Aston Villa wrapped up their preseason slate of friendlies today with an exciting 3-3 draw against Werder Bremen at the Weserstadion, with a Darren Bent brace bookending a Ciaran Clark goal. That leaves the club's final preseason record at 3-2-1 (assuming we're calling the "win" against the Portland Timbers a draw, which we are.) But as you've likely heard several million times over the past month-and-a-half, results don't matter until the season gets underway; what's important is how the team plays, the kind of progress they make in terms of learning Paul Lambert's system, and how the players performances help to influence the pecking order. So, with that in mind, what are the biggest takeaways as we turn our attentions to the Premier League season?
Darren Bent Will Be The Key To This Team's Success
Darren Bent is a tremendous player, of that there is little question. There isn't a goal poacher on earth that's more dangerous, and though he's far from being the kind of complete forward that is the most prized asset in modern football, in the right system he's a legitimate 20 goal threat. Given the style of play Villa have favored in preseason, it's reasonably safe to say that Lambert's system is indeed an excellent fit. Bent often struggled to find decent service last season, and though the quality of the players around him and a rash of injuries to creative players can certainly be faulted for much of that, it's also clear that Alex McLeish had no idea how to use him most effectively (which says a lot about Alex McLeish.)
Though Bent has missed a good chunk of time due to a minor injury picked up on the team's US tour, it's been clear in the games he has played that Lambert doesn't have the same problem. The enhanced importance of possession has been the most striking thing about the way Villa has approached things this season, and that's good news for Bent; though plenty good in the air, Bent's greatest strengths are his movement and ability to find space inside the box. Pumping in long balls hoping he gets a head to them is a complete and total waste. Instead, Villa have been content to knock the ball around and find openings where they come. That means that the team is taking more good shots rather than trying to force things. Good shots are more likely to end up as goals, and they're also more likely to end up as loose balls in the box. Bent is kind of good at capitalizing on those.
In short, I'm expecting a massive campaign from Darren Bent. If he can stay healthy, he could very well crack that 20 goal mark and put in the kind of work that Villa paid all of that money for in 2010. But that's the key; behind Darren Bent, there's not a whole lot in which to be confident. We saw how much Villa struggled to put the ball in the net in the preseason games in which Bent was unable to take part, and Premier League teams are going to make that a tad bit more difficult than MLS sides. Villa is still rumored to be after a striker and adding some more quality to the depth up top is a worthy aim, but it's unlikely that any addition to the team will be anywhere near Bent in terms of quality. For Villa to reach their full potential, Darren Bent needs to stay healthy and play to his.
Ron Vlaar And Ciaran Clark Look Like A Match Made In Heaven
Heading into the offseason, central defense looked like one of the areas on this team most in need of improvement. Richard Dunne and James Collins were once upon a time one of the league's central defense pairings, but that time has passed, and with Villa's weakness at fullback there was no one to cover for their mistakes any longer. One of the things both Martin O'Neill and Gerard Houllier realized was that, with Ashley Young and Stewart Downing out wide, there wasn't a whole lot of need for the fullbacks to contribute to the attack. And so we saw things like the Cuellar-Dunne-Collins-Clark back line that shut down Manchester City in January of 2011. But with the departure of Young and Downing, that kind of flat back four was a luxury Villa could no longer afford; unfortunately, the same could be said of decent attacking fullbacks.
That left the weaknesses of Dunne and Collins exposed. It's not that they both turned to garbage overnight; it's just that starting two big, plodding warrior-types like that can backfire enormously, especially when the fullbacks aren't getting back on defense and the midfield isn't providing a lot of cover. Teams can have success with a central defensive pairing of that type, but in the modern game it's increasingly difficult. And with Collins heading to West Ham and Dunne getting older, slower, and increasingly injury-prone, something had to change. Ron Vlaar's signing was the first step, and he's looked tremendous but he's not exactly fleet of foot. He doesn't have the same kind of last-ditch approach favored by Dunne, but the two of them together against teams that can get the ball behind the line quickly could be painful to watch.
That's why Ciaran Clark's performances in the preseason have been so encouraging; Clark is exactly the kind of player you want playing alongside a big bruiser like Vlaar; quick, fast, and good with the ball at his feet. He's also shown some real improvement in his ability to read opposing attackers and cut off the supply. His time in midfield has shown that he's a good passer of the ball, and his ability to effectively join in the attack is something Villa hasn't had for quite some time (despite the best efforts of Collins, bless his heart.)
The contrasts between Vlaar and Clark are readily apparent, and they're what makes them such an exciting pairing. Richard Dunne is still a good player and he still has an important role on this team, but based on what we've seen so far in preseason Vlaark looks to be Villa's best central defensive combination. And perhaps most encouragingly, Clark is only going to get better.
The Fullback Situation Is A Week Bit Terrifying
As you're likely aware, the fullback play last season left a bit to be desired. Stephen Warnock has been a disaster since the second half of 2010 and Alan Hutton has been a disaster since November 30th, 1984. Eric Lichaj showed a great deal of promise after being given a chance in the starting XI, but at times he looked quite exposed. I still think he's going to be a quality top-flight player, but his weaknesses are of the sort that entrusting him with a full-time starting position is a bit of a scary proposition. Lambert addressed the depth issue (caused in large part by his politely telling Hutton to piss off) by signing Matthew Lowton from Sheffield United. Lowton is another solid prospect that looks good enough to play in a rotational capacity, but not quite good enough to be the team's number-one guy.
Between Lichaj and Lowton, there's a decent young rotation; it's not going to set the league on fire by any stretch, but that's part of the rebuilding process. Young players are going to make mistakes, and if they're good then they'll improve. There's every reason to think that Lichaj and Lowton will take that route, and it's much easier to deal with the growing pains of inexperienced players than it is to watch veterans be terrible. And that, unfortunately, is the situation on the other flank. Stephen Warnock was once a legitimately good player, but something happened to him in the latter part of the 2009-10 season and he's just gotten progressively worse. His defensive position is comical, his tackling reckless. He's acceptable going forward, but his inability to get back on defense makes it hardly worth the effort. For all the grief Alan Hutton got last season, I never thought he was as big a problem as Warnock; unfortunately, due to the lack of options at left back, he's just not as easily expendable.
As big of a problem as Warnock is, he's just really the only option. Enda Stevens is a healthy step below Lowton and Lichaj in terms of his ability to contribute at the Premier League level; he's a decent option as depth and should get some time in the League and FA Cups, but the thought of him as the starting left back is terrifying. Ciaran Clark can play the position, but taking him out of the center isn't worth the upgrade over Warnock. Nathan Baker just isn't good enough going forward to consider full-time.
It's been clear to me all preseason that finding a new left back ought to be Paul Lambert's biggest priority. Unfortunately, finding a good, young left back for anything less than a fortune is exceedingly difficult. I'd wager that something like 90% of the teams in the world would consider left back a position in need of upgrading; unfortunately, that 90% includes teams with a lot more money to spend than Aston Villa. I still think Lambert will manage to pull something off, because the lack of quality at the position is plain for all to see. But it's a tough market for a guy on a budget.
This Team Is Going To Be Fun To Watch
No one should be getting ahead of themselves, despite how good Villa looked at times during the preseason; there's still a lot of work to be done. This club should be at least sniffing the Champions League places, but it's going to take at least a year or two to even get within range of the Europa League. The tear-down was probably necessary from a financial perspective, and I have a great deal of faith in Paul Lambert's ability to get the job done, but it's still very early days.
With that being said, this team has been an absolute joy to watch all preseason long. Even when they weren't scoring goals, they were at least trying to score goals. They like to attack, they like to play with a bit of flair, and they like to play with some speed and some purpose. They're going to go through dry spells and they're going to give up more goals than we'd like, but more often than not they're going to be fun while they're doing it. And that's all anyone can ask for, really. Sports are entertainment after all; here's to Villa being entertaining once again.