On Tuesday, I hopped aboard the Bolt Bus (highly recommended, by the way) and set out for Portland to see Aston Villa take on the Timbers. The game was a blast; Jeld-Wen is a lovely stadium in a lovely part of town, and though no one will mistake it for state-of-the-art (outside of the rather impressive video board) it's quite easy to understand why it's so beloved by the locals. The action is the pitch was entertaining, the Timbers gave Villa quite a game, I saw some old friends, and Eric Lichaj scored a penalty. And though I have been assured that Timbers Army was quite subdued in comparison to a league match, they still helped to create a fantastic atmosphere. All in all, an excellent night.
I didn't have any intentions of being especially analytical; this was the first time I'd ever seen the Villa live, and the pre-game festivities combined with a lack of sleep and a long walk in weather that was much hotter than it seemed in a dark and air-conditioned bar saw to it that my mind was not especially sharp. Still, it's inevitable to come away without making a few observations; despite allowing the Timbers to score twice, I thought the defense looked quite good, and any doubts I had about Ciaran Clark being ready to start regularly have been vanquished. Karim El Ahmadi didn't have his best game of the pre-season, but it was still easy to see why Paul Lambert was so keen to bring him to Villa Park. And of course, the way they played was just wonderful. I absolutely cannot wait to see this team play a competitive match with the first-choice players all together.
But more than anything, the thing I will remember about the action on the pitch was the play of Barry Bannan. I've had a great deal of affection for the little dude since I first saw him play, but after a pretty disastrous 2011-12 season I'll admit to being pretty openly skeptical about his chances of ever becoming anything special -or, to be honest, anything approaching average- at the Premier League level. But after his play so far this preseason and especially after seeing him in action on Tuesday, I've done a complete 180. While it's true that the level of competition Villa have encountered in these friendlies has been significantly lower than Premier League quality, nothing about the way Bannan has played in the pre-season looks unsustainable. There are a variety of explanations for why; he's being played in a more natural position, Paul Lambert is giving him more freedom to express himself, he's gained confidence, he's improved as a player, he's matured as a person. All are likely responsible to some extent. But it's pretty clear to me that Bazza is just a different player now than he has been in the past, and that's a very good thing.
That doesn't mean he can't still do all of the things that made him so lovable in the past; he made several jaw-droppingly gorgeous passes, he still had a few excellent cracks at goal, and he can still hit a very nice dead ball. But his awareness of when to try the clever pass seems significantly better than in the past. Lots of players can hit long diagonals into space or knock clever through balls on the break, but good players know that you can't do those things all the time. And while Bannan has always been a tricky little dribbler, his awareness of space and the other players on the field looks leaps-and-bounds ahead of where it has been in the past. There were times that I fully expected him to try to dribble his way out of trouble, only to see him make the intelligent play in the interest of keeping possession. And perhaps most impressively, the wee one seems to have learned how to read the game on defense and even win back a ball or two. That last bit is especially encouraging, as MLS may not be as good as the Premier League but it's an incredibly physical league full of very big men, and Bannan never looked the least bit out of place or overmatched.
I understand that it's still preseason, and I am by no means suggesting that Bannan is on the verge of superstardom. But at a very crucial stage in his career, he's clearly doing things differently. And what encouraged me was the fact that he made intelligent decisions when he likely could have gotten by on superior skill. Bannan was bossing the game and the Timbers didn't really have much of an answer for him, but he didn't let his confidence override his better judgment. That's huge. It shows a level of maturity and refinement as a player that wasn't previously evident.
Whether he can sustain that kind of thing once the season begins remains to be seen. He'll have his bad days, and how he responds to those will be a huge factor in determining the path his career takes. But if we've learned anything from his play during the preseason, it's that Bannan has the ability, and he at least has some understanding of the most effective way in which it should be put to use. If you weren't excited about seeing how this season plays out for Bazza before, you might want to consider it now.