By Adam Clark @AdamClarkers
Villa fans can be forgiven for a little bit of gloating as they see the Lions in 3rd place in the Premier League table. They spent all summer enduring the amusement caused by their summer signings Philippe Senderos, Kieran Richardson, Joe Cole and Aly Cissokho. It was a list of Premier League rejects, journeyman and the perennially crocked.
News that chairman Randy Lerner was (and still is) looking to sell the club hardly helped matters, giving the impression of attempting to run a bargain-bucket Premier League side, a doomed venture if there ever was one. Two club officials left after rumours of bullying and an internal investigation. If Villa were to spring a surprise this season it looked like being their first relegation from the Premier League and it wouldn’t have been much of one.
But English football’s fascination with the young and glamorous, above all in the transfer season, is often proved false by events on the field. Sacrificing last year’s reputation of a team of youngsters trying to play good football, Paul Lambert swallowed his pride and brought back some of the famous ‘Bomb Squad’, the players he tried to force out of the club. Charles N’Zogbia returned to the attack and most noticeably Alan Hutton returned to right-back after two years in the wilderness. Roy Keane’s addition as assistant manager added both ferocity and an impressive beard to the Villa set-up but worringly there were rumours he was in the perfect place to take over should Lambert be fired.
So Villa entered their first fixture of the season away against Stoke, under heavy pressure. 96 minutes, a 1-0 victory and things were looking up. This was followed by a draw against Newcastle, a win over Hull and, most impressively of all, a hard-fought 1-0 victory against Liverpool. The atmosphere around the club has changed completely. Last Saturday’s 3-0 defeat to Arsenal at home dampened any early talk of a title campaign but Villa fans are still feeling much more confident than they did in August.
At the heart of this revival has been a surprisingly solid defence. Ron Vlaar was one of the few bright spots of last season and surrounded by experience in Senderos, Cissokho and Hutton, he has grown to be an imposing figure. Ahead of them, a midfield inspired by Fabian Delph’s endless running has been disciplined and efficient, and Gabriel Abgonlahor and Andreas Weimann have been deadly with the few chances presented to them on the counter.
Paul Lambert deserves credit for his tactics. While other sides have experimented with their summer signings, he has set up a veteran back-line with a speedy attack to punish teams who expected to sweep Villa aside. It’s not pretty and it doesn’t win the statistics battle – Villa are second to last on average possession (35.7%) and rock bottom on average shots per game (7.8 with an average 1.6 on target). But it has been effective against any side less incisive than an Ozil-inspired Arsenal. For Villa fans who have seen some wretched capitulations over the last few years, ugly wins look downright beautiful.
Taking off the claret and blue spectacles, few Villa fans expect this to last. Over a Premier League season, no team can afford to sacrifice so much of the ball and invite so much pressure. Vlaar’s injury absence against Arsenal and the resultant three goals in three minutes confirmed as much. But if they can scrape through their nightmare fixture list of 5 games in a row against last season’s top 5 – Liverpool and Arsenal down, Chelsea, Man City and Everton still to come – with a few more points, there are tantalising opportunities on the other side.
Christian Benteke is set to make his return from an achilles injury soon, and at his best is probably the best striker outside the top 7. Tom Cleverley’s early performances after his loan from Manchester United have been encouraging and Villans hope to see him rediscover the form he once showed at Wigan. The solid defence may soon be joined to formidable attack – if Lambert’s side can adapt successfully and remember what to do with the ball.
This fantastic early start is clearly not sustainable. The question is what can Aston Villa do with the platform they have been given? In Ron Vlaar, Fabian Delph and Christian Benteke they have an impressive spine. They need less than a point a game to reach the cherished 40 point ‘safety’ mark. With that safety margin perhaps Paul Lambert can finally wake the Lions from their slumber.