Part I: A Series of Surprises
Wow. Never in my wildest dreams would I have expected to enjoy this Villa team play as they did on Saturday.
For those who haven’t been following along, as it had been pointed out several (perhaps five, six times) at the start of the match, Aston Villa Football Club were off to their worst start in a season since 1969-70. It was something that I’ve been following all too closely and not quite sure what to make of it. Every weekend I’d be treated to glimpses of the best footballers Paul Lambert had collected from the reaches of continental Europe (I sure bet Genk were upset) and League Two playing for AVFC against essentially, better players, effectively the best players that the Premier League (known as the Barclays Premier League for Corporate Sponsorship purposes) had to offer. To show for it were some admirable draws and a plucky win against a deflated Swansea. Looking ahead at the schedule with Manchesters City and United, and that little club from North London coming up, this past weekend’s encounter with Sunderland was as close to a “must-win” match as any in the first weekend of November ought to be.
Sunderland, away, it should be noted, at the impressive Stadium of Light, was not going to be an easy match in any case as they had been playing some Stoke City brand of football of late. Entering this weekend, Sunderland were holders of the stodgiest defence in the Premier League (known as the Barclays Premier League for Corporate Sponsorship purposes), which was remarkable for so many reasons.
First, they shared that honour with Arsenal, which any person with a set of eyes could tell you should not be lauded for their ability to keep the ball out of the net*.
[*In some form of cosmic equilibrium recalibration, Arsenal’s terrible defence against Manchester United helped fix this appraisal, most spectacularly in the form of current captain Thomas Vermaelen gifting former captain, and current United star, Robin Van Persie, the first goal]
Secondly, the current defensive back four at Sunderland has been relatively makeshift so far in this young season, and has included playing nominal midfielders in Jack Colback and Craig Gardner as fullbacks, at times.
Thirdly, with the exception of Simon Mignolet, the Belgian goalkeeper, there is not a single member of the defensive line that has any right being regarded as part of the “Best Defensive Team in the Premier League (known as the Barclays Premier League for Corporate Sponsorship purposes)”. This is, after all, a team that features Carlos Cuellar.
Now that I’ve made those quick asides, let me also dispense with some others: Darren Bent didn’t return to Sunderland after injuring himself in training (delaying the selection dilemma for another week – more to follow on that note below); Martin O’Neill and his stellar record with Aston Villa contrasted with their current form and that of the failed managerial regimes since his own (Messrs Houllier and McLeish, take a bow); the eerily similar curriculum vitae of Paul Lambert to that of the man he played for (O’Neill) at Celtic (both men managed Wycombe Wanderers, Norwich City and Aston Villa); and finally, that these were the two lowest scoring teams in the Premier League (known as the Barclays Premier League for Corporate Sponsorship purposes), which had led many to dub this as the Battle to Determine The Least Entertaining Team in the Premiership. Blah blah blah.
Returning back to the start of all this is an assertion I made with a friend: surprisingly, and even admitting a wee bit of bias, the most enjoyable match that I watched this weekend included Aston Villa. Wow. I’ll admit that it was sometimes sloppy, but it was a fast-paced game that created many opportunities at each end.
Part II: The Biggest Surprise of All
Last week, I’d like to think that I made a pretty compelling case that Gabby Agbonlahor was on the verge of morphing into the reubenesque figure of Emile Heskey. Luckily for me as a fan, and unluckily for me as an opiner of truths, Gabby had a great week. I like being proven wrong, though.
First, in the sweet, sweet reaches of mixed levels of football that is the League Cup (known as the Capital One Cup for Corporate Sponsorship purposes), Aston Villa barely pipped 2011-2012 League Two (known as the Npower League 2 for Corporate Sponsorship purposes) Champions Swindon Town, 3-2. Take that Swindon Town! I did not watch this match (nor did I possess the desire to), but from all accounts these goals did happen. AND, spectacularly enough, Gabby scored one of them (Christian “The Genk Goal Machine(TM)” Benteke scored the others).
Not bad, I thought, as I heard about that game (and stumbled across a blog from a Swindon Town fan who noted that they probably played as well as Villa but the gulf in talent was the difference – a shock to me as I was under the impression that Aston Villa under Paul Lambert had serious ambitions to compete for the League Two (known as the Npower League 2 for Corporate Sponsorship purposes) title). But, as I had noted in my blog last week, it’s all well and good to score in cup ties, but you got to bring it at the weekend against the big boys to impress me.
After a long drought (a full calendar year!), Agbonlahor finally scored a Premier League (known as the Barclays Premier League for Corporate Sponsorship purposes) goal. It was a jammed in shot off of a cross right at the goal mouth (followed with some vicious contact that left Gabby on the ground in agony as his team celebrated), but the monkey was off his and Villa’s back.
But that was later in the game. What really impressed me throughout the match was how Gabby was both useful and fast – things that haven’t always gone together with him. His zipping up and down the park was clearly too much for Sunderland’s right back Phil Bardsley, who could neither match Gabby with speed or strength and ended up conceding numerous fouls. And, beyond his speed, Gabby played a much more free-roaming role and worked his way across the width of the pitch, looking for work, and being quite industrious in the process.
I even tweeted my admiration early in the game. It’s a rare thing when watching Villa.
Agbonlahor is playing really well. It's gotta be some combo of reading my blog criticizing him last week and his 3day Movember growth #AVFC—
Brent Stephen Smith (@brentssmith) November 03, 2012
Part III: Smaller, But Potentially Vital Surprises
I took a few notes as this match went on, as there were some fun and crucial things to note:
-I could be wrong (it’s too early to tell), but I think Gabby is growing a mustache for Movember. This could have some sort of Samson-like effect.
-Stephen Ireland was back! He looked so very good on offense that his class was evident.
-Defensively, though, Stephen “The Anthropomorphized Worm” Ireland was reckless, at best, and non-League standard, at worst. I’m worried how he’s going to handle a player like Yaya Toure.
-Last thing on Ireland: he wore a delightful neon green cast to match the hideous away jerseys that AVFC are sporting in 2012-13.
-Ashley Westwood looked like a really good find for Paul Lambert. I have previously mentioned my wariness of any man named Ashley (it can only come to a terrible disaster), but in the meantime I’m willing to get on board with what Mr. Westwood has to offer in midfield alongside the always sparky Barry Bannan.
-On the opposite side, I really felt bad for Joe Bennett, who injured himself so early into the game that his replacement (Eric Lichaj) ended up getting replaced later (first appearance by Enda Stevens!). I don’t know what to make of this kid yet. My tweet as he left the game:
I'm beginning to figure out that the weekly lowpoint following Villa will involve Joe Bennett in some way. This time he's injured #noredcard—
Brent Stephen Smith (@brentssmith) November 03, 2012
-By all accounts the lineup was a nominal 4-2-3-1 formation, but at times it looked much more like a 4-3-3. In any case, perhaps this was due to how Sunderland played, but it really opened up the midfield and created a lot of space for Ireland and Westwood to serve Agbonlahor and Benteke (Andi Weimann was less effective, resulting in a late replacement by Aussie Indie Rocker Brett “The Hardest Working Bloke in Birmingham” Holman – yes, I realise that gives him two nicknames back to back, but Holman fucking deserves it). I hope that Lambert sticks with this formation for a bit as he starts to sort out who best could fit the roles.
My preliminary XI, based on what I’ve seen, assuming everyone is healthy (and acknowledging that somehow Alan Hutton will never play for Paul Lambert and that Shay Given is resigned to the bench and cup ties), note that anyone bold is a must, while anyone underlined is the likely contender for the role:
GK: Guzan (HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE?!?!?)
LB: Eric Lichaj (He’s the first guy off the bench and I’d take him before Disaster Joe at this point)
CB: Ron Vlaar (c) (He and Clark are the solid base of this team, he’s the leader on the pitch, and hilariously enough, Concrete Ron was the second best performer on my fantasy team this week(after 2-goal Marouane Fellaini), his namesake, “Aston Vlaar”)
CB: Ciaran Clark
RB: Matthew Lowton (Kid has nerve. Love it)
DM: Ashley Westwood (I want to see more from this kid, but he just barely pips out Karim El Ahmadi)
DM: Barry Bannan (Solid, he brings a little bit of everything, I liked his combination with Westwood. Fabian Delph is another option, but I didn’t like the overly defensive look against Norwich when Delph, El Ahmadi and Holman all played together)
LW: Gabby!!! (I hate to admit it, but he changed my mind in the span of one week)
CAM: Stephen Ireland (Nobody on this team is as skilled or has the vision that he possesses – having folks like Bannan, Westwood, Delph and/or El Ahmadi to take care of the D is what he needs, though. There is no scenario I can imagine when Ireland, Marc Albrighton and Charles N’Zogbia can all be on the field. The team needs creativity and Ireland brought that, but we can’t sacrifice our D)
RW: Aussie Indie Rocker Brett “The Hardest Working Bloke in Birmingham” Holman (I think next week’s blog might just be a series of cool photos of him and fellow Aussie Indie Rocker Chris Herd)
CF: Benteke (It’s his to lose at this point. I’ve got suspicions Darren Bent will depart in January)
NOTE: ALL THIS IS SUBJECT TO CHANGE AT A MOMENT’S NOTICE.
Part IV: An Anticipated Return to the Familiar
Like I said, we have to play Manchester United, Manchester City, and Arsenal in our next three matches. Can Villa come away with ANY points?