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.

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Too Good To Go Down: Dreading the Finish Line with Aston Villa

(Photo Credit: Laurence Griffiths and The Mirror)

(Photo Credit: Laurence Griffiths and The Mirror)

So my first full season following The Villa is coming to a nail-biting conclusion, and I can wholeheartedly assure you that the results have been anything but what I expected. After Villa’s excellent start to the season I was expecting a staunchly mid table performance from the club which would give me amble time to familiarize myself with the Premier League without too much tension. Instead I now find myself sitting 4 games out from the end of the season with Villa only 2 points removed from relegation. Considering the fact that to start the season one of my beloved Men in Blazers (Michael Davies) chose Villa as one of his 3 preseason picks to get relegated, I probably should have been more prepared for a rocky ride, but I wasn’t. But in spite of it all I can’t help but attach myself to one pig-headed conclusion: this team is too good to go down.

And thankfully, that seems to be a point that many pundits are making too. And don’t confuse this with the nonsensical mantra I heard from many Villa fans during the worst parts of this season; that the club is too Big to go down. Newcastle taught us that that doesn’t matter in 2009 when they were shockingly relegated. But that isn’t what we’re talking about here. Rather, this Villa team is absolutely loaded with Premier League Caliber talent as evidenced by the fact that they just beat Liverpool in the FA Cup Semi-Finals and will be taking on Arsenal May 30th at Wembley with a chance to take home the Cup.

(Photo Credit: Glyn Kirk, AFP)

(Photo Credit: Glyn Kirk, AFP)

Those late season, on the field performances justified this notion, but in all honesty this proof wasn’t even necessary for me personally. Let’s rewind for just a second and discuss. Say what you will about Paul Lambert as a coach. This season the team had clearly quit on him meaning he needed to go. However, the guy is an absolute dream when it comes to player acquisitions. Not only did Lambert have a spectacular eye for talent, he was also a shrewd business man capable of operating within Randy Lerner’s increasingly finite financial restrictions on the club. Time and again throughout his tenure Lambert brought in excellent young players or cagey veterans alike, but always on bargain deals good for the club and for the disinterested owner.

Image via Getty Images

Image via Getty Images

This season was no different as, during the January Transfer Window Lambert not only managed to bring in the electric (though now sadly unused) Carles Gil in an attempt to revitalize the Villa offense (which he temporarily did practically single-handedly), but also a versatile and much needed winger in Scott Sinclair who is still in the prime of his career. Add to that the fact that he shrewdly avoided paying an inflated fee to keep the then under-performing Tom Cleverley AND stuck to his guns to keep the price down on Sinclair as well, and you had yet another superb example of Lambert’s expert ability to bring in Premier League talent at under-market value prices. An excessively important skill at a club with an ownership situation like the one Villa has.

Now, none of that helped the team win. I understand that. This same roster which is undeniably stocked with quality players (Delph and Cleverley have earned caps for the English National team, Benteke is a beast who still hasn’t even discovered the full depth of his abilities, Ciaran Clark and Jores Okore are a talented burgeoning duo of center backs paired with the stud Ron Vlaar, and Jack Grealish has been a revelation the last few games… to name just a few…) was drastically underachieving and didn’t seem to care that they were about to get a proud club relegated. A new voice was undeniably necessary, but in spite of the team’s abysmal performance it was obvious that the talent was there. In the end, then, I was sad to see Lambert go because of all the great work he had done putting this squad together, but grateful to see a change which would hopefully reignite the club.

(Photo Credit: Carl Recine, Reuters)

(Photo Credit: Carl Recine, Reuters)

I was not, however, pleased with who the club decided to bring in to replace Lambert. In my limited time following the club I had sold myself on Lambert as an intellectual type who would be much better suited to front office jobs, player analysis and acquisition than the fiery, on pitch tasks of a manager. However, I still enjoyed the idea of having someone who I felt was ‘smart’ running my football club. So it did not enjoy the idea that my club would now employ “Tactics Tim,” a manager almost universally ridiculed for his over-enthusiasm, and simpleton’s tactics. However, what I wasn’t considering was just how demoralized and desensitized the players had become under Lambert. In truth, Sherwood was exactly what the club needed.

Screw tactics. Screw technique. Screw intelligence. This team needed some freaking passion. And that is exactly what Tim Sherwood brings.

It may look comical. We may be mocked by other fans and pundits. But screw it, if it keeps us in the League who cares. With Sherwood at the helm the players are finally playing somewhere close to their talent level, and if we’re lucky that will be enough to keep us in the League.

Certainly there are still flaws, and certainly the club has not been built back up to the form it should be at. But the talent is there. The team give a crap. The fans finally have something entertaining to watch and have hope again. We just need to get through this season at this point. If we can just avoid relegation in these next four games (still a massive feat admittedly) it will all be worth it. I see no reason Villa can’t scrap together enough points to stay ahead of Sunderland, QPR, Burney, and even a resurgent Leicester. And heck, we might even have enough life in us to overtake a floundering Hull or Newcastle. This team does not deserve to go down. They have the talent of a Premier League Side and the last few weeks they’ve finally started playing like it. Under Sherwood the seemingly moribund team found  a pulse, and now we’re inches away from staying alive for one more year.

(Photo Credit: REUTERS)

(Photo Credit: REUTERS)

There will certainly be growing pains that we have to pay for next year. Sherwood has never purchases a player before. Ever. In his entire (albeit brief) career as a Premier League manager which could really hurt this off-season when compared to the successes of Lambert’s acquisitions. However, in all honestly the team shouldn’t even need much more talent. If the team stays up we should stand a fair chance at resigning anyone we need off of this year’s roster, and will likely only lose Vlaar who has become replaceable with the emergence of Clark and Okore anyway. As long as we stay up and don’t need to initiate an immediate fire-sale we should be able to bring back the vast majority of this year’s admittedly deep team, and hopefully without the lack of motivation and enthusiasm which plagued the club for long stretches this season (I mean… we had to cancel the goal of the month contest for October because we didn’t score a single goal all month…….) we should be able to leverage that talent into a staunchly mid table performance next season (which I for one honestly welcome at this point).

This team has talent to spare this season. Villa is a big club with Premier League caliber players and now (at long last) a little freaking enthusiasm and swagger coming on the back of their FA Cup Semifinal win. The battle is far from won thus far, but there is still no doubt in my mind that this club is too good to go down. A disaster could still come, and it would absolutely devastate this club, but for the time being I feel like we need a little optimism and faith. This team and these players belong in the Premier League no matter what their abysmal record is. Now let’s just hope we go out and prove it this weekend against Everton. I don’t care if the media mock us for it, I want to celebrate every point we get from here until the end of the season like we just won the freaking League. Because if we don’t get those points, we won’t even be in the League to get mocked next year.

(Photo Credit Michael Regan)

(Photo Credit Michael Regan)