Throughout the season, you've seen each 7500 to Holte writer develop attachments to certain players. Aaron, I think, came first by claiming Eric Lichaj, the young American defender fighting for a place in both the Aston Villa squad and the U.S. men's national team. Once Wee Barry Bannan broke into a Villa side wracked with injuries, Kirsten developed her own attachment to the diminutive Scottish midfielder. To round out, we've seen that Robert - the Vernal Villan, as he's called - is a big fan of Stewart Downing, despite the brief flutter of fear that he would get transferred away. That leaves me. It's not that I don't like Villa's players, obviously, it's just that I haven't gotten particularly attached to any single one of them.
Ashley Young? Conventional wisdom calls him our best player (with the exception of Darren Bent), but he's never been all too consistent. I don't think he's learned his role yet, which is fair enough, because I don't think anyone knows what he's best suited to do for us, and someone who runs as hot-and-cold as he does probably shouldn't be in a free role behind the striker. Besides all that, doubts linger about his commitment to the club, as he will probably be playing somewhere else when next season rolls around.
Out of sympathy, I considered Forgotten Man Carlos Cuellar, but the thought passed as quickly as it came. Besides, I want to like a player authentically and for his own qualities, not just because he's the best way to keep Richard Dunne off of the pitch. More on him later.
Marc Albrighton was probably the highlight of what was a pretty terrible autumn, with his boundless energy and elvish features. But watching him run and run and run and run and run and make an ill-advised tackle and run and run and run...it just gets tiring.
It's worth noting that with John Carew's departure for Stoke City, the aforementioned Richard Dunne has inherited the Steve Sidwell Memorial Title as my most hated Villan. He doesn't have any pace, he's terribly fat, and he makes blindingly stupid mistakes on a disturbingly regular pace.
Stilyan Petrov is a close second to Dunne, especially considering some of his recent performances. Curiously, these are two players that looked solid, if not excellent while playing under Martin O'Neill, and their weaknesses have been exposed by Gerard Houllier's change in style. Both of them are relatively well-suited to brash, British football (remember, Petrov's best years were under O'Neill at Celtic.) However, Dunne in particular has looked out of it. The worst part is that every once in a while, he goes through a patch of looking decent, and everyone gets tricked into thinking that he's a reliable option. In truth, he's not a great fit for what Houllier wants to do, which involves defenders playing the ball on the ground. I've yet to see a game go by when Dunne doesn't aimlessly launch the ball, just because he doesn't know what to do with it. Which is salvageable when you have big lumps like John Carew and Emile Heskey in your team, but that's not Darren Bent's game.
So, if Dunne and Petrov can't play Houllier's style, who can? Well, Downing has been absolutely stunning, for one. Of all the Villans called up for international duty, he probably deserves his spot the most, based on his form over the last few months. If I'm honest, I didn't know he had it in him, but I'm thrilled by how he's risen to the challenge. I'm tempted to say he's the favourite for Villa's player of the season award, particularly because he's been relatively consistent all year.
When I think about the Houllier system, though, I think of a central midfielder through which the whole offence runs. He worked miracles with Steven Gerrard at Liverpool, with the Englishman crediting Houllier for making him the world-class player he was under Benitez and arguably still is today. At Lyon, Houllier won titles because of the work of Brazilian midfielder Juninho, who won the Ligue 1 Player of the Year award in 2006, alongside Portuguese international Tiago. His offence needs a great ball-playing midfielder, and he found one this winter in Jean Il Makoun.
I did a little raving about Makoun last week, and cited Dan's work at Aston Villa Central. Fortunately, the draw against Fulham has led to another remarkable piece of analysis over at AVC. From what I've seen so far, he's the closest Aston Villa has come to replacing James Milner. He's obviously not a Milner clone, as they bring a different skill set and a different kind of energy, but he is Milner's replacement as the central cog in a machine that's been spending far too long just spinning their wheels. He is, as Dan called him, the "beating heart" of Aston Villa's offence.
Makoun is more creator than destroyer, without a lot of Milner's defensive intent (and the blood-and-guts Three Lions intensity, for better or worse.) However, he's shown in the past that he shares Milner's ability to score ridiculous goals from outside the area. However, Houllier has a bit of a challenge ahead, trying to figure out who's best suited to play alongside Makoun in the centre of midfield. It's obviously not Petrov, we learned that this weekend. With apologies to Kirsten, I don't think it's Bannan either. I think Barry can learn a lot from Makoun, but he's too small to carry any defensive responsibility, which is what Villa will need. I have it down to either Ciaran Clark or Nigel Reo-Coker, depending on whoever proves to be more reliable. Then again, Fabian Delph should be healthy soon. I have to admit, though, he's been away so long that I've forgotten how he plays. I'm looking forward to seeing him back, but I worry that - like Delfouneso - there's not enough space on the pitch for him. And the other challenge we always have to mention with Makoun is that opponents might figure him out before his own teammates do. It might be the clearest example in the league of one man playing chess on a team used to playing checkers.
My favourite characteristic about Makoun's game, particularly when contrasted to Milner and Petrov, is how effortless it looks. He's doing a lot, but doesn't look like it's wearing him down. Maybe it's wishful thinking, but that's why I called him the "Cameroonian Xavi" last week. And besides, he just seems so damn cool. So there. I've picked my horse, and it's Jean Makoun. Trust me, I'm working on a better nickname.
In the comments below, feel free to talk about your favourite Villan. Be sure to tell us why you like them, and the best entry will win...well, nothing. But we definitely might read it.