I’m not sure I’ve ever felt like this going into a new season. At the time of writing this, there are 10 days till our opening game of the season at The Emirates, versus Arsenal, and for the first time in a long time I am not worried about Aston Villa.
Maybe I’m being naive or overly optimistic, especially when you consider that we play Arsenal and Chelsea away, as well as Liverpool at home, within the first 7 days of the new season. There’s every chance we could come out of those games with zero points and a far from encouraging goal difference. However, I am not afraid for our boys; more importantly I sense that they hold no fear either.
To tell you the truth, although I wouldn’t dare make any rash predictions regarding our final league position, I’ve never been this confident about an Aston Villa side. I’m not expecting miracles and I’d be more than happy with mid-table and a decent cup run this season. To me, that would be successful progression for our side.
However, a small part of me, a part that grows a little every day, thinks we can surprise people, perhaps even surprise ourselves and do better than that.
I look at the players we have at our disposal, the squad that Paul Lambert is assembling and it’s impressive. In goal we have Brad Guzan, one of the best goalkeepers in Europe last season, easily, and he’s also still a few seasons from what should be his peak. That fact that he didn’t keep a clean sheet from December till the end of the season and still cleaned up at the end of season awards shows what a fantastic season he had. The media love telling us how, without Benteke, we’d have been relegated. It’s a fair point and we can’t argue with that but imagine if we hadn’t had Brad Guzan last season. I dread to think about it.
The back line was a major issue for us last season. Basic errors in nearly every game cost us dearly. You can put that down to lack of experience and at times a pure lack of confidence. Ron Vlaar was our most experienced defender last season yet it was only his first season in the English top flight. However, I expect things to be different next season, although I’d be surprised if our defence was ever our strongest asset. Matthew Lowton is one of the finest players I’ve seen play at right back for Aston Villa in years, perhaps even my lifetime! Nathan Baker looks like a future Aston Villa captain every time I see him play. Hard as nails, he was, in my opinion, our best centre back last season. Current skipper Ron Vlaar struggled at times last term but I think he will come good. There is no denying he is an excellent and natural leader, hopefully now he’s had a season at this level he will be used to the pace of everything. Antonio Luna (AKA Tony Moon), from what I’ve seen of him in preseason, looks like an excellent addition at left back. I can’t say I know a great deal about Jores Okore but I’m told he has a great reputation. At 20 years old he has already starred in the Champions League and courted the interest of higher placed clubs than ourselves. The fact that he turned them down to make sure he plays football regularly is extremely encouraging.
Joe Bennett and Ciaran Clark struggled for much of last year and it was evident that both suffered from bouts of ill confidence. You cannot deny though that both have huge potential. After a season like the one they’ve just been through plus a nice break over the summer and hopefully being able to take time out over the season, because of increased competition, I believe we will see two improved players.
In midfield we have some truly gifted footballers. The season before last, Ashley Westwood was playing in League 2. I know, it’s crazy, right? The guy is so natural with the ball you would think it’s an extension of his body. Fabian Delph and Yacouba Sylla defied expectations in the latter stages of last season, Sylla especially, their determination and ability on the ball taking many by surprise. We have the returning Gary Gardner, who has announced said return by banging in a 35 yard free kick against Walsall and young Samir Carruthers who should add some attacking guile to the midfield. Leandro Bacuna is another new recruit who looks versatile, quick and skilful and he has got a decent shot on him too! I’m expecting better from Karim El-Ahmadi this season: I think he really struggled to adapt to life in the Premier League last term. However, he looks to me like he’s bulked up over the summer, his eye for a pass and ability to pull the pass off has never been in doubt, he always looked like he could get out-muscled in midfield last season but hopefully that won’t be a problem anymore.
Now I get to the most important part of our team, the whole reason I’m confident about this coming season, the reason why I believe, within reason, that no matter what happens in our defence or midfield, we can win games. Our attacking force is incredible. We all know about Benteke, how good he was last season, the potential he’s got. Paul Lambert said when speaking on Monday night that he believed Benteke was already showing vast improvement in pre-season on last season. Sorry, Chris Smalling! I truly believe he is capable of scoring 25 league goals for us. He scored 19 goals last season when we were absolutely shocking for two thirds of the campaign. What’s he going to do when we play decently more often than not? How I love to watch Andi Weimann play football. The guy is pure energy, he never stops and his ability is ever improving.
Gabriel Agbonlahor, for me, is one of our most important players and whenever he is fit he should start. Since he first broke into the team 8 years ago, have we ever been a better team without him than with him? I don’t think so. His pace and power terrifies defenders. There’s a pattern too. When Gabby plays, Benteke scores. It was the same with Bent. Gabby attracts defenders to him like moths to a flame, giving space to the other forward players. Helenius looks like an intelligent purchase by Lambert. It’s a cliche but he really does have a great touch for a big lad. Has anyone seen the pass for Grealish versus Walsall? Phwoar! A player I am really looking forward to seeing in action is new boy Aleksandar Tonev. The Bulgarian winger comes with an exciting reputation. He seems to be quick, direct and not afraid to take a man on. I reckon he’ll be a player who really gets the Villa Park crowd to its feet whenever he gets the ball. Also a quick search of his name on YouTube will provide you with ample evidence of his long range shooting ability.
It’s my belief that even if we continue to struggle to keep clean sheets, we will be able to outscore most teams.
Basically, I think we can expect to see improvements in every area of our team next season. I don’t think we should hold any fears going into this new season. Other teams will underestimate us at their peril. Prior to last season the phrase “Lambert’s Lions” was coined by the club and in the end it was more ‘Lambert’s Lambs to the slaughter’. We won’t win the league or qualify for the Champions League but pushing that top 8, which has been unthinkable for 3 seasons, isn’t unbelievable.
Be confident. Be Excited. Even if we lose the first 3 games, have faith that we will turn things around because we are good enough.
I believe Lambert’s Lions have finally arrived!
Thank you for reading!