Ahead of tomorrow's Premier League clash with Aston Villa, 7500 To Holte (SBN's Villa blog) was kind enough to do a Q&A exchange with us. As always, most of the questions were provided by you, the readers, and I supplemented them with a few of my own. Here are the terrific answers from one of their writers, Aaron Campeau.
TBB: How has Villa coped with the losses of Ashley Young, James Milner, and Stewart Downing? It appears that Charles N'Zogbia has struggled a bit to settle in. Can you offer your thoughts on these recent comings and goings?
7500 To Holte: Milner has been very tough; his breakout 2009/10 season was a revelation as he fully lived up to the high expectations that had followed him for much of his career to that point. Since he's left, Villa haven't been able to find someone to offer either the ball-winning skill or attacking threat he provided from central midfield. It's good to see him finally playing this season, because last year it was tough to struggle so mightily and see him left out of City's squad week after week. Ashley Young is a slightly different case; from a talent perspective he was clearly Villa's best player, but it was clear for much of last season that he'd turned his eye towards bigger and better things as he was largely uninterested for much of the season (and it's difficult to blame him.) I never questioned his effort, but the motivation just wasn't there and based on how he's looked with United the times I've seen him so far this year, it's likely a good thing he moved on because he looks very much like the Ashley Young of old.
Downing was a different case altogether; it's very rare for me to hold a grudge against a player for moving to a bigger club, but in this case I make an exception. Villa bought Downing for a hefty sum when he was pretty severely injured, stuck with him as he struggled for much of his first full season with the club to get back into form and based a lot of what they did tactically last season around his strengths. He was talking very publicly about an extension deep into the year, and then he did a complete about face as soon as Liverpool expressed interest. He has every right to do what he feels is best for his career, but the way he handled it was bordering on classless and felt like a bit of a slap in the face. The amusing bit is that he was pretty massively overrated and Liverpool paid way more than should be considered reasonable, which is why I don't complain about it too much, but I certainly don't care for him and never will. Which, I am sure, keeps him up at night.
I like N'Zogbia very much and think he's actually a better player than Downing, but he's struggled mightily adjusting to Alex McLeish's style and many of his strengths are rendered significantly less effective thanks to Villa's tactical approach. I think he's good enough to adjust, but it will be difficult for him to do so if Emile Heskey continues to start in his place. And yes, that's a thing that has actually happened on numerous occasions this season.
7500: Given has been a tremendous signing and has probably been more responsible than any other single player for keeping Villa respectable so far this year. Seeing him in that state before kickoff was absolutely heart-wrenching, and for him to go out and perform at that level is a testament to his quality, professionalism and strength of character. A cynic might look at the statsheet and point out that he didn't have much to do, but for him to be able to stay focused despite the emotional trauma he'd just experienced and being less than a factor for much of the game and make several astonishing saves when called upon late in the game makes his performance even more impressive.
TBB: A topic to lighten the mood after the last one.... What of Barry Bannan and his driving habits?
7500: I'm incredibly irritated with Barry Bannan. Driving under the influence is an incredibly dumb thing to do and he put the personal safety of others, himself and his friend at risk for no good reason. I am sure that Aston Villa has a car service that could have provided him with transportation, and even if not he's a professional footballer; I'm certain he could afford a taxi. But it's the kind of thing that I can forgive; he's a young man, and young men do incredibly stupid things. I sincerely hope that he's learned from this and that, if this is evidence of a substance abuse problem, he'll take the steps necessary to get it under control before it causes his even further harm.
But from a completely selfish and less important standpoint, it's incredibly frustrating because the timing could not have been worse. Bazza had finally become a regular fixture in the team and seemed to have won over McLeish, and this little incident had him back at square one. He made an appearance against Swansea and was fantastic, leading to McLeish to publicly talk about how he'd been "given something to think about" so hopefully this will be a minor setback and nothing more. He just makes Villa so much better and more fun to watch.
TBB: How is Fabian Delph coming along? Thoughts on Nathan Delfouneso and his potential? With the quality of Given and Darren Bent and the recent fantastic form of Gabriel Agbonlahor, what are the expectations for Villa fans (and specifically yourself) for the current season? Do you feel that Villa is mid-table or do you feel that a European spot is realistically possible?
7500: I've been a huge Fabian Delph fan for years, but he just looks completely out of his depth right now. I don't know if he's still recovering from injury or what, but it's almost to the point where I'd like to see him loaned out because watching him play is almost painful. When Delfouneso plays he tends to look pretty good and I think he has a lot of potential, but he doesn't play very often and that's been a consistent thing with all three managers he's had at Villa. When it's a consistent thing like that, it leads me to believe there's something happening in training that I'm not seeing in his brief appearances, and I'd expect him to go out on loan before too awfully long. It honestly wouldn't surprise me if he's sold at some point next year, either in January or during the summer.
I can't speak for other Villa fans, but I'm expecting a bottom-mid table finish, somewhere around 12th-15th. As high as 8th wouldn't be a shock, but it's not what I expect. There's no way this team challenges for Europe without some pretty major changes in their personnel, tactical approach or both.
TBB: Alex McLeish's hiring seemed quite controversial because of his recent ties to rival Birmingham City and also in regards to doubts over his abilities as a manager. How do Villa fans currently feel about him? Are they satisfied with being 8th in the table after 13 matches?
7500: I never understood all of the outrage over the Birmingham connection; had I thought McLeish a more capable manager I'd have found nothing more amusing than poaching him from Blues. My concerns were always about the style of football Birmingham played, but given his excellent Rangers teams and the things his saying all the right things about his intentions to do things differently at Villa I was more than willing to give him a chance. So far he's been worse than I expected, and I might go so far to say that he's been worse than I feared. Villa plays incredibly boring, incredibly negative football despite having some tremendous attacking talent. Alan Hutton was hand-picked to be this teams right back, a player that's not only terrible but also dirty and reckless. He's the kind of player I find it impossible to root for, and he is exactly the kind of player McLeish wants in his team.
As for being satisfied with 8th? Well, it's certainly better than being 16th. But Villa has had one of the schedules in the league so far, and they've had some pretty awful results; a home draw against Wolves, a home loss to West Brom and a 0-0 draw against Swansea City just don't inspire a lot of confidence. They've had the floor mopped with them by Spurs and City and I don't expect to take any point off of what will likely be the top 6 at the end of the season. Looking back at the schedule so far I feel like, given the talent on this team, they should have expected to take another 6-8 points from their first 13; that wouldn't have changed their standing in the table, but it would make me feel a lot better heading into what is going to be a very brutal December.
TBB: Can you provide us a brief tactical summary on McLeish and what he has implemented at Villa Park? What sort of shape does Villa typically play in? Do Villa defend deep and look to hit on the counter? Do Villa press high up the pitch? Is Emile Heskey still used as a pivot player up top? How has Agbonlahor been so effective?
7500: Oh god. This is just cruel, asking me a question like this. Do Villa defend deep? Yes, yes indeed they certainly do! But they don't look to hit on the counter; once they gain possession they bounce the ball around the back for a bit, giving their opponents ample opportunity to get behind the incredibly fast players Villa feature, and then one of James Collins or Richard Dunne hoof the ball aimlessly up the pitch. Earlier in the season they were playing something of a possession game, which wasn't the most exciting to watch but was mostly effective and suited N'Zogbia fairly well; that didn't last long though, and what we've seen for the majority of the season has been just as bad as Birmingham City under McLeish. Villa tend to play something of a 4-4-1-1 in possession and a 4-4-2 in defense and transition; Gabby has floated around a lot in something of a free role and he'll spring up on the wing, up top, in the space behind Bent, pretty much everywhere; the one positive thing I'll say for McLeish is that he seems to understand how dynamic Gabby can be when he's allowed to just follow the space available in the attacking third and that's probably a big part of what's made him so good this season. But some credit has to go to Gabby as well; he's playing like he spent all off-season working hard to improve every aspect of his game, and it shows. He's a better dribbler, better creator and better crosser this season than he's ever been and he's having one of the best seasons of any attacking player in the Premier League.
Of course I can't praise McLeish even a little bit without tearing him down; as much as he seems to understand how to utilize Gabby, he seemingly has no concept of what his tactical approach does to N'Zogbia and more importantly Darren Bent. N'Zogbia is incredibly dangerous cutting in, taking on defenders and using his dribbling ability and speed to wreak havoc, but he's not been able to do that because he's never getting the ball in open space. His crossing is adequate for a winger, but when that's pretty much the only thing you're asking him to do then of course he's going to under-perform. The bigger issue is Bent; Darren is a pure poacher, and in the right system he's as deadly a weapon as you'll find in the world. But without decent service, he's wasted. He can't create for himself, he's a poor passer and he doesn't do much of anything other than find the space to score goals. When the people in charge of providing him service are Emile Heskey and a completely out-of-sorts N'Zogbia, he's basically a £24million statue. And that's not his fault; Bent is what he is an always has been, and numerous managers have found a way to utilize him to great effect (largely because it's quite frankly not that difficult.) But at the moment, I don't see the point of him on this team and that's a pretty major indictment of McLeish.
TBB: Can you offer up a predicted starting XI for Saturday? And finally, a prediction for the match?
7500: Based on what's I know at the moment about injuries and the things McLeish has been saying of late:
Given; Hutton, Dunne, Collins, Warnock; N'Zogbia, Herd, Jenas, Bannan, Agbonlahor; Bent
If Stiliyan Petrov his healthy he'll start, most likely in place of Bannan, but I do not expect that to be the case. Keep in mind also; Alex McLeish started Alan Hutton at right midfield against Spurs; I would not put it past him to do something equally negative and stupid against United.
Prediction: 3-0 United.