Despite the predictions of many a pundit, life at Villa Park has progressed relatively serenely since the sudden departure of Martin O’Neill. Although two games into the new season is clearly far too early to judge the outcome of the season, a comfortable 3-0 win against West Ham, and a 1-1 draw in Vienna, is a solid beginning to the new campaign.
The wave of support for caretaker manager, Kevin MacDonald, is testament to this. When O’Neill quit, he was a 30-1 outsider for the permanent position. Today, he is the bookmakers’ favourite at 6/4.
On Wednesday, the summer’s longest-running transfer story was finally ended, as James Milner completed his £26m move to the City of Manchester Stadium. Whilst losing your Player of the Year is bound to be a blow for any club, almost everybody would agree that Villa have negotiated an incredible deal.
£18m in cash, plus Stephen Ireland, is a remarkable amount for a player, who has been consistently solid throughout his career, with one outstanding season last year. Indeed, many would argue that Stephen Ireland is just as good a player, if not better than Milner anyway.
With no new signings at the time, the major story ahead of Villa’s opening day match with West Ham was that James Milner had been named in the squad for the match. A risky move no doubt—the player’s head could have been elsewhere, leading to a poor performance, or even worse, an injury could have scuppered the whole deal.
However, despite these concerns, Milner was named in the starting XI, a move that led Villa Park to boo the announcement of his name. However, 85 minutes later as he left the field having scored Villa’s third goal, he received a standing ovation. Whatever you may feel about his motivation for moving clubs, he put in a final magnificent performance for the club. A true professional.
Another bonus for Villa has been the performance of the younger players that have been given their chance under MacDonald. Much has been said and written about Marc Albrighton’s performance against West Ham, where he set up two of the goals, and was instrumental in the other. Again, he was the best Villa player on the pitch in Vienna yesterday.
He now looks to be living up to the hype that he has been receiving over the past year from Villa fans. An old-school type winger, he loves nothing more than to run at his fullback and deliver a telling cross. His emergence has also led to the switch inside for Ashley Young, where he has the freedom to roam.
Several of the young players were given the opportunity in a weakened squad for the Europa League match in Vienna. Eric Lichaj, Barry Bannan, and Jonathan Hogg were all given the opportunity alongside Albrighton, Nathan Delfouneso, and Andreas Weimann came on as substitutes.
Bannan scored the Villa goal, and although he started brightly, he faded as the game progressed. Considering it was his full debut in a competitive match for the club though, this is hardly a nightmare performance. Lichaj struggled a little, as did Hogg, but alongside a makeshift and inexperienced defence is a difficult situation to make your debuts. The only major blow was a serious-looking injury to Austrian striker, Andreas Weimann.
However, although the good start has papered over some of the concerns at Villa Park, there is still the need for some change. A manager is needed (as soon as possible) to oversee some players being brought into the club. Whilst MacDonald has begun well, when results dip, people will be wondering where the experienced manager is.
The Curtis Davies contract situation needs to be resolved one way or another. He currently earns £20k per week, but if he plays one more league match, this will automatically be doubled to £40k per week.
Whilst he is a decent player, this is a large amount to pay a backup. However, keeping him as a back-up if he will not play in the league is similarly ridiculous. He either needs to be sold, or an agreement reached between the two parties.
In my opinion, another striker is still needed at Villa Park. John Carew is hugely experienced and a real handful on his day, but is relatively inconsistent, and has had a number of injury problems over the past couple of years. Agbonlahor is still young, and his pace provides a real threat, but he has a tendency to go on long runs of not scoring. Similarly, Emile Heskey has struggled to provide a real goal threat for many years now, and rumours linking him with a move back to Leicester may be what he needs.
Beyond that, there is the promising young duo of Nathan Delfouneso and Andreas Weimann (although this depends how serious his injury is). Whilst they are showing plenty of potential, it is expected of them to make an immediate step up to the top flight.
Last season, Villa had a strong defence, but often struggled to score the goals required. Only 8 home wins out of 18 is a clear demonstration of this. There is simply not the creativity and the goal-scorer to break teams down when they sit back and defend. Stephen Ireland will help to solve the creativity problem, as will moving Ashley Young into the centre. However, there is still no player who is likely to become that 20-a-season striker that all clubs crave.
Overall, it has been an excellent start to the season for the club. The convincing opening-day victory banished the negativity from O’Neill’s departure, while the calculated risk of sending a young team to Vienna paid off. When the return leg comes next week, Villa will be favourites to qualify for the group stages.
However, the vacant managerial role still continues to hang like a spectre over the club, and needs to be resolved soon. Lerner originally said that the new man would be in place in time for the Newcastle game on Sunday. The club are now saying there is no timetable in place for the new appointment. Whilst it is important not to rush in and make the wrong decision, the transfer window closes in 10 days, and it would be foolish not to have the new man in place by then.