The Fabulous Reincarnation of Fabian Delph

“He’s got great talent, he can pass the the ball, he covers the ground, he loves to tackle,” enthused Simon Grayson as he spoke to the BBC about a teenager making a big impression at Leeds United.  “He’s a young kid so he’s going to go through ups and downs in his career, but the lad’s got huge talent.”

Simon Grayson’s comments regarding Fabian Delph in March 2009 were remarkably prescient.  To say that Delph has experienced ups and downs since joining Aston Villa would be something of an understatement.

In recent months, however, the Bradford-born midfielder has emerged as one of Paul Lambert’s most important players.

Martin O’Neill took Fabian Delph to Aston Villa in August 2009 when he was an 19-year-old starlet.  At the time, Manchester United, Everton, Manchester City, Tottenham, Arsenal and Newcastle had all shown interest in the youngster before Leeds eventually agreed to sell their prized asset to Aston Villa for an estimated £8m.  Leeds chairman Ken Bates praised the manner of Villa’s approach for Delph, and it was perhaps this respectful approach which helped Villa secure the player ahead of other interested clubs.

Managers who had circled the Leeds youngster took note of Delph’s authoritative all-action style as he played 42 games for Leeds United during the 2008/2009 season.   All six of Delph’s goals that year were eye-catching, particularly his brace against Walsall where the youngster made strong, lung-bursting runs from midfield and confidently struck home from distance.  Gary McAllister, who would later work with Delph again under Gerard Houllier, predicted a bright future, “Fabian Delph has come through our academy and is an exciting talent as well as being very competitive.  He is a natural footballer.”



fabian delph villa improvement
The baby-faced Delph found it hard to get a foot in at Villa, when he first signed


Following Delph’s arrival at Villa, he made his debut against Fiorentina on 8 August 2009 when Villa beat the Viola 1 – 0. The teenager showed glimpses of his natural attacking instincts as he confidently surged forward and unleashed several stinging shots towards goal.  It was a performance that showed the player’s exuberance and tenacity, but unfortunately the development of Delph was stunted in his debut season due to a lack of first team football.

In 2009 Martin O’Neill was attempting to build a squad capable of qualifying for the Champions League and it appeared that the Villa manager saw Delph as a player for the future, rather than a player for the present.  In the 2009 / 2010 season, Delph made only nine starts for the club, five of which came in Cup competitions.  Frustratingly for Delph, Martin O’Neill didn’t believe in rotation and the youngster found that his path to the first team was blocked by players such as Milner, Petrov, Reo-Coker, Gardner and Sidwell.

In terms of Delph’s development, a pattern emerged during Martin O’Neill’s four years at the club, in that he never really attached much importance to the position of defensive midfield, and instead preferred to share out defensive duties, or muddle through by converting a long list of players to play the position.

An example of O’Neill’s tinkering came after Stiliyan Petrov’s first season at the club where Petrov struggled in the attacking-midfield role.  Villa had invested £7m on a player who had scored freely for Celtic, but following Petrov’s move to England, the Bulgarian found it difficult to cope with the pace of the Premier League.  In subsequent seasons Petrov was re-deployed in other central midfield roles aided by Nigel Reo-Coker who was meant to add strength and legs to Villa’s midfield.  Unfortunately, the former West Ham midfielder lacked skill and tactical discipline and Reo-Coker frequently voiced his discontent at playing defensive-midfield rather than his preferred box-to-box midfield position.

Many Premier League clubs were using a player in the Makelele role, where teams fielded a defensive midfielder who could win the ball cleanly and swiftly distribute possession to a team mate.  Martin O’Neill, however, was fairly dismissive of modern football trends and preferred to play with a two-man midfield without assigning specific holding duties to any player.  Petrov and Barry, for instance, were competent when in possession but lacked mobility.   Milner and Petrov were slightly better due to Milner’s selfless running, but following the departures of Barry and Milner, Steve Sidwell failed to make an impact at the club and Villa were again forced to rebuild the midfield following a high turnover of players.

Months of frustration during the 2009 / 2010 season saw Fabian Delph earn the reputation of a hard man in training due to his spiky tackles and tenacious appetite.  Martin O’Neill had identified technical flaws in Delph’s game which the coaches sought to correct at Bodymoor Heath, “He can learn, because his body is open up to injury and the slightest awkward turn and twist could mean he will do himself some damage” O’Neill told the Birmingham Mail in February 2010 [cont…]

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  1. Definitely a top notch dribbler and a great work rate. We need to work on his vision for the key pass and his precision in delivering it. With his ability to control the ball in the middle of the park and evade tackles, having that deadly delivery of a final ball could make him a double-digit assist man.
    As for the comparable player to partner with him, I think Leandro Bacuna could become that player.

  2. Shelley_Ozzy Thanks Shelley – he’s looked superb for us so far and is a definitely a real talent. I don’t think he’s ready for the Premier League yet and your midfield is coming together really nicely so I’m not surprised Lambert didn’t go in for him in the summer. Funny to see the plight of Bannan – we had him on loan, as I’m sure you’re aware, and he never seemed to be given a chance. Seemed like a really bizarre thing to do, to be honest – why bring a player in and then not use him? Although we did the same with Jake Livermore, to be honest and as for what Colin did with Ross Barkley… I’ll employ the phrase “least said, soonest mended” on that one!
    I agree, Deeney is doing great with the Hornets – he looks a real quality player in this division. Not surprising that he didn’t make it at Villa, though . The difference between the two leagues seems greater than ever. 
    I forgot to say in my initial post: a superb, well considered and impressively written piece.

  3. Ha ha, yes Bates does like to see the colour of money, but we do seem to receive praise a lot with our transfer dealings under Randy Lerner. 
    He seems a straight forward guy.  Also agree that good players come alive around other good players, so hopefully if we get the attacking midfield in we need it will help everyone.  I like Will Hughes as he has skill / creativity but has a good tackle on him too and can play deeper, which would allow us to keep the midfield combination of Westy / Delph without needing someone stronger behind.  In terms of more pure creative players, I like Pablo Sarabia (Getafe) and Thauvin at Lille (who desperately wants to leave).  Prefer Sarabia as he’s a real pass master and Thauvin is more like Hazard.  But sure I’ll like whoever we buy.  Should be a fun season!

  4. Hey Pete, thanks for the comment.  Its great to see one of your academy players coming through.  I try to follow ex-Villa academy players as much as I can.  Troy Deeney is having a great time at Watford right now, its great to see.  Yes, you’ve finally seen the back of Bates.  Great news.  Hope Leeds have a good season too.  Luke Murphy is a great player and a really good buy.  I wanted Villa to sign him this summer but unfortunately we didn’t go for him in the end.  Sure he’ll give you a lot of fun times this year!

  5. Delph is a superb player who, I’m delighted to see, is finally re-emerging from the shadows at Villa. He broke through in pre-season for us and by the time the next pre-season rolled around, he had become the standout player in the side, resulting in Bates promptly sanctioning his sale (and, it would appear, personally pocketing the proceeds – certainly none of it went on squad building, at least). 
    The lad has a great future ahead of him and I could quite easily see him become part of the England setup in the future. It’s always a wrench to see your best players leave, but one to which we became accustomed during Bates’ tenure. Thankfully that time is over and we appear to be on the up again, led by a good manager and a board which seems prepared to support him as much as possible. It hasn’t been an easy decade or so for fans of the club against whom Savo Milosevic had his best ever game (yes, whilst we’d rather not admit it, we do remember a certain soft beverage cup final back in the 1990s).
    On a side note, I’m personally very pleased to see how Villa have come through the tough times of last season. Lambert plays superb football and he does it in the right way i.e. he builds up a squad of talented young professionals with no room for prima donnas. I never doubted that he’d turn things around for you, I just wasn’t certain he’d be given time to do so. Fortunately, he was given that time and I’m sure you guys are reaping the rewards of that. I’d be stunned if you didn’t finish top half this season and I don’t know what you’re expectations are, but I be expecting you to get into the Europa league places.
    UTV on your behalf, MOT on mine.

  6. StephenCullen MyOldManSaid CraigWright I’ve always liked Delph’s spirit. In his first Villa interview after signing from Leeds, when asked what he was looking forward to in the Premier League, he replied, ‘Giving top players like Rooney and Gerard a kick!’  That’s the kind of No Fear approach Villa need at the moment, to get back on track. Hopefully Leeds will get back on track too – sooner rather than later!

  7. Always a good read Ms O.
    But ‘Leeds chairman Ken Bates praised the manner of Villa’s approach for
    Delph, and it was perhaps this respectful approach which helped Villa
    secure the player ahead of other interested clubs.’ 
    Come on.
    If Ken Bates said that then it means only one thing – Villa paid way too much – and that is what secured young Delph.  Given the false messiah’s deep seated fear of public rejection this tendency to overpay was evident in all his dealings.  Let’s be honest.  We got Delph because we paid for him.
    As for the rest.  Spot on.  Delph is a little gem – he needs more polishing but the underlying quality is evident.  Yet imagine if he had an equally tricky team mate to pass to.  What fun we could see.  Barring visiting teams attacking us like rabid lemmings (hello Sunderland fans) – holding and controlling midfield is the key to winning at home.  Delph needs a kindred spirit to pass to.  Villa need another Delph.

    UTV and thanks.

  8. MyOldManSaid CraigWright die hard leeds fan – was very upset when we sold him. but i agree. defo starting to live up to his potential and if he continues the way he is going a possible future england captain

  9. 30m? No chance. He’s getting better and is a real work horse, but his technique and passing are nowhere near good enough to warrant that sort of money.

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