SWANSEA, WALES - AUGUST 25: Michu of Swansea celebrates scoring the second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Swansea City and West Ham United at the Liberty Stadium on August 25, 2012 in Swansea, Wales. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
After a deflating start to the season, there was a lot to like about Aston Villa's performance in a 1-1 away draw against Newcastle; a strong defensive performance largely devoid of lapses, a cohesive and effective attacking plan, and an effective possession game hat kept Newcastle from building enough momentum to take control of the match. Villa looked like a different team than the one that was shredded by Everton a week prior, and a great deal of the pre-season optimism has returned. It's unlikely to think that Villa will play as well every time out, but just knowing that they can-against a team of Newcastle's quality, no less-is a huge relief.
But football being what it is, those positive vibes can be erased pretty quickly. Another poor performance at Villa Park will likely see the doom-merchants back in full force, ignoring the fact that this is a team that will be expected to struggle at times and that there's still a whole lot of season over which the young core of this team will develop and improve. It's tempting to ignore such overreactions, but it's tough to deny that they have some impact on the club, whether in terms of a negative home crowd eroding the confidence of the kids that Paul Lambert clearly sees as the future of this club or in terms of putting pressure on the board to do something rash. Is that silly? Of course. But just because something is silly doesn't mean it can't have a real and tangible effect.
That's why the performances are so vital. I'm still unconvinced that we're at a stage where the results are the most important thing; that time will come, of course, and it's better to get win or draw than to lose, but if the team is playing well and showing improvement it's going to be difficult for the naysayers to convince anyone else that their visions of doom and gloom are reasonable. And with being Villa a somewhat fragile ecosystem at the moment, that's important. And in a lot of ways, Swansea City is a decent measuring stick; they aren't exactly the same kind of team that Paul Lambert is looking to build, but there are plenty of similarities. And if Villa can go toe-to-toe in terms of the possession game (not the actual statistic itself, because that statistic is terrible), that's a pretty significant sign that things are moving in the right direction.
As Kirsten talked about yesterday, Swansea is having a bit of an injury crisis along the back line at the moment. With the standard disclaimer that no one ever wants to see players injured, that's certainly positive for Villa's chances. But as anyone that has watched Swansea can tell you, their solid defensive record is less a function of their defenders than of their very patient possession game. It's hard for the other team to score when they don't have the ball and all that. But one of the major differences in this (still incredibly young) season has been their prolific goal-scoring; 5 against QPR, 3 against West Ham, 2 against Sunderland. That kind of attacking output clearly isn't sustainable in the long-term, but by the same token it's tough to put up numbers like that without being a legitimately dangerous team.
New signing Michu has been Swansea's most prolific scorer, with four goals in three games. Michael Laudrup looks to have gotten a bargain, paying Rayo Vallencano just £2 million for the midfielder's services. Nathan Dyer is also a clear threat, and he'll be operating down Villa's more vulnerable left-hand side. Swansea's style of play is no secret, and Villa fans should thank their lucky stars for a player like Karim El Ahmadi in the middle of the pitch.
It will be interesting to see how Lambert chooses to line up for this game; a 4-2-3-1 like we've seen in two of this season's first three games makes a lot of sense from the perspective of trying to crowd out Swansea's passing game, but Villa's best performance on the year has come in something that looked an awful lot like a 4-4-2. When you take into account the fact that the manager will have players at his disposal this time around that he didn't two weeks ago, the picture becomes even less clear. And given the lack of the depth the past few seasons, that's not exactly the worst problem in the world.
Aston Villa won't be favored in this game, and they shouldn't be; Swansea was a solid mid-table club last season that's looked even better so far this year, while Villa is (rightly) viewed as a struggling lower-table side until proven otherwise. But the way Villa played against Newcastle was good enough to keep them in a match against any team in the league; if they can continue that kind of form, they've got a legitimate chance at their first three points of the season. But if it's something closer to what we saw against Everton, it could be an ugly day indeed.