeded at Villa (unless you consider avoiding relegation success… which at this point I almost do…) no matter how much talent he brings in. However, whatever his shortcomings may be in terms of on field tactics, his marketplace tactics are absolutely superb. He finds players who are undervalued by other clubs and swoops in for bargain deals on Premier League caliber plaeyrs. He has done this so consistently that it is obvious to me that, again in American terms, he is the best General Manager in the BPL. And for that reason I would be incredibly unhappy to see him go.

Image via Getty Images

Image via Getty Images

I feel like I’ve seen the reverse of this situation many times in American sports. A guy will be a great coach and succeed so wildly that ownership let’s him be his own GM and pick his own players. Almost invariably, however, the guy ends up shooting himself in the foot and making terrible personnel decisions, signing guys to horrible contracts and wasting money left and right, drastically crippling the club. In fact a little bit of that is going on right now with my hometown Detroit Pistons where new Coach and President Stan Van Gundy made the horrendous decision to keep Josh Smith on the roster resulting in a 5-23 record to start the season. So in any event, it seems easy to me to strip a Coach of GM duties and let him keep coaching. It seems impossible (especially looking at the way the BPL and world football function) to remove coaching duties from a manager, but let him continue making personnel choices.

So in the end, I really hope this Gil signing works out. I hope Aston Villa’s offense shows stupendous promise, they avoid relegation, and everything begins to improve as we set the table for a more successful season next year. I’d love to keep Lambert on the team, and I would hope he could surround himself with enough quality assistant coaches to improve the on field product if his coaching ability is truly lacking. In the end though all I really want is for Villa to win, and I don’t really care if that is with or without Lambert. I just want the frustration to end, and to get some hope back. So Carles Gil, welcome to Birmingham. I hope you’re ready to create some goals.

Image via Valenciacf.com

Image via Valenciacf.com

Another Day, Another Draw: Aston Villa’s Season of Squandering and Surviving

Image via Aston Villa Twitter at https://twitter.com/AVFCOfficial/status/551760819940524032/photo/1

I know Alan Hutton… I know… I don’t get it either…(Image via Aston Villa Twitter at https://twitter.com/AVFCOfficial/status/551760819940524032/photo/1)

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.

Photo credit AP and http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/players/luis-suarez/10524190/Liverpool-open-talks-to-make-Luis-Suarez-their-highest-paid-player-ever.html

Oh Luis Suarez… how Liverpool does miss your comically toothy grin and finger pistols. (Photo credit AP and http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/players/luis-suarez/10524190/Liverpool-open-talks-to-make-Luis-Suarez-their-highest-paid-player-ever.html)

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.

SEC East standings

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.

(Photo Credit: UK Athletics)

(Photo Credit: UK Athletics)

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.

[EDIT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!]

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.

 

Promising Beginnings and Unexpectedly Early Crossroads

Aston_Villa.svg

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.

Having Benteke back is sure to boost Villa's offense (Image via Getty Images)

Having Benteke back is sure to boost Villa’s offense (Image via Getty Images)

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.

(Image Credit: Neville Williams)

(Image Credit: Neville Williams)

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.

Vlaar is the lynchpin to Villa's defense, and the captian should remain a cornerstone of the club for years to come (image via astonvilla.co.uk)

Vlaar is the lynchpin to Villa’s defense, and the captian should remain a cornerstone of the club for years to come (image via astonvilla.co.uk)

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.

(Image via http://www.avfc.co.uk/page/NewsDetail/0,,10265~3334030,00.html)

(Image via http://www.avfc.co.uk/page/NewsDetail/0,,10265~3334030,00.html)

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.

YOU STAY AWAY FROM MY DUTCHMAN LOUIS VAN GAAL!!! HE'S MINE NOW!!! YOU AND YOUR HILARIOUS ACCENT CAN'T HAVE HIM!!! (Image via: Dean Mouhtaropoulos, Getty Images South America)

YOU STAY AWAY FROM MY DUTCHMAN LOUIS VAN GAAL!!! HE’S MINE NOW!!! YOU AND YOUR HILARIOUS ACCENT CAN’T HAVE HIM!!! (Image via: Dean Mouhtaropoulos, Getty Images South America)

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.

Go away Arsene Wenger!!! Delph doesn't want to play for your silly football club!!! Arsenal is a silly place!! ... Can't trust those frenchmen....

Go away Arsene Wenger!!! Delph doesn’t want to play for your silly football club!!! Arsenal is a silly place!! … Can’t trust those frenchmen….

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.

Moses Keane

 

Please Lerner, let me go on dreaming.

So You Say Football is for Feets

Barclays+Premier+League

So … I appear to have become a fan of the British Premier League. In truth I’m quite pleased with this reality. I’ve wanted to get into the Premier League for quite some time now, and even tried picking a few teams, but it never stuck. For the last three World Cups (the first World Cup I watched from start to finish was the 2006 World Cup when I was 16. I believe it was the first World Cup where ESPN broadcasted all the games). In any event, after the 2006 World Cup I discovered that the sport of soccer (football… but I’m American… So these things just happen…) was really fun to watch. The lack of scoring never bothered me too much because I was used to watching hockey, and while the NHL is certainly more high paced, frantic, and prolific when it comes to goals, the rhythm and back and forth was very familiar.

However, I was completely lost when it came to trying to watch professional football at this point. This is where I developed the opinion that I simply liked watching soccer to “root for the flags.” Argentina had been my team of choice to watch during the Cup because I found them excited, thought they had a chance to win, LOVED their jerseys, and had a friend in school who was studying abroad from Argentina, so it was fun to hop on the bandwagon. Moreover, even though it seemed at the time like Argentina was Tevez’s team, all the announcers kept telling me how this tiny hobbit of a man, Lionel Messi, was the real star on Argentina and was going to be one of the best football players who ever lived when all was said and done.

(Photo Credit: Reuters)

(Photo Credit: Reuters)

So after that 2006 World Cup I decided I would try to follow Messi’s team, which I discovered was Barcelona. This was a problem, however, because you couldn’t watch ANY La Liga games on TV, at least where I was at, except El Classico, whenever it rolled around. So long story short, I because the world’s most passive Barcelona fan… I didn’t really like the team (never saw them play) but liked one player on the team… and basically just checked in on the standings one every month or so. There didn’t seem to be much competition in La Liga as it was primarily a 2 horse race with 3 or 4 other contenders injecting themselves from time to time, only to eventually fade. Moreover, I had stumbled upon Bill Simmons’ older articles on choosing a pro soccer team to root for and felt like the league I really wanted to be following was the Premier League anyway, I just didn’t know how to pick a team. So in the end, La Liga, and Barcelona never really resonated with me, and I faded on the soccer fandom, and on the attempt to pick up a professional team. I just figured maybe it wasn’t for me.

And then 2009 rolled around and it was back in the saddle. Bill Simmons started dragging a cavalcade of soccer guests across my face on his BS Report Podcast in preparation for the 2010 World Cup, and I began to get incredibly excited again. Whether or not I would ever be able to become a pro soccer fan I knew I loved World Cups, and it helped that I was in college now (hotbed for pretentious (often but not always) dudes who love soccer and even more so that one of my good friends Tyler was a non-pretentious version of a soccer fan. We worked together and began talking about the World Cup every day at work, building excitement. And in order to keep up with Tyler in conversation (a real soccer fan whereas I considered myself only a passive one) I started following different soccer podcasts, and reading up on ESPNs soccer coverage.

(Photo Credit: Ross Kinnaird - Getty Images Europe)

(Photo Credit: Ross Kinnaird – Getty Images Europe)

More importantly perhaps though were the Simmons podcasts because I already listened to him. He was pushing the Jozy Altidore thing and I thought I had a real opportunity here. Altidore was all hyped up to be a big American star in World Football, and what was more important for me, he was currently on loan to Hull City in the British Premier League. I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to start rooting for a team. Their jerseys were cool. Rooting for them wouldn’t be a bandwagon move. I would have a REASON to root for them (I was already an American Soccer fan, and this would let me bridge to British Soccer). Unfortunately he did not play great and the team go relegated, quickly ending that attempt.

However, I watched that 2010 World Cup and loved it even more than the 2006 iteration. I knew I needed to figure out a way to become a football fan year round, but I just hadn’t figured it out yet. I knew the Premier League was the League for me (especially after my La Liga attempt) I just needed a team so after that 2010 World Cup I decided to sit down and think these things through in earnest.

New-York-Post-USA-002

That 2010 World Cup was just too fun for me to let soccer pass me by again. In 2006 I had barelyl any idea what a World Cup was and got drawn in, but this time I had been preparing for over a year, and just couldn’t imagine letting go of soccer for another 4 years.

Now, I really like hopping into new leagues and over agonizing over choosing a team to follow. As such I’ve developed somewhat of a system or method for when I pick teams. But before I go on I want to point out that my fandom didn’t stick after this 2010 World Cup either, but this is where I first starting thinking these things through for the BPL.

I tend to favor a specific kind of sports franchises. I like sleeping giant types or at any rate I like to get in on the ground floor with a team. This probably comes most specifically from my Detroit Lions fandom where it felt like I earned my fandom through years of torment. I never “just hopped on a bandwagon” with them. Conversely, I never felt truly passionate rooting for the Red Wings. I do love the team. I love the history, the tradition, the fans, everything. But I wasn’t alive during the “Dead Wings” era. I only ever saw them winning and felt like I didn’t EARN a right to root for them. That’s a large reason why I practice Sports Bigamy with the NHL and root for the Nashville Predators, but that’s another story for another time. When I was younger (like… elementary school young which makes this even more ridiculous) it always bugged me when my friends would say they were Denver Broncos fans or Green Bay Packer fans instead of Minnesota Vikings fans. I’m a massive proponent of proximity playing a major roll in sports fandom (you should root for the nearest team to you, and to do otherwise makes you a traitor to your homeland)  Or that’s what 3rd Grade Rick thought anyway… (Yes… I have been neurotic from a young age… lets move on…) Now, that specific example wasn’t even the most egregious because at least Green Bay, Denver, and Minnesota are actually the nearest(ish) teams to North Dakota (where I grew up) but it was absolutely disgusting to me when people if Fargo decided they were LA Lakers fans, UNC basketball fans, New England Patriot Fans… basically all the disgusting bandwagon movements they could choose. So long story short I never wanted to be that guy.

Former Lions GM Matt Millen has far better fashion sense than player scouting... and yet look at that sweater... that should tell you all you need to know about the Millen Years for the Lions. But either way, sitting through those miserable years made me feel like I earned the right to be a Lions fan, and thats a feeling I now desire from all my sports teams.

Former Lions GM Matt Millen has far better fashion sense than player scouting… and yet look at that sweater… that should tell you all you need to know about the Millen Years for the Lions. But either way, sitting through those miserable years made me feel like I earned the right to be a Lions fan, and thats a feeling I now desire from all my sports teams.

In any event this same mentality has been very much present in my varied attempts to become a BPL fan.

So in any event I wanted to root for a big club, with a relatively large and well developed fan base that had stuck with them through major struggles. I’ve already tried the “small club” thing in the NHL with the Nashville Predators, and I love it, but its just too hard to watch them trade off key players for young pieces year after year. I can’t knowingly walk into that situation again in another sport. Especially one where I’m hoping to stick to a team so badly this time.

SO ANYWAY in 2010, following the World Cup, I decided I wanted to be a Newcastle fan. They’re a big club, they have a lot of history and are a Premier League stalwart. They have great fans and really feel like a unique culture exists behind them to drive them. Moreover, there was very little bandwagon feel, but this appears to have been too early yet again for anything to stick. It didn’t help that Newcastle is in a lot of turmoil these days, but perhaps more damaging was the fact that American coverage of the sport just wasn’t up to snuff yet. Fox was still in charge of soccer coverage in the US and they seemed to treat the sport like some sort of backup plan. As if they had lost out on bidding for the NBA, and this was them trying to scramble and pick up the pieces. I don’t think it was until NBC took over BPL games recently that the ground was really stable enough for me to find and stick with a club.

Breakthrough:

(Photo Credit: Rick Scuteri)

(Photo Credit: Rick Scuteri)

So let’s fast forward quick to this years World Cup. Again a lot of excitement, but this time there were a few factors had changed around me leading up to it.

logosmall

 

The first, and definitely the biggest factor was the Men in Blazers Podcast with Roger Bennett and Michael Davies. These guys are absolutely fantastic. They are both Englishmen who moved to America, and have adopted the USMNT as their second home team for World Cups. I started listening to them in hopes of being more prepared than ever to follow the US in the World Cup, but along the way was exposed to their spectacular (and hilarious) coverage of the Premier League. I tuned in for the World Cup, but they ended up hooking me on the BPL. I cannot imagine a more perfect scenario as their podcast allowed me to follow the Premier League for a full year without the need to pick a team first. Before I was overwhelmed with the idea of trying to watch every single game and keep up with all the teams and storylines of the League by myself. Thats why I wanted to pick one team. I wanted to be able to zoom in on “my team” and follow them, and learn about hte rest of the league through them. That just hadn’t worked though. Now, with the Min in Blazers I got a chance to follow the whole entire League and become a fan of the entire BPL (just like I became a fan of the entire World Cup before I started to watch the USMNT or Argentina back in 2006) before worrying about picking a team. The League became so easily consumable that I couldn’t help but start to like it, for real this time. It wasn’t just that I WANTED to like it. I ACTUALLY liked it.

fifa3

Moreover, in preparation for the 2014 World Cup I finally went out and bought a copy of FIFA. Sports video games have been ridiculously helpful to me in the past in adopting new sports Leagues (worked for me with the NFL and NHL both). Playing FIFA helped familiarize me with the major players in the world, the big clubs, the structures of the League systems in Europe, promotion, relegation, how deep or shallow various nations’ top leagues were. It taught me what POSITIONS existed on a soccer field, different formations, different roles for different players. How to qualify for the Champions League or the Europa League. Who gets in from what leagues and what countries and how the leagues are structured. It taught me how TRANSFERS worked which was infinitely helpful. There is so much about top level soccer abroad that is different from how American Franchise-based sports leagues work. It has always been completely alien to me. There are just so many things I didn’t know which were barriers to me loving world football that were now finally unlocked for me. FIFA let me pretend to be a manager or owner of a football club of my own and learn the system from top to bottom.

nbc_epl

Then, as previously mentioned, NBC has been a major help as well. They play every game meaning I can watch all the big games of the week, and every match for my chosen club. Moreover, they’ve thrown together a great group of individuals to cover soccer for America and Americans who do not patronize the audience at all, but still cover it in an intelligent and easily understood manner. (Moreover, it helped me personally that their brought the Men in Blazers into the fold). They have experience grabbing a whole League of a niche sport in America hoof and horn and trying to make it consumable to the American public from their excellent work with the NHL, and that really shows with how they are now handling the BPL.

I absolutely love waking up and spending my Saturdays with these guys.

I absolutely love waking up and spending my Saturdays with these guys.

Also, the BPL is the first time in my life I’ve loved the presence of a time difference with sports. Most Premier League games are on at 10am on a Saturday in the Eastern Time Zone where I’m at. First and foremost this means that none of the games conflict with other American sporting events I may want to watch. Sure I don’t get to watch ESPN’s College Gameday anymore, but I can still tune in to see whatever school is hosting it for 20 or 30 minutes through the day. The damn thing is on for 4 hours anyway. But it doesn’t conflict with any College Football games even though it shares Saturdays with them here in the US. It doesn’t have to compete with the NFL at all, as they never play Saturdays. The NHL, NBA, MLB, and College Basketball will never play a game before noon. Its as if this time slot was built PERFECTLY for me to fit soccer into my life. Plus the particular time slot meshes so well with one of the major things I love about soccer. Soccer can be very intense and physical, but a lot of the time it has a beautiful rhythm. Its incredibly relaxing for me to watch an evenly matched soccer game (as long as I don’t have a rooting interest). This means even for the select games that are on at 7 or 9am I still have no problem watching it. Its not like watching the brutal physicality of an NFL game or the crushing hits of a hockey game first thing in the morning. Its exactly the right speed for me to start off my Saturday mornings. Moreover, the time never seems to be an issue for Sunday or Monday games either. Now the only thing for me to do was go the rest of the distance, and pick a club of my own.

Picking a Club:

Here was the tricky part. I had tried this multiple times before, but never with any success. In either event I knew a few clubs I didn’t want to root for and I knew I wanted to have a real case for picking whoever I did (besides the ol’ “they were good” … if NBC is goign to play every game then there is no reason to simply select a good team who will make the prime time slot every week). So of course first I thought about the big time powers.

1024px-Chelsea_FC.svg

I used to like Chelsea because I loved Didier Drogba, and those Kentucky Blue jerseys. Also, they were Michael Davies’ team so I knew I’d get a lot of insight into them from my beloved MiB show. But I should couldn’t stomach hopping on a club that (although it has tons of wonderful history) had come out of thin air to rise to the top of the league. Plus it just felt too horrendously bandwagony. So they were out.

Manchester_United_FC_crest.svg

Manchester United was never even a consideration. The Bandwagon-y-est of the Bandwagon Teams.

Liverpool_FC.svg

Liverpool was my friend Tyler’s team, but for some reason I could never make myself hop on with them. Maybe its because I wanted to root for a different team from him to be different, but for whatever reason, Liverpool never felt like the club for me (even though those jersey’s… errr… kits…. are spectacular).

Arsenal_FC.svg

Arsenal was probably the closest I came to rooting for one of the Big Four. They haven’t had a ton of success lately so I wouldn’t feel like I hopped on a bandwagon of recent times anyway. I liked their jerseys, their history, their fans. It was cool that they were a big London club. But it still felt like I was just picking a big winner. There is just too much depth to English Football for me to just grab one of the 4 most successful clubs. So out they went.

Manchester_City.svg

Manchester City feels like the kind of team I would have happily picked if I had been able to stick with a team in 2009, but now with their current success I couldn’t possibly hop on that bandwagon.

519px-Tottenham_Hotspur.svg

I couldn’t make myself pick Tottenham, because they were they team Bill Simmons picked after his aforementioned article on picking up a BPL team. I had no interest in simply following his path directly, and plus they club just didn’t stand out to me in any way. So there goes the last of the Big Six as well.

Everton_FC_2014

Everton seemed like almost a perfect match for me at first. Tons of history. Great fans. Forced to live in Liverpool’s shadow. Moreover, they are Roger Bennett’s team which was a huge plus. I loved the self deprecation with which he approached his love of his club. It reminded me of my own Lions fandom, and seemed like exactly the kind of familiar experience I would do so well with. Again I loved the blue kits. Plus, they had an American star, Tim Howard, playing a prominent role on the club. I even halfway adopted Everton as my surrogate team last year, living Everton’s nearly magical season through Rog’s eyes. In the end, however, I never felt like they were my own team. I felt like I was piggy-backing on Mr. Bennett and decided I really needed something that felt like I made my own decision.

Swansea_City_AFC_logo.svg

I strongly considered following Swansea, but it just seemed like I was going too far and too hipster to pick a Welsh club.

687px-Norwich_City.svg

After following last year I really liked Norwich City. I loved that their uniforms were green and yellow, two colors apparently avoided by all the other clubs. And I really thought I might just succumb and grab a small club like this as my team. And then they got relegated. Soooo that was a no go. And it furthered my resolve to avoid the smaller clubs out of fear I would just lose my team in the end anyway.

Ultimately I narrowed things down to 4 real contenders that I thought fit what I liked in a sports team. Newcastle. Hull City. Aston Villa. And West Ham United. Two of these teams were clubs I had tried to root for in the past and wanted to give a second shot. The other two were new to the agenda but clubs I really wanted to give a try.

Newcastle_United_Logo.svg

Newcastle ultimately didn’t make the cut because this Pardew fiasco just seemed too toxic to get involved with right now. The club has so much history and a great fanbase and such a unique and brilliant culture, but its an unbelievably toxic situation that I don’t know I can risk being a part of. I realize it would really make me feel like I owned a part of that club and earned my allegience, but after three tries with professional soccer, I really want my third attempt to stick. So I had to cut them from the list.

Hull_City.svg

Hull City was incredibly intriguing to me for several reasons. Of course I had already tried to watch them once. I loved their uniforms. Moreover, even though they got relegated, they’re back with a vengeance now. They’re the latest British club to be graced with a loaded foreign owner splurging on overseas purchases to inject new life into his club. I watched a couple of their games at the start of the season and they played a style of football that I really enjoyed watching. Even though Jozy was ancient history Nikica Jelevic and Abel Hernandez (one of those new big signings) are incredibly exciting offensive threats, and Mohammed Diame (another big signing) has been somewhat of a revelation all season. Moreover, I always loved their jerseys, and felt like they had a real passionate, blue collar fan base that would be fun to be a part of. However, the absolute disaster at Cardiff City last year both infuriated me (THEY’RE NICKNAMED THE BLUEBIRDS!!! YOU CAN’T MAKE THEM PLAY IN RED) and worried me. Obviously Chelsea and Man City are gold standards where a rich owner can come, inject money and players into the club, and benefit everyone. But Cardiff was a disaster where an owner made himself bigger than the club and is actively working to destroy the club’s tradition. Hull scares me because the stories about wanting to change “Hull City” to “Hull Tigers” feels like an owner yet again putting himself ahead of the team, actively working against club culture, and leaving fans to fight for the right to maintain cultural ownership of their club. So that scared me off Hull.

West_Ham_United_FC.svg

I very nearly became a West Ham fan. They have spectacular jerseys, they’re a big club with a lot of fans, and some big time pop culture gravitas. Spectacular nickname “the Hammers”. They play football that is fun to watch, work hard, have a lot of tradition and great fan support. But ultimately they just didn’t charm me as much as the team I actually chose.

My New Club:

And that left Birmingham’s Aston Villa as the club for me.

Aston_Villa.svg

Now, to start things off, Aston Villa has been a club that intrigued me for a long time. To start with, way back in 2006 when I started trying to familiarize myself with the clubs of the Premier League their name stuck out. I assumed incorrectly that they were in some town called Aston Villa (they are in fact in Birmingham) and convinced myself that it must be some old former Romano-Briton town, which appealed to me infinitely being the history nerd that I am. Moreover, in 2009 when I again began to think of picking up a Premier League team I thought I might revisit them (before ultimately picking Newcastle). However, at the time I remember hearing on some podcast or another about all the turmoil the club was going through at the time and I ended up getting scared off. In the 2009-10 they were having a good season (ended up finishing 6th) but everyone seemed to be talking of looming collapse on the horizon resulting from ownership uncertainty (another red flag for me) which ultimately came to be in the form of successive 9th, 16th, 15th, and 15th place finishes where the club has been clinging to its Premier League status and threatened with relegation year after year. Now, I’ve mentioned I like the idea of following a football club that mirrors my Detroit Lions, but this was a little too close. A little too reminiscent of the Matt Millen era. And at least when the Lions suck they can’t get relegated. Moreover, while at first I thought it was cool that Villa was owned by an American, when I learned it was former Browns owner Randy Lerner an enormous red flag flew up for me. This looked like a disaster.

I cannot wait to make my first visit to Villa Park.

I cannot wait to make my first visit to Villa Park.

However, I still couldn’t help but be intrigued with the idea of following a rebuilding project like this. Villa seemed to have several key pieces already in place in Vlaar and Delph among others. They had an American keeper which was a major plus. The uniforms were always beautiful in my opinion (the Claret and Blue is just stunning). In fact, while I liked West Ham’s jerseys they always just struck me as a knock off of the Villa jerseys which I had first been attracted to. I liked that fact that they weren’t based in London so I get to avoid the ol’ American problem of assuming all BPL teams are in London. I like that they’re in Birmingham which I have learned is “England’s Second City” so its a major city but not London. Moreover, the team is absolutely rife with history. They’re one of the oldest football clubs in England. They’re a founding member of the Premier League and in spite of the last 3 seasons of serious doubt, they have yet to be relegated EVER *knock on wood*. There was just too much to like here so in spite of the struggles, in spite of the iffy ownership situation (Lerner himself with the potential for a shady Kazakh billionaire to buy the team in the near future) I just wanted to be a part of this club. I wouldn’t feel like much of a bandwagoner and would feel like I got to come in on some kind of ground floor watching the team rise from the turmoil of the last three seasons.

Beautiful grounds, beautiful kits. I'm sold. (Photo Credit: Michael Zemanek)

Beautiful grounds, beautiful kits. I’m sold.
(Photo Credit: Michael Zemanek)

Now, I’d be a liar if I said the great start to their season this year wasn’t a big factor in my choice. By all accounts that start made it look like Villa was done being a relegation risk team and would at least be able to firmly assert themselves in the middle of the table. And while recent events may shake that view I’m still confident. Their recent stretch of losses has been against the Premier League powers and considering they grabbed a win from Liverpool, anything else is just icing on the cake. In truth this stretch itself (playing all of last season’s top 5 in a row and all of the top 6 in 7 games) was a huge plus for me. It means that early in the season I get to really immerse myself in the League and really feel like I’m watching the Premier League. I get to see my club play all the big clubs, watch all the stars of the League and the sport against my new favorite players, and it really makes me feel like I’m a part of all this, more so than watching Villa play Burnley would (no offense Burnley… but … y’know…).

And now, only 7/38ths through the season I couldn’t be happier with my choice. I’ve thrown myself into the club, the history, the stadium and city. Most importantly I’ve tried to immerse myself in the bios of the players, learning their history, clubs they’ve come from, national backgrounds, and I finally feel like I’ve gotten what I wanted back in 2006. Now I have a soccer club I can root for year round, and I can enjoy the Premier League at long last. I no longer have to be just another World Cup fan.