Marc Albrighton shot from the only angle and in the only setting that could possibly make him look imposing.
At the beginning of last season, Aston Villa came into the year with some of the best quality and depth on the wing but with massive question marks in central midfield and at striker. As predicted, the wing play was fantastic; Stewart Downing was arguably Villa's best player while Marc Albrighton really came into his own after being given his first chance at regular first-team football. Ashley Young was dependably very good when deployed on the wing as well, and though Gabriel Agbonlahor never looked fully comfortable out wide he did have some very good moments on the left. When still in danger of relegation in January, Villa took steps to remedy their aforementioned weaknesses, breaking the club's transfer window to bring in Darren Bent from Sunderland and shoring up the midfield with the additions of Jean Makoun and (to a far, far, far lesser extent) Michael Bradley. Bent was of course fantastic, and though the central midfield still wasn't great it was certainly improved. Villa also got some nice surprises in the form of Barry Bannan's creativity and Ciaran Clark's ability to play a passable defensive midfield, but that boost was more than cancelled out by the absolute horror show that was Stephen Ireland.
Needless to say, there have been a lot of changes this summer. Downing and Young are both gone, as are Nigel Reo-Coker and Michael Bradley. Charles N'Zogbia has been Villa's only outfield signing during this window. And despite all of the attacking talent on the team last season, Villa were 13th in the Premier League in goals scored. With the defense still a massive question mark coming into the season, is the rest of the team going to be good enough to carry it?
This position carries with it more question marks than any other on the team. There's at least one very good player in Jean Makoun, a steady veteran in Stilyan Petrov, some promising youngsters in Barry Bannan, Fabian Delph and Chris Herd and an enormous wildcard in Stephen Ireland. For much of the pre-season Villa ran with three central midfielders with Petrov and Makoun playing deep and Ireland playing a more advanced role. For the most part they looked a decent unit, Ireland in particular showing flashes of creativity that weren't often in evidence last season. But it is, after all, only pre-season and there is definitely some cause for concern. Most notably, there's not a single real destroyer on this squad, a player who derives the majority of his value from winning balls and disrupting the flow of the opponent's attack.
Nigel Reo-Coker was not the world's most refined player, but his steely presence in midfield is going to be difficult to replace. Given the club's desire to trim the wage bill it's at least somewhat understandable that they allowed him to leave after it became clear that his demands were higher than the club's valuation, but to also pass up the opportunity to sign Michael Bradley for a fee rumored to be in the neighborhood of £3.5-£4 million at a far lower wage was a somewhat baffling decision. Bradley is far from perfect, but at this point the closest thing Villa has to a true starting quality holding midfielder is Fabian Delph, who has the unfortunate side effect of breaking into thousands of pieces every time he attempts a tackle. Chris Herd is promising in the role but he's not ready to be a regular. Makoun and Petrov both play deep but they're far from strong on the defensive side of things. If there's one single thing that worries me more than any other when I look at this squad it's that lack of a destroyer, and that they had the options in house to address it and let them get away if more than a little frustrating. I'm holding out hope that Ciaran Clark gets more of a look in the spot, because I thought he looked quite promising there in his cameos last season.
How Stephen Ireland plays this season is perhaps the single biggest unknown variable in the entire mix. Vintage Stephen Ireland in midfield makes the attack look really, really good. The more recent version on the other hand is quite terrifying. The talent is there. He can send in perfectly weighted balls to just the right space, flick on cleverly and has a pretty wicked shot at times. But sometimes, he just doesn't. All of it disappears. If Ireland can get his head sorted out, he has all the makings of a very good player. But while we can be hopeful, at this point in the going his figuring all out seems more unlikely than his washing out completely. I really want to be wrong, and there are quite a few smart people who think that I am. I'll be more than happy to accept their "I-told-you-so's" if that turns out to be the case.
Behind Ireland is Barry Bannan. Bannan isn't perfect; he's prone to trying to get too creative in areas he probably shouldn't, he seems to take his diminutive size as something of a challenge (often with poor but adorable results) and he doesn't seem to have the goalscoring potential of Ireland. But he's undeniably the most clever and creative of Villa's central midfielders, is a much better defender than you'd think by looking at him, can switch up and play on the wing and has a tremendous amount of potential. I think it's fair to say that Bannan is going to get a fair crack this season, and if he breaks through it will be a pretty wonderful development. Good, creative midfielders are really hard to find and Villa haven't had one in seemingly forever. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Fabian Delph; Delph isn't especially creative and doesn't really seem like a wide player by any stretch, but he can mix it up with bigger, stronger players and presents a creditable threat at goal. I actually like Delph more in a deeper position, but he's certainly not a bad option in an advanced role. Makoun can also play more advanced than we've seen him with Villa, but it doesn't seem likely we'll see him deployed there by McLeish.
How Marc Albrighton performs is going to be crucial in determining how this team fares in the upcoming season. Albrighton was a breath of fresh air early on last year but by the end of the season he'd all but disappeared from the first team. Some of that may have been down to fatigue, some of it may have been a tactical adjustment that saw Young move back to the right and Villa switching to a more traditional two striker setup. Even when Albrighton was at his best, he was far from faultless; he's a fantastic crosser of the ball in a technical sense but he has a tendency to send in balls whether or not a target is in the area, leading to a fair amount of promising attacks ending prematurely. He's certainly not an asset in the defensive phase. But all of the ingredients are there; speed, delivery, dribbling skill, work rate and enough of a threat at goal to give the opposing defense something else to think about. There's little reason to think Albrighton won't take a step forward this season, and if so right midfield isn't a position Villa are going to have to worry about for quite some time.
Charles N'Zogbia is a player many Villa fans have wanted for quite some time, and for good reason; easily Wigan's best player on a team with some pretty solid attacking talent, N'Zogbia may well be a upgrade over Stewart Downing at half the price and a few years younger to boot. N'Zogbia is quite a good defender for his position (which is a pretty nice bonus considering Stephen Warnock is playing behind him) and he's going to be good for a few goals as well. He's more than willing to take on defenders which will be a nice addition to this team and he has more technical ability than any player in the squad. As universally praised as the Shay Given signing was (and rightly so) I think N'Zogbia's signing was far better and may well end up being the bargain of the summer.
So, not a bad first choice unit. Unfortunately, there are zero true wingers behind Albrighton and N'Zogbia. If pre-season is any indication, Emile Heskey is McLeish's second preferred option on the left which is, well, it's something is what it is. One would have to think Barry Bannan would be in that mix as well, and Gabriel Agbonlahor has played out wide both last season and on numerous occasions in the past. Nathan Delfouneso doesn't seem like a true winger, but as a late-game substitute when a goal is needed he could be a pretty attractive option. Bannan is the only left-footer of the above bunch and he spent some time on the right during the pre-season (setting up the lone goal against Blackburn from that position in fact) and all the right footers have spent time on the left, so there's little reason to think the depth on the wing is going to be limited to one side or the other. But none of the depth players are true wide men. That's not to say they can't do the job as needed, but some of those early round cup games are going to be pretty interesting.
Do we even really need to talk about Darren Bent? He's Villa's best player and an absolute goal-poaching machine. He should be for several more years. Of all the things I'm worried about, Darren Bent scoring a bunch of goals is fairly low on the list. Moving on.
Gabriel Agbonlahor has had an...interesting career path. Fans have been waiting for him to take a step forward for a few years now. Last season he did the opposite. He spent a lot of time injured and a lot of time recovering from injury, but even when fit he just didn't look the same player. A big part of that was likely his lack of a regular role; he played both wings, in the hole and up top, never really settling into any one position for too long a stretch and never really seeming to get into the flow of things. Now, with a full pre-season and what would appear to be a more well defined place in Alex McLeish's system, Gabby seems poised for a comeback. He's always been at his best playing just behind the lead striker and floating to wherever there is space, using his explosive speed to bust holes in the defense. Gabby is never going to be first-choice with Darren Bent around and Villa are probably going to play with one striker a good deal of the time, but Gabby is going to get his chances. If he can make the most of them, McLeish will find a way to get him on the pitch.
Emile Heskey is Emile Heskey. He is more what he is than any player on Earth. Some people like him and think he is valuable. Others do not. I tend towards the former, but I can certainly understand the complaints of the latter. He will play sometimes. People will complain. The end.
Nathan Delfouneso is a player a lot of Villa fans are excited about, and for pretty good reason. He's an interesting player, not the kind of striker Villa have tended to develop; he's a far more complete forward than Agbonlahor, for one example, but there aren't really any parts of his game that are all that well refined. He can do a little bit of everything and the potential is certainly there, but no one part of his game is refined enough to stand out. He's a player that is crying out for more time at the Premier League level, and with Villa's shallow squad depth the chances are good he's going to get it.
Villa should score more goals than last season, and a failure to do so would have to be considered a pretty big disappointment. But there are some obvious concerns. Any key injuries are going to be magnified. The shallow pool of true wide players and ball-winners in midfield is troubling. There's the potential of a pretty good first team in there, but beyond that there are a whole lot of question marks. That might not be the worst thing. A lot of young players are going to get a chance to show what they can do this year, and we might find out something we otherwise wouldn't have. But there's reason to feel slightly uncomfortable going into the season. With the window still open there's time for Villa to address those concerns, but all indications are that this is the squad McLeish has to work with lest he create a shortage somewhere else.
There's a lot of talent here, and when everything is clicking it is going to be a hell of a lot of fun to watch. But if you feel just a bit uneasy, it's completely justified.