Assessing Aston Villa's EPL Prospects Through Three Games
An opening day win away at Arsenal left the Villa fans elated and optimistic for this season’s prospects. Subsequent losses to Chelsea and Liverpool reminded the team of the difficulty of the Premier League, but there is plenty to look forward to for the Villans in 2013/14.
Paul Lambert summarized this feeling of optimism after the game in an interview with Sky Sports.
We are a young side, but I think the improvement is there for everybody to see...I can't be too critical of the lads because they have given me everything in the three games. They have got nothing to be ashamed of with the way they have performed in the three games. If we keep doing what we're doing, we'll have a good season.
The fans at Villa Park are in better spirits than they have been in many years and there are several main takeaways from Villa’s first three performances that will influence their season to come.
The Holy Trinity
Villa’s potent attack is the team’s greatest asset and its most proven quantity. While they have only netted three goals so far this season, the combination of Gabriel Agbonlahor, Christian Benteke and Andreas Weimann can give any team fits.
While often rightly lauded as a ruthless counter-attacking trio there is more to Villa’s attack than merely outrunning the opposition. Each player has a unique skill set that allows them to successfully complement each other. Agbonlahor and Benteke have combined to create and score three of Villa’s four goals so far this season.
While Weimann has had a more frustrating start to the campaign, he created Villa's final goal against Arsenal and despite his end product lacking at times, he has displayed the industry and positional awareness that helped him succeed last season.
However, an area that Villa have struggled with in the early goings this season has been finding creativity in the middle of the park.
Creativity vs. Industry
So far, Fabian Delph, Ashley Westwood and Karim El Ahmadi have played the majority of the minutes in the midfield with Leandro Bacuna starting Saturday’s loss to Liverpool.
Although Bacuna still has time to assert himself as a creative influence on the team, Villa were distinctly lacking a central playmaker for much of last season and they are still missing a creative influence now.
Lambert's failed attempts to sign Japanese international Hiroshi Kiyotake suggest that the Scotsman understands his team's weakness, but the issue has yet to be properly addressed.
Delph, Westwood, El Ahmadi and Yacouba Sylla have all played more industrious and defensive-minded roles during their time at Villa Park. For Villa to continue to improve, one or more of these players must adapt to the team’s need for a creative outlet should Lambert not sign any new players.
Nonetheless, Villa’s midfield has been successful through their first three games at combating well to win back and maintain possession. Delph in particular has performed exceptionally and he will play a critical role under Lambert this season.
Improvement in Defense
Perhaps the greatest surprise from Villa’s opening three games has been the improvement in defense. While Villa have continued their dismal run of 25 games without a clean sheet, their defensive performances have been relatively impressive as a whole.
Against all three opponents the back four performed admirably, despite facing varied threats and having inconsistent partnerships in central defense due to injury. Lambert may eventually find himself in the unfamiliar position of having critical choices to make in selecting his central defenders.
While Matthew Lowton and Antonio Luna have seemingly secured themselves regular first-team spots, Ron Vlaar, Nathan Baker, Ciaran Clark and Jores Okore each have a strong argument to be selected.
Vlaar and Baker were Lambert’s chosen centre-backs against Arsenal when all four defenders were fit, but Clark and Okore have been very effective as well when called into action. It would not be surprising to see club captain Vlaar, the only centre-back to complete all three games this season, on the substitutes bench in favor of a younger pairing.
Overall the positive improvements made through three games indicate that Villa will contend for a top-half spot this season thanks to their lethal attack, hardworking midfield and a steadily improving defense.
Many of Villa’s mid-table competitors, such as Swansea, Norwich and Southampton, have spent uncharacteristically large amounts on high-profile transfers. Pablo Osvaldo, Wilfried Bony and Ricky Van Wolfswinkel were all record signings for their respective teams.
It will be a challenge for Aston Villa to achieve a mid-table finish while competing with these higher-spending clubs. Lambert has indicated that there is little chance of his team making any big moves in the transfer window.
Nonetheless, the talented team that Lambert has built has all of the tools necessary to safely avoid the relegation fight and set themselves up for even greater success in the future.
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