I asked my friend, sports writer and Aston Villa supporter Peter May, to give us his take on what we can expect from Aston Villa as an opponent this Tuesday. Thanks Pete!
Aston Villa conclude their pre-season tour at Portland Timbers on Tuesday with a mood of genuine optimism prevailing around the squad and back home.
This is news. Exuberance is not the default mode of the city of Birmingham, typically characterised as sardonic and world-weary, or its biggest football club, whose recent history is a study in anonymity.
Villa occupies an unusual position in modern English football, neither excelling nor combusting. Consider, for example, Manchester City, a comparable size to Villa, not too long ago in the third tier and now Premier League champions. Or Newcastle United, Leeds United and Blackburn Rovers, all of whom have played Champions League football and subsequently been relegated.
Villa has experienced neither these highs nor lows in the Premier League era. Of seven clubs to have played every PL season, six have qualified for the Champions League and five have won the FA Cup. Villa has done neither. Still historically the fourth most successful club in English history, the weight of that success lies in the distant past. The feeling of having missed the boat as a super-rich European elite dominates the club game is inescapable.
There is a product in England called Marmite, whose slogan ‘you either love it or hate it’ has passed into everyday use. Mario Balotelli, for example, might be described as "like Marmite". Villa on the other hand are a kind of anti-Marmite. Outside of the city of Birmingham, people are vaguely positive or positively vague about a club that is neither a threat to the elite nor a tragicomic tableau of hubristic vanity.
Perennial predictability was finally surrendered last season, but not for the better, with the inexplicable appointment of Alex McLeish as manager.
The Scot’s previous record in England sounded alarm bells: two relegations in three Premier League seasons, with an average of one goal scored per game. Worse, he accumulated this CV in charge of Birmingham City. Villa paid their fierce local rivals £5million for a manager they had wanted to get rid of anyway.
For Villa it proved a disastrous misjudgement from day one, an act of mindless, self-inflicted vandalism. McLeish’s über-negative tactics sucked the life out of the club’s attacking talent and drove big reductions in ticket sales. A dire entertainment spectacle did not even produce results as Villa flirted with relegation. Their points haul from January to May was among the worst in recent history. Amidst a poisonous atmosphere from the supporters to the manager, he was sacked immediately after the end of the season.
"Bold new era"
The optimism now prevailing around the club is due in no small part to simply sacking McLeish. "It is the soothing relief that comes with having a particularly unpleasant boil lanced," opined one poetical blogger.
But it is also thanks to the identity of his replacement, Paul Lambert, after three hugely successful years at Norwich City, whom he guided from the third tier to mid-table Premier League respectability.
A record of winning matches in style is just part of Lambert’s attraction. He does not hide the ambition and appetite for a challenge that drove him to leave Scotland for Borussia Dortmund as a player, winning the Champions League. He gives every impression of being destined for success – and for knowing it, too.
It is precisely this combination of imagination and desire that Villa needs right now. Their current squad is an insipid combination of Premier League veterans on long, comfortable contracts, and products of the club’s much-vaunted youth system who have struggled to convert potential into performances.
After two weeks back in pre-season training, including 1-0 tour wins at Philadelphia Union and Chicago Fire, the players and fans alike are gushing in their praise for Lambert. The club’s website, habitually so craven it would make a Pravda editor blush, talks each and every day of Villa embarking on a "bold new era".
The team that Portland will face on Tuesday is therefore best described as one in transition. Lambert is instigating a radical overhaul of the club’s playing staff, tactical approach and recruitment policy. He has an undisguised desire to remove most of the overpaid veterans, signing younger replacements who match his own hunger and ambition. The accent will be on passing the ball and dictating the play.
This process is currently in its early stages. Lambert has signed two players, Sheffield United defender Matthew Lowton and Moroccan international midfielder Karim El Ahmadi from Feyenoord in the Netherlands. A third new face, Australian Brett Holman, had already agreed a deal with McLeish and looks set to stay.
The notable thing about these three players is that the vast majority of Villa fans had not heard of them before they signed. Such recruitment overturns received wisdom that you have to have experienced campaigners to prosper in English football: "proven Premier League quality", as the cliché goes.
Last season Norwich (and Swansea City) blitzed the myth of "Premier League quality". They not only survived with squads largely put together in the lower leagues, they imposed their own tempo and style on teams with far greater resources and experience, including Villa. There is no elite handful of players good enough for the Premier League, there are thousands; it is a question of scouting, preparation, mentality and tactics.
Lowton and El Ahmadi will likely be joined by four or five further such low-profile players before the transfer window closes at the end of next month. These will be allied to the handful of current Villa players who meet Lambert’s exacting standards, such as the £24million England striker Darren Bent and the most promising products of Villa’s trophy-wining youth academy.
If Lambert can put together a successful Premier League squad with this approach it will confirm his reputation as a manager of rare talent. In the short term there will be high-profile departures to make space for Lambert’s own men.
Aston Villa Roster
The current Villa squad comprises a mixture of experienced professionals and recent graduates from the in-house academy, which enjoys repeated success at youth level but is yet to produce consistently successful Premier League and international players.
For Timbers fans on Tuesday, then, there is the opportunity to see both some seasoned Premier League players and potential stars of the future.
The goalkeeper’s jersey is currently held by Shay Given, a veteran of 125 Ireland caps and 14 Premier League seasons. Given is widely liked and capable of spectacular, instinctive shot-stopping. But he lacks authority under crosses, a brilliant operator in an emergency but weak on the "prevention not cure" maxim that defines the best goalkeepers.
Now 36 and on a lucrative contract, Given fits the profile of players Lambert would like to move on. Notably the US national squad member Brad Guzan has re-joined the club. He left in May 2012 after four years because he was tired of being an understudy. The fact that the American has been persuaded to re-sign suggests that he will be given his opportunity.
The defence is the Augean stables of the Villa squad. Last season’s back four epitomise much of the Premier League’s worst excesses: complacent, mediocre performers on indecent salaries. Alan Hutton, the hapless and violent right-back has been left behind for this trip and told to find a new club just a year after signing. James Collins has been more animated in drink-fuelled disagreements with team-mates and the general public than on the field and is tipped to leave soon.
Ireland veteran Richard Dunne and former England international Stephen Warnock are said to wield influence in the dressing room but are yards off the pace against decent opposition. The only thing that will keep them at Villa Park is a lack of interested suitors.
Lambert has begun the re-building process by signing Lowton and will no doubt make further signings in this area but for the moment youth is given its head. Of the younger generation, the most familiar to Timbers fans may be Eric Lichaj, who has eight caps for the US national team. Comfortable in either full-back role, Lichaj started nine games last season and will get more opportunities to establish himself.
If looking for stars of the future, keep an eye out for Ciaran Clark. A strong and confident defender who is also used in defensive midfield, Clark was a star and captain of England youth teams before he changed allegiance to Ireland at full international level. After losing much of last season to injury this year will decide if he can fulfil his immense early promise.
In midfield all Villa eyes will be on new signing El Ahmadi. Reportedly an influential midfielder with a wide range of passing, he is central to dictating the play. Otherwise the biggest names here are the mercurial duo of Stephen Ireland and Charles N’Zogbia. This pair is as talented as almost any midfielders in the country, the bald-headed Ireland a sublime passer of the ball and conductor of counter attacks, and N’Zogbia a French international goalscoring winger. Both are also highly unreliable. In particular, Ireland pops up on Twitter smoking sheesha on the eve of matches and, in a surreal episode that would have embarrassed the gauchest undergraduate, excused himself from Irish duty by falsely claiming that both of his grandmothers had died.
In both cases Villa would love to go back in time and undo those transfers but until an offer is made Lambert will have to tap their enormous potential. Either Ireland or N’Zogbia in full flow will entertain Timbers supporters on Tuesday. In terms of potential future stars, keep an eye out for academy product Barry Bannan, an impish midfielder whose precise passing invokes hopeful comparison with Spanish maestro Xavi at its best. Despite obvious talent Bannan has struggled to influence big matches and this season represents a last chance to make his career at Villa.
The really bad news for Timbers fans is that the club’s two England international forwards will both miss Tuesday’s friendly with injury. Record signing Bent is far and away the star player, a consummate penalty box predator for club and country, while Gabriel Agbonlahor stretches defences with his exceptional pace, but both will sit out.
The good news is that this will give a longer look at new signing Holman, who has had strong reviews in his friendly appearances to date, and Andreas Weimann, a young Austrian striker whose appearances last season were impressive. Of all the young Villa talent on display on this American tour, it is Weimann who looks most likely to move on to bigger and better opportunities as he develops as a player. Strong, confident and a natural finisher, he will hopefully be a decent understudy as star attraction Bent sits out.
Peter May is an Aston Villa fan, originally from Birmingham but now living all over. Follow him @yamdretep on Twitter.