If you've kept up-to-date with developments at Villa Park since the end of last season, then you will probably know that all is not well at B6.
Aston Villa are up for sale but cannot find a buyer, finances are severely restricted, some unspectacular signings have been announced and fans are questioning the demise of their once-great club.
Despite this, all is not doom and gloom for the Midlands club. You may need to look hard, but there are a number or reasons—including the emergence of exciting youngsters, addition of experienced signings and the revitalisation of Ron Vlaar—that should leave even the most pessimistic of Villans with a glimmer of hope, excitement and optimism.
In this article, we look at four reasons why Villa fans should be looking forward to the upcoming campaign.
1) The Development of Exciting Youngsters
Villa's academy system has produced plenty of decent players who have gone on to feature in the first team. The good news for the Midlands outfit is that this looks likely to continue.
From the likes of Lee Hendrie and Darius Vassell through to Andreas Weimann and Gabby Agbonlahor, the club has a talent for identifying promising youngsters and developing them into key components of the starting XI.
With at least seven recent academy graduates vying for a place in the squad, it may not be too long before the next generation of Villa's famed youth academy secure a place in the first team.
These talents include Jack Grealish, Gary Gardner, Callum Robinson. Samir Carruthers, Daniel Johnson, Graham Burke and Janoi Donacien.
Interestingly, five of these seven players won the 2012/13 NextGen Series to crown themselves as the top under-19 team in Europe, suggesting that the next breed of youngsters could be the most talented yet.
Of these players, midfielder Gardner is the most well-known having made 18 appearances for the first team since his debut in 2011, per Transfermarkt.
However, his progress has been hampered with a number of serious injuries, resulting in the 22-year-old falling down the pecking order at Villa Park. Having recently signed a new contract, he will be looking to play a bigger role in the upcoming season.
Another player who has recently been around the first team is 19-year-old striker Robinson. He made his debut for Lambert's side in the Carling Cup last season, prior to making four substitute appearances at the end of the campaign.
The most exciting prospect is Irish attacking midfielder Grealish who showed tremendous promise when on loan at Notts County last season. The Villa fans have been clamouring to see the 18-year-old in action and got their wish when he came on against Manchester City at the end of last season. Grealish has a very bright future at Villa Park.
Although all players impressed in the NextGen Series win, two of Grealish's Irish compatriots played key roles.
Midfielder Carruthers—who made his Villa debut in 2012 and spent the majority of last season on loan at MK Dons—captained the side to victory, whilst 20-year-old striker Burke finished the tournament as top goalscorer with seven goals, including both in the final.
Both youngsters will be looking to feature regularly from the bench next season for the first team.
Although none of the youngsters are likely to secure a regular first-team spot straight away, the fact that exciting talent is still being developed at Bodymoor is a massive boost. In the tough Financial Fair Play (FFP) climate and squad requirement for home-grown players, it is refreshing to see that Villa are still investing in youth.
2) The Addition of Experience
So far this summer, the transfer dealings at Villa Park have been a marked difference to those of the previous two campaigns. Manager Paul Lambert appears to have abandoned his previous strategy of signing "young and hungry" players to instead focus on those with Premier League experience.
Since being appointed, Lambert has recruited relatively unknown players, either from lower English divisions or from outside the top five European leagues.
This strategy has been hit-or-miss to date. For every Christian Benteke or Ron Vlaar, there has been an Aleksandar Tonev or Nicklas Helenius on the Villa Park books.
Focusing on experience rather than youth is by no means a bad strategy for the Lions. The Villa squad has been crying out for experience for the past few seasons. As an example, an article by Damian Mannion for talkSPORT revealed that Aston Villa had the fifth youngest team—with an average age of 24.85—during the 2012/13 season.
This lack of experience was not rectified during the transfer window last summer. According to Sporting Intelligence, Villa lined up with the youngest team at the start of the season with an average age of 24.7. The article reports that in the opening three games of the season, all 21 players used by Lambert were under the age of 28.
Interestingly, of the seven players Villa signed last summer, Libor Kozak was the oldest at 24 years old.
Contrast this with the current transfer window and it is clear Lambert has changed tack. The three signings so far—Phillipe Senderos (29), Joe Cole (32) and Kieran Richardson (29)—have all been closer to 30 years old and have significant Premier League experience.
In addition, rumours are rife about the potential signings of two more experienced Premier League players. Arsenal's 26-year-old striker Nicklas Bendtner, per Simon Jones at the Daily Mail, and Swansea's South Korean midfielder Ki Sung-Yueng, via Mat Kendrick at the Birmingham Mail, are both reportedly on Lambert's radar.
The three signings—and rumoured next targets—may not be to the liking of every Villa fan, but blending experience with youth is a must. Lambert has finally confronted an issue that has plagued Villa for numerous years and he shouldn't be lambasted for attempting to solve a problem.
3) The Revitalisation of Ron Vlaar
The man known as "Concrete Ron" was one of the standout performers at the World Cup as he thwarted the likes of Diego Costa and Alexis Sanchez to help the Netherlands reach the semi-finals.
His commanding performances received wide praise, and despite missing a penalty in the shootout, he was commended for his bravery in stepping up first.
Vlaar has been immense. Best CB performance of the tournament so far for me.— Rio Ferdinand (@rioferdy5) July 9, 2014
Vlaar's contract is up at the end of the season, and Lambert has signalled his intention to open talks with the Dutchman as soon as possible. Rumours are rife that Vlaar could be the subject of interest from other clubs—including Manchester United, per the Daily Express—however Lambert will be confident of extending the defender's deal.
This will be particularly true because of the way that Lambert persuaded a disillusioned Christian Benteke to sign a new deal last summer.
For most football fans, the main question is why the Villa captain looked so good in the orange of his nation but can often look exposed when in the claret and blue of his club.
The 29-year-old was impressive in Brazil with his consistency, aerial ability and even his skills in bringing the ball out from the back. Whereas at Villa, he can often appear short of pace and too immobile against agile strikers.
Obviously the quality of the players around him will have an influence—after all, Karim El Ahmadi is no Nigel de Jong—but another factor could be the formation. Vlaar looked much more comfortable playing in a back three for Holland than in a back four for Villa.
Having a spare central defender gave Vlaar more time to read the danger and meant that he wasn't occupied man-to-man marking an attacker. Therefore, a switch in formation to a 5-3-2, a 5-2-3-1 or another variation with a back three could rekindle some of Vlaar's World Cup exploits and get the best out of the Dutchman at Villa Park.
The addition of Senderos as a centre-back and Richardson—either as a left-back or left midfielder—is intriguing as it could suggest Lambert is already toying with the thought of how to get the best out of Vlaar.
These signings now mean that Lambert has five experienced centre-backs to choose from—Vlaar, Jores Okore, Senderos, Nathan Baker and Ciaran Clark—which is arguably too many when playing four at the back but the right number when playing a back three.
The Richardson signing also suggests that Lambert is looking for a slightly more attacking left-back and a replacement for Antonio Luna and Joe Bennett who have not been up to the task. Richardson fits that bill due to his time playing as a left midfielder and left-back.
The thought of a rejuvenated Vlaar, a returning Okore and Senderos in the heart of defence, with Richardson or Joe Bennett on the left and Matt Lowton or Leandro Bacuna on the right feels an improvement on previous seasons and plays to the strengths of Vlaar.
If Villa can get Vlaar to sign a new deal and display the prowess he demonstrated in the World Cup, then defence becomes less of a concern for the fans.
4) The Power of Stripes
If the three points above haven't filled you with hope, then it may be best to leave it to superstition. It is worthwhile knowing that Villa tend to do pretty well when wearing stripes, as they will be for the upcoming season.
The new Macron home kit features vertical blue pinstripes on a predominantly claret shirt. When wearing stripes, Villa won the 1994 Coca Cola Cup, the 1982 European Cup and the 1957 FA Cup. Perhaps a cup-winning season is on the cards?
Should this article have failed to rekindle any hope or optimism in my fellow Villans, then remember the inspiring lyrics by D:Ream—"Things can only get better."