Thank Goodness That's Over: The 7500 to Holte End-of-Season Roundtable (Part One)

Mark Thompson

In this roundtable review of Aston Villa's season, the 7500 to Holte writers run the rule over the club's up and downs for 2012-13 and look ahead to next year. Part Two comes tomorrow, where we'll examine the playing squad and talk about Paul Lambert's first season with Aston Villa.

The Club:

Based on your pre-season expectations, how would you say Aston Villa performed this season?

Aaron: I was expecting a finish in the range of 12th-15th so in that regard they just just barely met my expectations, but I was not expecting to ever really be involved in the relegation battle. I think it's clear that I was overly bullish on the team going into the year, which looks even worse when you consider that I expected them to perform better than they did before Benteke or Westwood came on the scene.

Andrew: I was overly optimistic before the season started because of Paul Lambert's miracle worker reputation but I didn't really understand just how rotten Villa was. Making matters worse, I attended my first Villa match in September and it was a 2-0 win over a very good Swansea club. So they certainly finished below what I expected but I was being a big stupid idiot.

Gareth: I actually dug up the roundtable we did in August and I described 10th as "conservatively optimistic." In that respect, it's hard to say Villa were anything other than a disappointment, but in hindsight I think my expectations weren't all that realistic.

Kirsten: Oh god, I said 10th, and that we wouldn't have to fear relegation. This is why I'm no longer allowed to put money on football matches. But hey, at least we were playing some fun football by the end of the season.

Matt: I predicted 11th, which was still possible on the final day. I said I was cautiously optimistic, though. I figured they would struggle early as the lower league/foreign signings got adjusted to the Premier League, but I didn't think it would take as long as it did.

Robert: Gareth inspired me to go back and look at what I said. Eighth? Really? Boy I was an idiot. I was going to answer this "Pretty well!" because apparently I didn't remember what I had said. So based on those, Villa didn't do too well. But based on what I saw for the first couple of months? I'm pretty happy with what happened.

In your opinion, is Aston Villa the 15th best team in the Premier League?

Aaron: Going forward I don't think that they are. I think the way that they performed in 2013 is probably indicative of their true talent level, and on that form they're on the verge of being a top half side. But they had to do a lot of growing up to get to that point, and I don't think they were at all unlucky to finish 15th.

Andrew: No, they're better than that as currently constructed. I wish they could go back and unscrew themselves in December. Maybe I should watch what I wish for. They're better than a few of the teams that finished ahead of them. And West Brom totally sucks.

Gareth: There's no way to be unbiased about this, but I think there are a few teams who finished above us that aren't quite as good as Villa are. Not many, though.

Kirsten: As currently constructed, nah. It took a long time for the players to gel and really "get" Lambert, but once they did, they demonstrated that this is a side that can play well enough to actually avoid the relegation zone. I don't know if I'd go as far as to say they're a top ten club though, because defense.

Matt: They finished 15th despite being one of, if not the worst club in the league, for a large period around December and January. With the experience a lot of the younger players would have picked up throughout the season, I don't think they'll have a period like that again. So, no, I think they are better than 15th with the current squad.

Robert: Nope. If the form at the end of the season is any indication, this is a top-10 club. I know it's the whole season that counts, but if we take those last 10 matches as an indication of what an in-form Lambert team can do, we should be very excited.

What was your highlight of the 2012-13 season?

Aaron: Brad Guzan taunting Luis Suarez at Anfield is not only my favorite moment of the season, it's one of my favorite sports memories period. I will never forget that as long as I live.

Andrew: So many great moments and also horrible moments but seeing Matthew Lowton's 1st goal of the season (how could I imagine he'd pull off a better one) at Villa Park in September was incredible. Sitting in the Upper Holte and getting the kindest welcome from Villa fans was something I'll never forget. Getting drunk in Birmingham was also fun. I will be back next season for sure.

Gareth: I can't look past the 3-1 victory at Anfield. I still remember watching that in bed, not totally convinced that it was actually happening. The Benteke backheel was particularly memorable.

Kirsten: The Andi dance. It's a mysterious hilarity that signifies the Villa have scored a goal. And he always looks so damn happy.

Matt: SIXONESIXONESIXONESIXONESIXONESIXONESIXONESIXONE

Robert: The emergence of Christian Benteke as not only Villa's best threat, but one of the best threats in the Premier League. I was excited when we nabbed him, but I wasn't expecting anything like what we got.

What was your lowlight of the season?

Aaron: The 3-0 loss to Wigan at home on December 29th. The Chelsea game was awful, but it was clear to me that it had a lot to do with overconfidence from the win at Anfield and a complete evaporation of that confidence once Chelsea began to dominate. The 4-0 loss to Spurs was also unpleasant, but losing to Tottenham 4-0 wasn't all that surprising. But losing 3-0 to Wigan at home was just horrible, and it also felt like the wheels had totally and completely fallen off. At that point I didn't see it getting better anytime soon, and I'm amazed they turned it around as soon as they did.

Andrew: The holiday period was just so awful. Losing in cup ties doesn't bother me as much as it does others. Being unable to keep a team from scoring eight times is just embarrassing as hell. I hope it's a long time before Villa loses a match 8-0.

Gareth: Losing to Bradford City and Millwall in succession. The silver lining was that a deep cup run was the last thing Aston Villa needed, as Wigan would later demonstrate.

Kirsten: The Chelsea match, but mostly for personal reasons. I offered to cover that game, I was sitting in a bar with Chelsea fans, and I had to make a two-hour drive with a Chelsea supporter directly after, so I couldn't even drink my sorrows away.

Matt: The Chelsea 8-0 loss was bad, but I think the Tottenham match after that was the worst for my morale. After that match, I didn't think there was any way that we would stay up.

Robert: The Bradford City loss. Like Gareth said, a deep cup run wouldn't have been great for the team, but had they won those two matches, they'd have only had one more in the cup. And I don't think one more match would have killed the team. Win or lose, it would've been great to see Villa in Wembley.

What is your biggest "what-if" of the season?

Aaron: What if we didn't sign Benteke? Everyone's pretty well in agreement that he's the one that kept Villa in the Premier League, so how do things look if he stays in Belgium? I think Villa end up playing a very different kind of game that's more dependent upon Darren Bent in that case, and though I think they might have managed to stay up I don't think it would have been nearly as enjoyable to watch.

Andrew: For me, as in years past, what if Villa could defend a set piece? What if Villa could hold a lead late? Imagine if just a few of those results had held? Finally I have reason to believe those trends will disappear.

Gareth: I actually remember being really optimistic before the hammering we got at Stamford Bridge. If the team didn't get so demoralized by Chelsea, would the results against Spurs and Wigan have been better as a result? How would that change the perception of Villa's season?

Kirsten: What if Villa hadn't brought back Guzan? Remember how the club didn't renew his contract, but then went out and re-signed him? Man, if we'd been stuck with Shay Given...

Matt: What if Brad Guzan had the first leg of the semifinal against Bradford? I don't fault Lambert for resting Guzan, and you figure Given should be able to do well against Bradford. But Shay had a poor game and really made it a tough ask for the second leg.

Robert: The Bradford City matches. Does making a cup final change this team's perception of itself? It might've gotten them out of the post-Stamford-Bridge-debacle death-spiral more quickly.

Did you ever seriously believe that Aston Villa would be relegated?

Aaron: I don't know if I ever thought it was the most likely outcome, but I accepted it as a more realistic proposition than I have over the past two years. I felt good about things once the 6-1 win over Sunderland came along, but before that point I'll admit to doing research about ways to access archived Championship games.

Andrew: Yeah I did. And I'm usually pretty bulletproof in that regard. I feared the late Wigan charge until there were a few weeks left. Only after the Norwich City win did I feel like things were safe.

Gareth: I absolutely did. I thought we'd be relegated last season as well, but it seemed more likely than ever this year because of how volatile and unpredictable the team was.

Kirsten: Yes. I actually went out of my way to avoid Villa stuff -- talking about the team, discussing the possibility of relegation, even missing a couple matches. It's not that I wouldn't love them if they were relegated, but it's so much harder to keep up with the clubs in the Championship from the US.

Matt: Oh yeah, I still felt like the worst would happen until the Sunderland match, and even then I was still terrified.

Robert: Definitely. But I tried to do everything I could not to think of it. Not sure how I'd follow a Championship team from Washington, DC.

Was there a turning point where you knew the club would be safe?

Aaron: I felt comfortable after the win over Sunderland, but I didn't know they'd be safe until Arsenal relegated Wigan. This team was just way too erratic for me to ever find myself in anything approaching a comfort zone.

Andrew: 6-1 over Sunderland felt like everyone just letting out their frustrations and letting the English media and opposing fans know that they weren't going anywhere. That was such a necessary win for so many reasons and we deserved it.

Gareth: The Stoke City win was huge, but I still didn't truly believe until the 6-1 against Sunderland. My only regret is that Martin O'Neill wasn't there to see it.

Kirsten: Had to be the SIXONESIXONESIXONE

Matt: As I just said, the 6-1 really calmed me, but I didn't feel safe until we mathematically were, when Arsenal beat Wigan.

Robert: After the penultimate weekend of the season, when I wrote this article. It wasn't until I laid out all of the scenarios that I saw it would be very very difficult for Villa to drop.

Looking Ahead:

What should be Aston Villa's first priority in the summer transfer window?

Aaron: Aside from re-signing Benteke, Andi, and whoever else needs re-upped, Villa needs some kind of creator. Whether it's a winger, a trequartista, a regista, whatever; Benteke and Weimann can do a lot on their own, but having someone capable of unlocking defenses would be hugely important.

Andrew: Keeping their core intact obviously. That speaks to a more defensive transfer strategy than an offensive one - but I think people looking for Villa to go out and bring in 7-10 guys will be sad. That said more defenders, please. Center and left.

Gareth: Centre back. Lots of people have more faith in Nathan Baker and Ciaran Clark than I do, and I think the value above replacement potential is considerably better there than it is at left back, despite Joe Bennett's whipping-boy status.

Kirsten: Defense, please. I think I've given up on ever seeing a decent left back at Villa -- decent ones are so rare anyway -- but a couple more center backs really wouldn't go amiss. Particularly considering how often Baker goes down with a head injury.

Matt: Hide Christian Benteke in a bunker somewhere in Birmingham. Other than that, I would like to see the midfield strengthened.

Robert: I'd love to see a really great defensive-minded midfielder who can control the game. You know, something like we expected from KEA.

Do you think Christian Benteke will still be with Aston Villa next season?

Aaron: Yes. Paul Lambert's stubbornness will win out once again. But if someone offers a ridiculous amount of money, it would make sense to take it and as silly as the transfer market ca get it would be stunning if someone did.

Andrew: Starting to think he will but the rumors are going to be overwhelming at times and his agent is a complete penisloaf. Hopefully he repays Lambert by sticking around for at least one more season and on the flip side I hope Villa give him the improved contract he deserves to make him happy to stay. I realize he won't be around forever but at least one more season would be nice.

Gareth: I do, even though I should probably know better. It just doesn't feel like he's done yet. But if someone is willing to pay way above the odds for him, I'd be fine if Villa cashed in while the getting's good and improved the squad commensurately. (Modern football, et cetera.)

Kirsten: If a club gives Villa 30m for him, I will gladly stand at the docks and wave a white hankie. But I think they'll try to hold on to him, and it might be more likely he'll go in January, when other sides are even more desperate and will pay a shit-ton of cash.

Matt: I honestly do not know. I just hope that he's developed enough of a connection to the club and fans that he may want to stay another 1 or 2 seasons to see what we can build.

Robert: Yes? But I also wouldn't be shocked if he weren't. It may be hard for Villa to turn down the huge chunk of change that'd come their way if they were to sell him.

What are your early expectations for the 2013-14 season?

Aaron: If Villa hang on to Benteke and make the right (plausible) signings, I could see them putting up a bit of a fight for the Europa league, but ultimately I think an 8th-12th finish is realistic. I don't expect them to be in the relegation battle and I don't expect them to make any kind of real top six push, but either side of that wouldn't be surprising in the least. If you want a concrete number, I'll go 11th.

Andrew: Building on the end of last season. Some continuity will be something, huh? Having the same manager as the season before. When was the last time we could say that? I'd like Villa to pull a West Brom except it wouldn't be a total fluke because West Brom is poor, bad, gross, and dumb and will suck next season.

Gareth: Even though "comfortably mid-table" bit me in the ass last year, I really believe that the only way for Aston Villa to go is up. Provided that Benteke stays and the three promoted teams are as rubbish as I expect they might be, I'll say Villa grab a few more points than last year and finish 11th.

Kirsten: To see the same sort of fun football we saw at the end of the season. I'm not going to make a prediction because the fates hate me, but I just want to see this squad continue to mature as a unit.

Matt: If we made no changes from the current team, my prediction would be 13th, but I think we will strengthen, so I'll say 10th. Maybe even 8th or 9th, because there are some teams that finished in that range this year, who I don't think can sustain that. Also, what is an Albion?

Robert: Assuming Benteke stays (a big assumption), I'll say 7th. I fully expect someone to rub this in my face at this point next year. There's a danger that I'm placing too much emphasis on those final 10 matches, but that's more than 25% of a season, which isn't too shabby a sample size. Play like that and 7th wouldn't be bad at all.

Part Two of the 7500 to Holte End-of-Season Roundtable will be posted tomorrow, focussing on Aston Villa's players and Paul Lambert's first season with the club. 'Til then, why not respond to some of today's questions in the comments?

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