A big thanks goes out to Soccer Spot for providing outstanding coverage this season of Cleveland’s second-best football team, Aston Villa. Soccer Spot is now blogging about FC Barcelona for The Offside (probably the best soccer blog in the universe) and is currently in contract negotiations with the DZ for a second year as the outfit in charge of keeping us informed about Villa. We are hoping to lock him up in a long term deal. His words follow. Enjoy!
Aston Villa 2006/07: Success, in moderation. Lots of moderation.
So the EPL season is over. 38 games and our line looks somewhat familiar: 50pts from 11 wins, 17 draws, and 10 losses; all that places Villa squarely in the middle of the table in 11th place. Not quite good enough for top half, not really bad enough for bottom half. Instead of decrying that this was a wasted year, there are several things to build on that should be discussed.
Here is a quick look at the stats for Villa:
The thing is, Villa were only 3 wins from being in the UEFA Cup (Everton, in 6th, ended with 58 points). The middle of the pack was tightly squeezed with Everton, Bolton, Reading, Portsmouth, Blackburn, and Villa all scrunched in between 58 and 50 points. Convert a few of those draws (any of the 17) to wins and Villa are in Europe again, even if it is the NIT of international club soccer. FC Sevilla of Spain seems pretty pleased with itself after winning the Cup for the second year in a row. Happy enough, anyway, to be envied. Not that I have gained any respect for the UEFA Cup or anything. It’s still hardly mentionable.
In the end, it seems that the issues Villa dealt with weren’t on the defensive end, especially not at home. With the 6th fewest goals allowed overall (4th at home and tied for 7th away), the backline held firm enough. The goals for, while 2 more than goals against overall, put Villa in 12th (15th at home, while tied for 3rd away). It’s impressive that Villa averaged 1.21 goals per away game (23 in 19), but their mediocre tally at home (1.05goals/game, or 20 in 19) consigned them to always fighting an uphill battle. Villa also accounted for fully 1/7 of their total home goals (3) in their final game against Sheffield United, a team that was relegated, though just barely.
Perhaps the biggest reason Villa were unable to score more goals were their forwards. At the start of the season Milan Baros was the star striker and Juan Pablo Angel was his solid backup. Both are gone now, the former at Olympique Lyonnais and the latter at New York Red Bull. A look at Baros’ success at Lyon and his replacement John Carew’s relative anonymity at Villa would suggest that the move was not a positive one. 3 goals for Carew since January is hardly thrilling, but he came at a far lower price than did Watford’s Ashley Young, who joined Villa at the same time yet has only registered 2 goals. Chris Sutton also failed to deliver, scoring only once in 8 EPL appearances, but he was brought in as a third-stringer, really. Plus, dude is 34, which isn’t a particularly young age for a pro soccer player. An early injury to Luke Moore caused some of the goal-scoring issues, but the rise of Gabby Agbonlahor has been a most welcome and necessary part of Villa’s “fortunes” this season.
I hate to say “I told you so” about Carew, who scored once in 7 league games and once in two Champions League games with Lyon during the first half of the season, but, well, I told you so. Perhaps he will adjust to the English game and Martin O’Neill’s system, but I doubt it. Ashley Young, on the other hand, I had expected a little more out of, especially after he scored on his Villa debut against Newcastle. Both Carew and Young have assists (2 and 3 respectively), but they certainly aren’t playmakers. Young has the chance to prove himself over the next year, but he’ll likely start on the bench behind Moore, who was one of the leading lights of the team until a knee injury kept him out for several months. Both Young and Moore are in their early 20s (both are currently 21, but Young will turn 22 in July) and so they have yet to realize their full potential. Young has perhaps the better “upside” but Moore has proven himself more consistent so far.
Overestimating Moore’s impact is, of course, easy to do, but his record is decent, especially when compared to Young’s. 2 of his 4 goals came after his injury and perhaps that means he’ll be able to reproduce his form from the 2005/06 season which saw him score 8 goals in 16 appearances (7 starts, 11 substitutions).
As I said, Young should also improve and the other young players on the team should be more comfortable with Martin O’Neill’s system. Still, the year was slightly disappointing overall. 11th in the league means nothing more than 17th or 7th (The UEFA Intertoto Cup is the NIT of the NIT of soccer. Like if you went 0-8 in your conference and you still got a bowl bid based on your 2-2 non-conference record. Fantastic! I wish we were in it. Oh wait, no I don’t). However, the UEFA Cup was a possibility that never materialized even though Villa are such nice guys. Going out early-ish in the FA Cup to Manchester United in the 3rd round was a tough break as ManU have proven somewhat good this season and the loss came only after second-string keeper Gabor Kiraly made a silly error and gifted the second goal of a 2-1 defeat in stoppage time. A loss nonetheless. [The other goal was Henrik Larsson’s first of two goals for Manchester United. I’m a big Larsson fan from his few days at Barcelona, but I was definitely rooting against him in that game…] The Carling Cup ended in a disaster in Round 4 after a 4-0 drubbing by eventual champions Chelsea. A pathetic performance with only 1 shot on goal, but it was against Chelsea’s first team. Still: ouch.
The team made strides and finished the year strongly, not losing in their last 9 games (4 wins, 5 draws), which bodes well for next year, though there will no doubt be some rather large changes either through arrivals or departures will which cause Villa to need to re-bond as a unit in order to not finish in the bottom half of the league table. Some analysts have suggested Villa look for more strikers, but a stronger midfield should also be on the agenda. Nigel Roe-Coker of West Ham has been suggested and Steven Naismith, the Scottish Premier League Young Player of the Year as well as keeper Craig Gordon could be on their way to Villa Park, but with Jlloyd Samuel off to Bolton, a solid defender should be found at some point, though not an expensive one since all the serious cash should be put towards someone who can create goals. There are several players in Scotland that O’Neill would like to nab, but maybe looking to the continent, especially Spain, would do some wonders for Villa.
Next season, arch-rivals Birmingham are back in the Premier League and Villa are going to have to soundly beat them in 2 matches. Sounds like a good old time.
For now, a good season and until the preview of the next one, enjoy the other Cleveland sports.