Preseason review and season preview
As we approach the end of a mixed bag of a summer for the club, Villa fans could be forgiven for (and perhaps should be) bracing themselves for a continuation of what the Guardian’s Stuart James recently described as a “miserable cycle of underachievement”.
Several measures have been taken in an attempt to break this cycle – an overhaul of transfer policy, the apparent reintegration of the Lambert-enforced ‘Bomb Squad’ and the appointment of Roy Keane as assistant manager to name a few – although how much success they bring remains to be seen.
Here is an attempt to identify the good, the bad and the ugly of Villa’s preseason and to preview the season ahead.
There have been whispers recently that Randy Lerner is no longer actively looking to sell the club and is willing to recommence fully funding Paul Lambert. If this is true it is almost certainly a result of Lerner being unable to find a willing buyer, but it could provide a huge boost in the remaining two weeks of the transfer window.
Although the club’s signings so far this summer have been a tad underwhelming, Lambert has at least added some desperately-needed experience to the squad by reversing his policy of signing young, untested players.
If Joe Cole still has anything left in the tank he could add some quality on a bit-part basis to a light midfield; Philippe Senderos brings more experience to the centre of defence; Kieran Richardson arrives with 236 Premier League appearances to his name and offers another option in more than one position; and where Aly Cissokho wasn’t good enough for Liverpool, he should be good enough for us.
If the deal for Colombian midfield anchor Carlos Sanchez (if below pic tackling Yaya Toure) is completed – and, of course, if he then manages to settle quickly into life in English football – then Villa could have found the defensive midfield presence they have been searching for (I was beginning to think we were going to have to ask Roy to dig out his boots).
The signing of Sanchez could well improve Villa’s midfield on two fronts. Firstly, he should add the kind of steel and physical presence that Villa have not had in the centre for far too long, and his reported arrival could also free up Fabian Delph to drive forward knowing that he has more than just Ashley Westwood to do his defensive work for him.
Add to the new arrivals the fact that Ron Vlaar remains a Villa player with only a fortnight to go of the transfer window, and the apparent reintegration of the club’s ‘Bomb Squad’ – Darren Bent, Charles N’Zogbia and Alan Hutton have all featured heavily in preseason – and Villa look, on paper, to have their most experienced squad for several seasons.
As at the start of every season, we remain hopeful that this year will be the year that Gary Gardner finally steers clear of injury and breaks decisively into the first team. However, Villa fans have a new young star to champion ahead of 2014-15. After a successful season on loan at Notts County last campaign Jack Grealish has impressed during preseason and is being backed by many, including Lambert, to challenge for a regular place in the matchday squad this season.
As mentioned above, the fact that Villa have now altered their transfer policy in favour of signing more experienced players should bring a much-needed balance and maturity to the squad. Unfortunately, any optimism that one might have for a signing made by Paul Lambert is rather curtailed by his transfer record as Villa manager.
Yes he brought Christian Benteke and Ron Vlaar to the club, but the fact that Jordan Bowery, Yacouba Sylla, Joe Bennett, Nicklas Helenius, Antonio Luna and Aleksandar Tonev – all Lambert signings, the latter three just last summer – have now been allowed to leave the club (whether it be on loan or permanently) speaks volumes for the failures of his initial transfer policy. The departures of Marc Albrighton and Samir Carruthers this summer also represent a disappointing lack of fulfilled potential.
Looking ahead to the early-season fixtures, Villa embark upon a hugely testing series of games from mid-September, facing Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Everton consecutively in a run of matches which is bound to be fun for all of us. That schedule makes it all the more important that Villa get off to a confident start at Stoke on Saturday, followed by Newcastle United and Hull City.
Last season Villa had a rather build-them-up-and-knock-them-down habit of taking points off top eight teams and losing abjectly to the teams around them. That will have to change this season, with many clubs having strengthened to a greater degree than Villa, if we are to steer clear of the drop zone which has been a constant threat over the last three or four years.
The gap between the club and the supporters was widened even further recently with the club’s 20-point code of conduct for the chairmen of the Aston Villa Lions supporters’ clubs.
This is a tricky issue to assess. The aspect that has caused trouble is the point prohibiting “abusive conversations towards anyone associated with the club, in any public forum, whether this is on a page which is personal to you and bears your name, or on a page that bears the name of your Lions Club (including social media)”.
Now, calling for an end to abuse is commendable and correct. However, it depends what the club defines as abuse. It has been claimed by numerous supporters that this was actually a veiled attempt to effectively gag fans from criticising the club – a theory given oxygen by the reported dismissal of Ian Taylor from the club’s pre-season tour to Texas because of a column Tayls wrote in which he had the temerity to suggest that things at Villa under Lambert were perhaps not satisfactory. What an outrageous claim, how could you Ian?!
Let’s face it, we all know that the Aston Villa PR and supporters’ liaison teams come up short in several respects, such as the patronising treatment and tone taken with fans through the official website or on social media, or the sometimes heavy-handed approach taken towards supporters in the stands. Whether you agree with all of the club’s code of conduct or not, this is an issue which needs to be handled delicately.
Attempts to crackdown on the kind of abuse which unfortunately does occur on social media should be fully supported. The slightest sign of this stance becoming one of mere censorship, however, and Villa’s already alarming alienation of a considerable portion of their supporter base will increase further.
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