Aston Villa: 5 Observations of Villa's Offence so Far in 2014-15
After a rocky summer, the Villa faithful will be grateful for their solid opening to the 2014-15 Premier League season. They have gained four points from a possible six after their stalemate with Newcastle on Saturday.
Defensively, Villa have made great strides from previous seasons. Their back line has gone from a jittery group of youngsters to an organized and experienced defence. As a result, the team has yet to concede a goal this season.
Unfortunately, the team's attack has been less impressive. Villa have scored just one goal, netting from the team's only shot on target of the season against Stoke.
There are some signs of improvement in the team's offensive approach, but there are also several worrying signs that suggest that the return of Christian Benteke couldn't come soon enough.
Here are five observations of Villa's offence so far in 2014-15.
The Full-Back Play Is Greatly Improved
After years of struggling to find consistency from one or both of the full-back positions, Villa fans will be immensely relieved by the strong starts of former castoff Alan Hutton and new signing Aly Cissokho.
Cissokho received mixed reviews after his loan stint to Liverpool last season, but the Frenchman has been quite impressive in his two matches in a Villa shirt so far. The left-back has kept it simple but effective on both sides of the ball.
Even more surprising has been the shocking resurgence of Hutton. The Scotsman had a poor debut campaign under Alex McLeish in 2011-12 and had been exiled from the first team by Paul Lambert for the past two seasons.
The defensive shortcomings of Matthew Lowton and Leandro Bacuna gave Hutton his opportunity to return from banishment, and he has responded with two good performances. The right-back has shown confidence on the ball and has been untroubled defensively.
Lambert cannot be certain that the full-back conundrum has been fully solved; both Lowton and Bacuna received much praise before falling down the pecking order. Nonetheless, a strong start from Hutton and Cissokho has been a welcome surprise for Villa and helped balance the attack.
Gabriel Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann Are as Inconsistent as Ever
In complete contrast to Villa's unexpected consistency at full-back is the frustrating play from forwards Gabriel Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann.
The absence of Christian Benteke and Libor Kozak seemed to give both men an opportunity to regain the fans' confidence in their abilities to lead the line. Unfortunately, through a pair of matches, both men have failed to show that they have addressed their flaws.
Agbonlahor retains tremendous pace, has decent ability with his back to goal and will embark on a dangerous run or two over the course of a match. However, the long-time Villan does not seem to find himself in scoring positions enough and is guilty of poor finishing in front of goal.
It may seem harsher to criticize Weimann after he netted Villa the winner in their opening match against Stoke, but the Austrian's goal has been his only significant contribution across two matches. After a horrid campaign in 2013-14, Weimann has improved slightly, but he still disappears for significant portions of matches and needs to improve his technique.
Despite their inconsistencies, both men have been virtual fixtures of the starting XI over the past two seasons. This cannot remain the case for much longer, and the pair of forwards must improve if they want to retain their places once Villa's squad is fully fit.
Kieran Richardson's Role Is Completely Undefined
Of Villa's summer signings, the acquisition of Kieran Richardson from Fulham asked more questions than it answered. Richardson has played in a plethora of different positions over his career, leaving many wondering what role the manager had in mind for the veteran player.
Two games into the season, Richardson's situation is no clearer. The Englishman has started both matches and has been all over the pitch, seemingly operating as everything from a central midfielder to a winger on either flank to playing just behind the striker.
Acquiring Richardson to serve as a utility player is not bad for the squad, as he is a versatile and experienced player. In a given match, however, Lambert must better define where Richardson should position himself and what he expects from the former Manchester United man.
This is especially important as long as Richardson plays alongside Andreas Weimann, who has often been similarly confusing by his lack of a proper position. Pinning down a defined role for Richardson should become a priority in the coming weeks to improve the team's offensive cohesion.
Charles N'Zogbia Is Determined to Reassert Himself
Charles N'Zogbia is another Villa player who seems determined to redeem himself in the eyes of the fans and the manager. Having disappointed after his high-profile signing from Wigan, N'Zogbia missed the entirety of last season with a ruptured Achilles tendon.
The Frenchman has returned with a vengeance and has been one of Villa's brightest players so far. He was in excellent form during the pre-season, scoring a pair of free kicks, and he came close with another set-piece effort against Newcastle.
N'Zogbia's revitalization will be crucial toward Villa's success in the upcoming season. Only youngster Jack Grealish and midfield standout Fabian Delph offer the same enterprising attitude with the ball at their feet, making N'Zogbia a valuable asset that Villa missed last season.
He may not be fully back to his best yet—as a miscued volley and his fitness levels show—but Villa are much better off with N'Zogbia back in the squad as a regular contributor.
The No. 10 Problem Still Remains Unsolved
Having gained four points from a possible six, Villa are certainly making steps in the right direction. However, with their lack of a true No. 10, Villa's largest problem last year remains unresolved.
While their defence has helped mask the problem, Villa have struggled to create chances. Their ability to retain possession has improved, but they have not made strides in penetrating the first line of defence.
Joe Cole seems naturally inclined to play this role in advanced midfield, but fitness struggles have prevented him from making his Villa debut. Until Cole is ready to play, Villa are still without a creative type to exploit space, create chances for others and link the attack and defence.
Relying on the fitness of Cole to solve this problem is a risky proposition. The acquisition of defensive midfielder Carlos Sanchez will help, as he will allow the likes of Fabian Delph and Ashley Westwood to play a more advanced role to better link up play.
Still, a final signing for Villa in the transfer window would be welcome. A talented playmaker is still the missing piece at Villa Park, and Lambert should pull out all the stops to find one before the window closes next week.