It would seem when it comes to Martin O’Neill and Aston Villa, we’ve entered the de ja vu machine (or if you’re not a Grand Funk fan: try this) back to last August where O’Neill had to answer constant questions about not being able to bolster his squad in the transfer market and Villa holding up under the grind of the grueling Premier League season. The difference this time around is that the midfielder O’Neill has had to defend losing (James Milner) hasn’t officially gone to Manchester City yet, whereas by this time in 2009, Gareth Barry was long signed, sealed, and delivered to Manchester.
Whether you consider Aston Villa good or lucky, they grabbed Richard Dunne (from Manchester City) right before the transfer window closed, and it might have gotten them a couple of places in the standings. Consider that Villa went from conceding 48 goals in 2008-2009 to allowing 39 last year (even with 7 in one game at Chelsea). While Dunne deserves plenty of credit (he would have been on my short list of Premier League MVP candidates last season), the fact that O’Neill was almost able to name an unchanged team sheet every time out also helped. Will he be as lucky this time around? I guess we’ll find out together:
9) ASTON VILLA
2009-10 standing: 6th
Gaffer: Martin O’Neill (5th season)
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Best new signing: Marc Albrighton – Yeah, a 20-year old kid who has been with the Villa Academy since the age of 9 doesn’t really count as a “new signing”, but Villa hasn’t done anything in the transfer market, so we’ll go with Albrighton here. Albrighton made three appearances for Villa last season, but he has been impressive in the preseason, and may be able to add something that Aston Villa may need more than anything, depth, especially on the wings for guys like Ashley Young. If Albrighton get fill in and score a goal or two, it would be huge.
Biggest loss: James Milner ** – I have to put an asterisk there because he’s not officially gone yet, but all signs indicate he’s leaving. That is going to leave a big hole and O’Neill scrambling to replace someone who finished third in the Premier League in assists (12) behind Frank Lampard and Cesc Fabregas last season, not an easy task. If Milner goes, it may be a new-look Villa, with someone like Steve Sidwell – not nearly the creative force that Milner is (and someone with only 12 starts last year ) – taking his place. O’Neill has done well to hold on to the rest of the squad, Marlon Harewood is their biggest loss, and he was out on loan most of last season anyway.
Key player: John Carew – Carew might have the best supporters’ tune in the Premier League (Villa might have two of the top five with Gabby Agbonlahor’s), and somewhat quietly scored 10 goals last season despite starting only 22 league games. Does O’Neill trust him enough (or can he stay healthy enough) to give him a regular starting spot? If he does, he might get rewarded. Villa scored only 52 goals last season in the league, by far the lowest of any team in the top eight.
Random fact: Gabby Agbonlahor (yeah, I can spell his name without looking finally) managed 13 goals last season to lead Aston Villa, and if can increase that by a couple this year, he’ll be the first Villa player to score 15 times in the league since someone we in America know well – Juan Pablo Angel scored 16 goals in the 2003-2004 season for Aston Villa (and may beat that total with Red Bull New York this season).
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You hate to beat a dead issue, but the real question is whether Villa can repeat what they were able to do last season (and most of the 2008-2009 campaign) with essentially the same squad, apparently minus James Milner. Already Carlos Cuellar is nicked up, and any kind of injury crisis in the squad will be just that, a crisis. They just didn’t have the firepower to overwhelm lesser opponents, they posted a league-high 13 draws last season, 8 of which came at Villa Park. In this calendar year, they scored more than two goals in the league only one, against mighty Burnley in February.
As I discussed before, if Milner goes, I just don’t see how they adequately replace him, either.
Have we seen the best of Agbonlahor (23) and Ashley Young (25) yet? Both have been productive, but do they have another gear in them to become legitimate superstars in the Premiership? It’s possible. If Young and Agbonlahor are in top form, Carew should be there to bury some chances and ease Villa’s scoring woes. Brad Friedel is 39, but seems like he’s getting better rather than worse and the back four in front of him (Dunne, James Collins, Stephen Warnock, and Cuellar) was probably the most consistent in the league last season.
One thing not to be overlooked, there are plenty of people – like me, for instance – that have picked Villa for a slight drop-off this season, and O’Neill is a master at spinning such things to favor and inspire his squad. He has been able to push almost all the right buttons in the last couple of seasons (well, except for the Europa League thing), and rarely does his team underperform. Villa’s 32 road points were third in the league (behind Chelsea and Manchester United), and I’m sure one of O’Neill’s top priorities is getting wins rather than draws at Villa Park.
Believe it or not, I actually like O’Neill and Villa, they’re a welcome change to the bigger clubs, but the realistic side of my brain is telling me that their squad depth is just not good enough to warrant a spot near the top of the table. Villa fans take heart: the realistic side is not always correct.
O’Neill was able to survive without Barry, but I think what last season proved is that Milner was actually more valuable than Barry, and someone at Manchester City was paying attention to that. Or, City just wants to buy every player in the league and buy the title that way.
The bottom line for me is that a lot of teams, particularly in the middle of the table, have gotten better and Aston Villa hasn’t. They have too much talent to not be in the top half of the table, but that’s probably about as far as I can go.
But, be aware that when Manchester City has to cut its roster at the end of the month, O’Neill will be the first one in line to grab someone. And don’t be surprised if it’s someone that helps him jump a place or two in the table.