Another call to the bullpen, this time from Chicago's own, Jared Dunn writing on Aston Villa. He starts with a riff on the "Venture Bros" which easily holds a place in my all-time television Top 10. Watch it, I wouldn't lead you astray. Also, visit Jared's uber-cool site, Jareddunn.org, too. Oh right, his write-up isn't too shabby either.
By Jared Dunn
Pirate Captain: We can't all be famous adventurers. That doesn't mean you have to be out of the adventure game altogether.
Camper: You mean becoming super villains?
Pirate Captain: Shiver me timbers, no!! I'm talkin' about the rubber mask set. The little guys.
Camper: Do we get to wear cool costumes?
Pirate Captain: You bet you do!
-- The Venture Brothers "The Buddy System"
"The Venture Bros." bills itself as a show about failure, but it's really about a very specific kind of not-exactly-failure. It's about the failure of people with great expectations, who aim to be superheroes (or villains, whichever you prefer) only to find out somewhere along the way that they just don't quite have what it takes. Most of them are actually doing fairly well by anyone else's standards, but within the expectations and conventions of the world they inhabit, they just can't cut the mustard, for whatever reasons. Most of them are also burdened by an illustrious past they feel bound to live up to; family history, lost glories they strive to in vain to regain in a changed modern world, and all of the weight of expectations and ambitions those entail.
To me, this almost perfectly captures the situation Aston Villa FC find itself in entering the 2010-11 season.
By any objective measure, Villa are doing pretty damned well for a club with a rather checkered recent past that plays in a medium-sized, unglamorous city. They have an excellent and esteemed manager and solid ownership combined with a young, cohesive, and at-times exciting core of homegrown talent. They are coming off of a third consecutive sixth place finish in one of the best leagues in the world and have been remarkably consistent, finishing on 60, 62, and 64 points over that span. They are who they are at this point, and that's a very good and disciplined team who can beat anyone on their day, but who don't quite have the resources, depth, or game-changing elite talent to truly compete for a title over a grueling Premier League campaign.
The problem is, you get the feeling that this is about as good as it is ever going to get for them, and that they're also never going to be satisfied with that. They're sort of stuck in a weird place, where they're good enough to sniff a Champions League spot, but probably not good enough to ever reach that goal, and also not able to simply accept that and enjoy the fruits of being a solid upper-middle-class EPL team.
You would like them to approach things a little more like Fulham did last year, by really trying in the Europa League, enjoying the ride as best they can, and so on. But, they're not a club with the same kind of history as a Fulham. They simply can't bring themselves to temper their expectations to match their modern position, and so they'll always be eager to give up what they already have for a chance to chase the big money and the fabulous prizes. This is a club that is a founding member of both the Football League and the Premier League, that is one of only four English teams to win a European Cup, and that has won countless domestic trophies, though the majority of them came well before the modern era of professional football.
And, it's also tempting at first glance to think that they can make that last leap and finally regain super-Villan status. They've improved, albeit very slightly, each of the past three years. The teams around them in the table are on the rise, so why can't they be as well? Spurs finally broke through and took a Champions League spot last year. The old Big Four model is now broken, the top of the league turned into an eight team race last year, and increasing parity looks like the order of the day for the foreseeable future.
Unfortunately for Villa though, most of the other teams around them have advantages that they lack. Arsenal has Arsene Wenger and his young talent factory. Manchester City has oil billions and major buzz surrounding them. Spurs have plenty of money to spend and a prime London location. Liverpool are still Liverpool, albeit with reduced means. Everton are probably the best comparison in terms of inherent limitations, but they have David Moyes, and as good as Martin O'Neill may be, Moyes is better, and blessed with a couple of game-changing players in Mikel Arteta and Tim Cahill that give them that little bit of extra edge over 38 games.
Villa are quite good, but they are also looking quite stuck.
The lack of activity in the transfer market this summer reinforces that sense of stuckness. Their only move of any note at all so far was to maybe-possibly sell Luke Young to Liverpool, and he was squad depth and cover at best, and won't raise enough of a fee to allow for significant reinvestment. Rumors abound of James Milner and/or Ashley Young heading to greener pastures for big bucks, and this would allow for some much-needed retooling, but at the cost of breaking up the solid core of young attacking talent, and at the risk of not being able to attract a similar class of player. Birmingham will never have the same attraction as London or even Manchester, let alone Madrid or Barcelona, and it's hard to imagine many other established players of the class of a Milner or Young who would be willing to go there, all other things being equal.
As it is, we're looking at basically the same squad as last year. Gabriel Agbonlahor will lead the line up front, and get his 10-15 goals, with maddeningly long droughts in between. John Carew, Emile Heskey and possibly the youngster Nathan Delfouneso will provide support. You know what to expect from the first two; Carew will look like Drogba one day, and the Invisible Man the next, Heskey will do everything well but his ostensible job, which is scoring goals. Delfouneso showed flashes in the cups last year, but it's hard to know really what to expect from him.
In the midfield you have Young, Milner, and Downing on the wing, with Milner rotating inside to support steady Stiliyan Petrov and not-so-steady Steve Sidwell and Nigel Reo-Coker. The one place Villa do have good quality depth is at the back, with Curtis Davies, Richard Dunne, James Collins, and Carlos Cuellar to choose from in the middle, and Stephen Warnock, Nickey Shorey, Habib Beye, and Cuellar again on the outside. The American duo of Brad Friedel and Brad Guzan continue to ably hold down the goalkeeping duties.
Other than that, there's not much coming through the pipeline. Fabian Delph was much-heralded when he came in from Leeds last summer, but he looked out of his depth the few times he saw the field last season. Marc Albrighton might see some time out on the wing if anyone gets hurt or sold, but he didn't play enough last year to get much of a sense of what he can do. The main prospects for improvement would be a bounceback season out of Young or Downing and the continued growth of Agbonlahor into a more consistent striking threat. You could also hope for Carew or Sidwell to be more consistent, or for Delfouneso or Delph to emerge as first-choice players, but you'd really be going out on a limb there.
If Milner or Young gets sold, you'd expect O'Neill to try to buy another striking option, and probably some cheaper cover on the wing. If it's Milner, they'll also need help in the middle of the park, unless they think Delph is ready or they really want to trust a regular spot to the mercurial combination of Sidwell and Reo-Coker, who are also rumored to be on the block. All-in-all, it's a frustrating situation, as the squad was barely deep enough the past couple of years to really compete, and it's hard to see it getting much deeper even with the 20-25 million transfer kitty that the sale of Milner would likely provide.
Bottom Line -- Like the good Pirate Captain says, we can't all be great adventurers, but you can still enjoy being in the game and getting to wear cool costumes. Villa will likely be in the Top Four game again this year, but it's hard to see them having much of a chance of winning it. If everything breaks right and someone else falters, they could finish as high as fifth or possibly even fourth, though odds are long indeed on the latter with the improvement of City and Spurs. More likely this is the season that ends their run of sixth place finishes, and they slip to seventh or eigth behind an improving Everton and a resurgent Liverpool. They'd be well-advised to actually try in Europe this time around, as a long run in the Europa League and good cup runs are probably the best shots of getting something satisfying out of this campaign. If they do go for it outside of league play they could have depth, injury, and fatigue issues and drop down as low as 10th or so, but probably no further than that.
In case you missed it:
* Birmingham City
* West Ham United
* Stoke City
* Blackburn Rovers
* Wigan Athletic
* West Brom