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.


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.


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


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.



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.