BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - APRIL 25: James Milner of Aston Villa scores a penalty during the Barclays Premiership match between Aston Villa and Birmingham City at Villa Park (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)
In part one of this series I talked about the state of Villa's goalkeeping and defense, probably the greatest collective strength of the club. This time around I'll talk about the midfield and forwards. While Richard Dunne was arguably Villa's most valuable player last season, Villa's most talented players are contained within this group. James Milner, Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor are a huge part of England's future; each have their flaws, but that's to be expected of players of such a young age. Their talent and potential is unquestioned, and if Villa are to fully live up to the Bright Future their motto promises they would be wise to build around these three.
Despite this fantastic collection of young talent, Villa at times struggled to maintain possession, create chances and, not surprisingly, score goals. Many supporters have responded to these failings with demands for a prolific goal scorer, an issue which I have addressed previously. While I am on record as being skeptical that adding an expensive striker would do much to cure Villa's offensive woes, there are clearly areas for improvement up front and in the middle.
Please note that this post will use the same assumptions outlined in part one. Onward!Wide Midfield: Ashley Young and Stewart Downing are a formidable pairing here. Ashley is sometimes derided for a perceived lack of effort and Stewart for a perceived lack of goal scoring acumen, but these are two very good players that would be considered strengths on most any team in the league. A meaningful upgrade would most likely require financial resources Aston Villa simply do not have, and would most likely be a waste in any sense. Both are capable of playing wide in a 4-4-2 and shifting up to the wings in a 4-3-3, and are able to adapt at a moment's notice to the 4-2-4 that Villa sometimes employ when in search of a goal. Beyond those two, things are a bit less clear. Steve Sidwell saw a fair amount of time off the bench, but the odds seem good that he is on the way out and in any case seems more comfortable in the center. Marc Albrighton impressed early on last season and should make a case for more playing time in 2010/11. Nathan Delfouneso is capable of playing wide in a 4-3-3 should it become necessary, but such a scenario is far from ideal.
If Villa wish to compete seriously in all four competitions, they're most likely going to need to add some depth capable of playing the wide midfield/wing positions. MON has shown that he is capable of finding solid players at decent value to fill these positions in the past and given the likely financial constraints he is operating under that's a skill that should serve him well. Villa have a wide pairing that can serve them well in the Premier League, but to have success in Europa without sacrificing domestic success they will need to add talent.
Central Midfield: James Milner established himself last season as an elite talent, capable of fetching at least £20 million on the transfer market. Milner is equally strong as a goal-scoring threat, a playmaker and a holding midfielder, and his versatility allows him to play capably at RB and on the wing. While Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor possess a tremendous amount of talent, Milner is the only of the three to have put it all together as of yet. While Milner's future at Villa Park continues to be in doubt, for our purposes here we will assume that he is staying put.
Milner's central midfield partner Stilyan Petrov is an interesting player. He was a very crucial part of the team's build-up play last season, and when Petrov was off form the team were clearly the worse for it. While I wouldn't call Petrov's position one that must be upgraded, it's an avenue I certainly wouldn't mind seeing the team explore and this is where I think things could get especially interesting. The team could go in several different directions should it decide to replace Petrov; Stilyan's role last season was mainly as a holding midfielder and something of a center-spoke distributor. If MON chose to replace him with a more traditional CDM it would allow Milner to take on more of an attacking role, which could go a long way towards creating more offensive pressure through the center of the field, something that I think would go a long way towards solving the team's offensive woes. Conversely, they could target a playmaking CAM, leaving Milner to wreak havoc from box to box and sacrificing some possession for more dynamism in the attack. MON could also choose to pursue a player with a similar skill set with a bit fewer miles on his body.
In the end, I would imagine Petrov stays put. Because he is the captain it would be difficult to ask him to accept a reduced role while still close to the prime of his career, and because Villa do not have a great deal of depth at the position MON might not be eager to sell such a dependable player. There is also something to be said for having a more experienced player on such a young team. While the potential upgrades are intriguing, there is a not insignificant amount of risk involved and MON is not known for being one to take risks. I will say that as counter-intuitive as it sounds I think that Petrov moving on becomes more likely should Milner be transferred, as the added financial flexibility such a move would bring could make a significant upgrade more likely.
Nigel Reo-Coker is another very interesting case. After taking a place of leadership in 2008/09, he fell out of favor early on last season, injured his ankle midway through the year and found it all but impossible to find playing time after returning to full health. He's clearly a talented player and by all accounts wishes to stay with Aston Villa, but I'm not sure how realistic that is. He has value, he's not a clear upgrade over Petrov and if last season were any indication he has yet to work his way back into the manager's good graces. Reo-Coker is a player I would like Villa to hang on to, as he provides depth for Europa and the cup competitions without severely affecting the quality of the team on the pitch. I am far more comfortable with Reo-Coker stepping into the starting XI in case of injury than Steve Sidwell and I think selling him could prove to be short sighted.
Speaking of Steve Sidwell, I can't stand Steve Sidwell. I've been sitting here trying to be objective about him and come up with something at least neutral to say about him, but I'm drawing a blank. He's doing nothing but taking up space and I would rather sell him and use the money to bring in a less annoying version of him because I am tired of looking at his face. Moving on.
In part because of the injury to Fabian Delph, the quality of Villa's depth in the center is a concern. At the end of last season I felt like Delph would begin to play a more prominent role on the first team. Delph is an unfinished product to be certain, but he is also supremely gifted. He's the kind of player I would have love to see put on display in the Europa league, and a strong showing could have forced his way into the regular rotation. Instead, he is unlikely to see any action at all until 2011 and I find it exceedingly unlikely that he will make much of an impact in the coming season. At the time his injury occurred I was disappointed because it meant a year of lost development (and potentially a loss of physical ability) for a talented prospect. The closer it gets to the beginning of the season, the practical implications become clearer. Behind Reo-Coker and Sidwell are Isaiah Osbourne, Barry Bannan, Christopher Herd and Johnathan Hogg. I am not certain the current standing of Osbourne's legal troubles, but even in the best case I don't see him as being much more than emergency depth. Bannan is a decent prospect, but he's still quite young and lacks the raw talent to make an impact unless he has become a more finished product over the course of the offseason. The same could be said of Hogg and Herd as was said of Bannan, only to a lesser extent.
This is an area that needs an infusion of talent. It doesn't necessarily need to be top-level talent, but Villa will be hard pressed to have a decent showing in all competitions with the talent currently on hand. The team could most likely choose to forgo success in Europa and stand pat, but I don't really find that to be an especially desirable option. It's hard to convince players you are serious about playing Champions League football if you're incapable of making even the smallest of dents in a lesser competition.
Forwards: This is certainly the hot topic of conversation amongst supporters. The consensus among many seems to be that Villa must bring in a prolific striker and that Emile Heskey is terrible. I don't agree on either count (although I do agree that Heskey is a terrible fit for this club) but I think that it is clear that Villa could do with another striker. I find it hard to believe that Heskey will stay at Villa Park much longer and while I think his talents are under-appreciated, that's probably in the best interests of all involved. John Carew is an attractive target for many teams (as well as being attractive in general) and while I love the big man, his biggest asset in Villa's system is his being absurdly tall. While that's not insignificant for a player at his position, it doesn't necessarily make him a tremendously efficient use of resources either.
As much as some would like to make him out to be, Gabriel Agbonlahor is not the problem. Gabriel Agbonlahor's talents not being properly utilized, however, is a problem. Gabby is not the world's greatest finisher, but he is, as they say in the Holte End, fast as fook. As I mentioned in part one of this series, Villa's style of play doesn't really take as much advantage of his speed as perhaps it should. MON had the right idea bringing in Heskey, and when the big man was on form Villa looked their most dangerous. Say what you will about Emile Heskey, the man makes a fairly ample target, and watching him collect a long pass, stand on the ball while defenders tried in vain to dislodge him and flick the ball to a streaking Gabby was exhilarating. Unfortunately, it didn't happen all that much, and Emile's complete and total lack of finishing ability even when playing at his best got very old very fast. If Heskey is doing what he's been brought in to do you can overlook his inability to score. If he's not, it's a slightly more difficult proposition.
John Carew brings more value than Heskey in that he is in fact capable of putting the ball in the net from time to time in the process of just kind of standing around. I have a tremendous amount of affection for the big man, but he is what he is and a thing he is not is mobile. He and Ashley Young do seem to have a good working relationship; some of the most impressive passages of attacking play Villa put together last season ended with Ashley sending one of his trademark rockets into the box and finding Big John's right foot or head amongst a crowd of defenders. In ideal world I don't think I want John starting for this team, but I do want him on the bench in case a more attacking style is required or if the pace of the game slows. He isn't much help to Villa on the kind of lightning fast counters I'd like to see them employ, but in a game where your best shot is firing crosses into the box, he's a good man to have. Financial realities might make it difficult, but I'd like to see Carew in a Villa shirt next season, for reasons beyond the purely sentimental.
Nathan Delfouneso is the wild card. In the limited action he saw last season he made quite the impression on me, and while he is clearly not done developing, he needs more opportunities to show what he is capable of. The idea of Gabby and Fonz running defenses ragged with blazing runs is appealing to me in a visceral way, and while simply trying to outrun the opponent isn't necessarily the best tactical decision in most cases, it has its place in others. Delfouneso isn't the answer in and of himself, but he's certainly one of the players I am most looking forward to watching in the coming season. If he can take a step forward in his development as a player it could go a long way towards Villa taking a step forward in their development as a club.
If I were given my druthers, Villa would bring in a withdrawn forward with Emile Heskey's basic skill set without Emile Heskey's total lack of mobility or finishing ability. Heskey didn't draw defenders to him because no defender in the Premier League saw Emile Heskey as any sort of goal scoring threat, at least compared to Gabby, Young, Milner and Downing. I've said this numerous times in the past, but goal scoring ability means nothing without chance creation, and Villa are sorely lacking in the latter. Crosses from the wings are all well and good but if they are your only means of creating chances they are easy to defend, no matter how brilliant the service.
Villa need someone to be the bridge between to defense and the attack. Someone to hold up play and feed the ball to James Milner in space so that he can shoot from distance or thread dangerous balls through to Gabby or Carew. Someone to draw defenders to them allowing Ashley or Downing to cut back inside. Someone to allow the defense to reset so that failed Aston Villa counter attacks do not turn into successful counter attacks by the opposition as happened so many times last season.
Scoring goals is wonderful. It's one of the two objectives of the game, in fact, and arguably the more important one. But it's not magic. Most of the time it takes a lot of work by a lot of people to make it happen. Spending a lot of money on a striker because he's scored an arbitrary number of goals in a lesser league or for a lower-level team isn't the way to go about building a winning club. It's about taking stock of what you have and figuring out the best way to supplement it. Aston Villa have players capable of scoring goals in bunches. What they don't have is any variance to the way they go about attempting to do so. If they can find ways to make the center of the field as dangerous as the edges, this is a team that is capable of making a lot of noise in the coming season.