While I wouldn't go so far as to say things are bad for Aston Villa at the moment, it's fair to say that there haven't been a whole lot of positive signs lately either. To be blunt, Villa have been mediocre this season and far more often than anyone would like they've been more than a bit uninteresting. I think most Villa supporters are willing to accept the fact that a mid-table finish this year is likely and that it will take some time for Gerard Houllier to put his stamp on the club, but I think most of us are also dying for some encouraging news of a bit more gravity than Luke Young coming back slightly earlier from injury than might have been expected.
In that spirit, I have good news. Aston Villa's reserve squad has been one of the best in the Premier Reserve League for much of its existence, winning four regional titles and one national title in the eleven years since its inception. This year has been no different; Villa's reserves have not lost since dropping the season's opening game to Manchester City and currently sit top of the table with a record of 5-2-1. Their latest victory game today with a 2-0 win at Arsenal, handing the Gunners their first loss of the year and putting Villa four points clear of second place. Arsenal are widely regarded to have the best youth system in the Premier League, and though they have two games in hand on Villa beating such a formidable side away from home and maintaining first-place standing is nothing to scoff at.
Some of the stars of the reserve side are fairly obvious (Delfouneso, Clark, Bannan, Lichaj, Guzan) but plenty of players without any first experience have made a strong impression as well; James Collins, Jr, Shane Lowry, Johnathan Hogg and Daniel Johnson have all made significant strides this season as well, with Collins and Hogg especially looking like players that could have an impact at the big club in the near future. More than anything, it's encouraging that Villa's young players are being given the opportunity to develop as players in an environment where winning has become something of a habit.
No team is ever going to win the Premier League with a strong youth development system alone, and we all know that there's much work to be done if Villa want to challenge for the Champions League places any time in the near future. On the other side of the coin, the number of clubs that can stay competitive without developing their own talent is extremely limited. Villa's best chance has always been to invest in youth and supplement a strong core with quality veteran players. We're too early into Gerard Houllier's reign to know whether he can provide the latter, but it's encouraging that it appears we'll have the former.