A Premier League Half-Term Report on Aston Villa
After Villa's nervy 1-0 win over Premier League strugglers Sunderland on New Year's Day, the Claret and Blues lie 11th in the table—a position Paul Lambert would have snapped your hand off for if you offered it to him at the start of the season.
A topsy-turvy opening 20 games has seen Villa experience some incredible highs as well as some hugely disappointing lows, but Lambert's men are a much-improved outfit on last year and will enter the second half of the season in high spirits, hoping to break into the top half of the table.
The following five slides are a breakdown of how Aston Villa have fared during the first half of the 2013/14 Premier League campaign.
It all started so very well for Villa. Paul Lambert's men went to the Emirates Stadium on the opening day of the season with few giving them a chance of leaving London anything other than empty handed. But the Claret and Blue sprung a surprise, beating the Gunners 3-1 in what was a comprehensive victory.
That astonishing result was followed up with another equally impressive performance against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. The Villans took the game to Jose Mourinho's Blues and should have got something out of the game. An unfortunate Antonio Luna own goal had Chelsea ahead before Christian Benteke powered in his third goal in two games. Branislav Ivanovic should have then been sent off for an elbow on the Belgian striker but instead avoided the red card and went on to score the game's winner.
But three points from two tricky first games was deemed as a good return, and Villa went into their next fixture—a home tie against Liverpool—in high spirits. The hosts were unable to maintain their high level of performances from the previous two fixtures, however, and were comfortably beaten by the Reds.
Villa's first home fixture of the 2013/14 season was quickly followed up with another as Newcastle made the trip to Birmingham, and unfortunately for the home crowd, a similarly dismal performance saw the Magpies leave will all three points.
Villa fans began to express their concern at the side's home form, in particular their performances at Villa Park. So, following an edgy 1-0 win away at Norwich, it was a huge surprise to see Villa secure a dramatic 3-2 victory at home to Manchester City.
The result left Villa ninth in the table, four points off second and three places above champions Manchester United, who had endured a miserable start to their campaign. There was reason for Villa fans to be cheerful, though a disappointing run of results was just around the corner.
Villa then failed to score for a fourth consecutive Premier League match as they held West Ham to a 0-0 draw, though the Hammers were unlucky not to take all three points.
But, in keeping with the season's topsy-turvy manner, Lambert's men then enjoyed a minor purple patch, collecting eight points from a possible 12, with draws against West Brom and Sunderland sandwiched in between superb wins over Cardiff City and Southampton.
The stunning 3-2 win over the Saints at St Mary's saw Villa claim their 12th of 19 points on the road, and kept them in the top half of the table.
Five games in 20 days followed, and Villa could not have had a worst festive period. The Claret and Blue suffered four defeats on the spin, losing to Fulham Manchester United, Stoke City and Crystal Palace before ending that run with a 1-1 draw at home to Swansea.
The Villa players would have hoped that the turn of the New Year would bring about new fortunes, and that proved to be the case as Sunderland gifted them a 1-0 win at the Stadium of Light.
Paul Lambert acquired seven new players during the summer in order to add experience to his youthful set-up at Aston Villa, and while some players have flourished in England, there are others who have looked severely out of their depth.
The best signing of the summer was undoubtedly Leandro Bacuna. The right-sided utility man joined Villa from FC Groningen but, due to the poor form of full-back Matthew Lowton, was forced to play in a more defensive role—rather than his more familiar right midfield.
Regardless of where he has played, though, Bacuna has shone. The Dutchman has taken to the Premier League like a duck to water, performing his defensive duties in a manner nobody expected, and has helped out when going forward—even chipping in with a number of goals.
Likewise, on the other side of defence, Spanish full-back Antonio Luna has been a huge hit at Villa Park.
After scoring Villa's third against Arsenal on his debut, the defender has continued to perform to a high standard and is sure to be one of the first names on Lambert's teamsheet when fit.
Centre-half Jores Okore joined from Nordsjaelland and, with Champions League experience under his belt, was expected to follow in the footsteps of former Villa great and Danish defender Martin Laursen.
All seemed to be going well for the 21-year-old, who had earned a place alongside captain Ron Vlaar at centre-back, until an anterior cruciate ligament injury forced him onto the sidelines for the rest of the season.
Moving forward, Bulgarian winger Aleksandar Tonev—who was recommended to Lambert by Villa hero Stiliyan Petrov, as mentioned in this Daily Mail report by Paul Collins—has, so far, been a flop.
The 23-year-old, while showing glimpses of quality, has failed to set the Premier League alight and is often frustrating to watch. His “shoot on sight” attitude quite often has teammates and fans groaning in disappointment and annoyance.
Two other acquisitions Lambert made during the summer months were strikers Libor Kozak and Nicklas Helenius.
Czech striker Kozak took his time to adjust to the Premier League and is by no means the finished article, but he is starting to turn around the views of those who doubted his credentials—myself included.
After all, he is Villa's joint-top goalscorer in the league this season with four goals.
Denmark international Helenius has been, for lack of a better term, a disaster of a signing. The 6'5” striker has been given just 52 minutes of action this season and is a long way off what is required in the Premier League.
Only seven teams have conceded fewer league goals than Villa this season, and while that may not be a statistic to shout from the rooftops, their defensive prowess has contributed largely to the team's points haul.
Continuing from last season, Villa went on an undesirable Premier League record of 26 games without a clean sheet, until their shutout of Norwich in September. And such has been their improvement at the back, Lambert's men have now added four more clean sheets to their tally.
The additions of Leandro Bacuna and Antonio Luna have certainly helped Villa combat the defensive frailties from seasons past. The ever-reliable Ron Vlaar has been a consistent rock in the heart of Villa's defence, and with Brad Guzan between the posts, Villa's back line will only go from strength to strength.
As surprising as it is to say, Villa's form on the road this season has been truly remarkable. The Claret and Blue have collected 15 of their 23 points when playing away from Villa Park—which ranks them as the fifth-best travellers in the Premier League.
Lambert's team often play with a confidence and freedom when on the road—something that they struggle to replicate when at Villa Park—and coupled with an attacking formation of either 3-5-2 or 4-3-3, they have enjoyed tremendous success away from home.
It's probably a little harsh to have Christian Benteke down as a “weakness,” especially considering the Belgian striker's haul of 19 Premier League goals last season—a tally that saved Villa from relegation—but his form this season certainly deserves a mention.
After four goals in his first four games, it looked as if the talismanic 23-year-old had picked up exactly where he left off last campaign. But an injury in the game against Norwich on September 21 ruled Benteke out for a number of weeks, and he has simply not been the same player since his return.
The Belgian has now gone 11 games without finding the back of the net—his longest spell without a goal since his move to England.
Villa's shyness in front of goal is a worry. Lambert's side have managed just 19 league goals from their 20 fixtures this season. Only four teams have found the net on fewer occasions, and two of those sides are in the bottom three.
The goal-shy Benteke is currently experiencing his worst run of form since his move to England, and Villa's other top scorer, Libor Kozak, has been ruled out for the season with a broken leg.
The team's third-highest scorer is Gabriel Agbonlahor with three goals, and below him is right-back Leandro Bacuna.
In stark contrast to Villa's away form, their points return when playing at Villa Park is dismal. Having lost six and won two of their 10 fixtures at home this season, Villa's appalling home record is the second-worst in the Premier League—only Sunderland can boast more depressing figures.
Progress from 2012/13
Aston Villa’s 2013/14 season has been wholly different compared to their previous campaign. But to gauge their progress from it, it would be best to see where they stood in the table at this point in the season last year.
On January 1 2013, Villa were just one place above the relegation zone with 18 points from 20 games. They boasted the league’s worst goal difference and were just one point above 17th-placed Southampton.
The Claret and Blue may only be five points better off this season, but they currently sit in 11th place, and while there is still a threat of a relegation battle looming, on the whole Villa fans feel more at ease with how the season is progressing.
In truth, it couldn’t have been much worse than their near-fatal 2012/13 campaign, but Lambert deserves credit for instilling a confidence and belief in the players—both existing from last term and those brought in over the summer.
The hope among Villa players and fans is that the home form improves.