LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 29: Robbie Keane of Aston Villa reacts during the FA Cup with Budweiser Fourth Round match between Arsenal and Aston Villa at Emirates Stadium on January 29, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
News came early this morning UK time that Aston Villa had requested an extension of Robbie Keane's loan. Very shortly thereafter, news came that the LA Galaxy had denied the request, meaning the strike will return to Los Angeles for pre-season training following February 25th's game against Wigan.
This comes as little surprise; the Galaxy are set to face Toronto FC in the first leg of a CONCACAF Champions League tie on March 7th and the club's MLS regular season opener against Western Conference rivals Real Salt Lake coming March 10th. The Galaxy's pre-season preparations have been underway since late January so Keane's spell with Villa has already cut into his time with his parent club; given that the Galaxy have a legitimate chance to be the best team in MLS history (and an outside shot at establishing themselves as the best team in the CONCACAF region, which would be a tremendous achievement for both the club and the league) it's reasonable to think that they would like one of their key players in-house prior to the beginning of their season.
Keane sticking around past the initially agreed date was always an enormous longshot, the kind of thing people were hoping could be forced through thanks to sheer willpower. MLS has improved tremendously over the past five years or so, and the days when American teams would bend to the will of their players and bigger foreign clubs in situations such as these are reaching an end. Within the next few years, loan arrangements such as these may well disappear entirely. That's one of the reasons I never allowed myself (or at least tried not to allow myself) to become too attached to Keane; any arrangement to extend the deal would have to involve a fairly sizable chunk of money heading LA's way, and the entire reason Villa brought him in on loan in the first place was a lack of funds for permanent transfers. Even then, the cash might not have been enough; MLS has a salary cap, and seeing as how the Galaxy already have the maximum of three salary-cap-exempt players and are believed to turn a tidy profit, the LA club may well have decided Keane was significantly more valuable than a few hundred-thousand dollars.
But really, that's not especially important (unless you believe the club failing to extend Keane's loan is some kind of a failing of the board/McLeish, and in that case there's probably nothing I can say that will change your mind.) What matters is that Keane will be going away soon, and I think we can all agree that this presents a relatively major problem. Keane has been tremendous, and his four goals with the club certainly help to illustrate that fact. But his impact has gone well beyond that; no one else on the team is capable of providing the same things he can from that second striker position. Other players share certain qualities, but none of them have the same mix of finishing ability, creativity, positional sense and general craftiness that Keane provides. It's not that there weren't any games where Villa looked good in the attack prior to Keane's arrival, but they've looked so consistently good since Keane arrived that is cause for concern. Correlation may not prove causation, but in this case it's fair to say that it's implied.
So what to do? That's an easy question to answer in the long-term; buy a player that does similar things. As good as Keane has been, it's not as though his skillset is unique just to him. The odds are good that a similar, better player could be found without breaking the bank, preferably one that does those things from midfield so that Darren Bent and Gabby Agbonlahor can both play centrally. That doesn't do us any good for the remainder of this season, however, and after Keane heads back to the US there will still be 12 more games remaining on the schedule. If you think Villa's finishing position matters even if it's outside of the European places or relegation zone (it does, by the way) then what happens to Villa's attack once he's gone is a pretty important question.
And unfortunately, I don't have any answers. The reality is that Keane is the ideal kind of player for Alex McLeish's system. There are things that could be done from a tactical perspective that could help offset the loss, but they'd be pretty drastic departures from the things Alex McLeish has done throughout the course of his entire career. A 4-3-3 with a central midfield including two of Stephen Ireland, Barry Bannan and Gary Gardner in the more advanced roles would be a lot of fun, but it just isn't something I could ever see Non-Sir putting on the pitch (and given the state of the defense I'm not sure I really blame him.) Within the current tactical setup you're basically stuck with pushing Gabby to the wing, N'Zogbia to the bench with Ireland (or maybe Bannan) sliding in behind Bent. And frankly, I'm just not sure I'm especially wild about the idea.
Increasingly, I'm left to believe that Keane and his contributions won't be replaced at all, at least for the rest of the season. That doesn't spell doom necessarily; Keane's first appearance for Villa came after the 3-1 win at Stamford Bridge, the unlucky 1-2 loss to Arsenal and the 3-2 win against Norwich. I don't want to pretend as though the improvement in the quality of Villa's attack (and greater entertainment factor of their football in general) is entirely attributable to Keane. This team can score goals, and if Keane's spell with the team has had a positive impact on the way the team plays going forward then it will have been a tremendous (rather than merely good) decision to bring him in. But he's still going to be sorely missed. Not just in terms of his direct impact on results, but in terms of the way he changes my outlook on a game; when he's on the pitch, I feel like a goal can be coming at any time, out of nowhere. There's something reassuring about Robbie Keane, which is a weird thing to say, but it's true. Especially since, come March, his presence will have the exact opposite effect.