Yesterday we looked at Aston Villa's forwards, and I concluded that they were likely the team's best unit in the 2012-13 season. Today we get to head to what I think we can all agree was the worst part of the squad: the midfield. Eleven different players took the pitch as - ostensibly - midfielders for Villa this season, and I imagine fans would like to forget most of them.
One of the problems, of course, was the lack of any sort of cool-headed leadership. For his faults, Stiliyan Petrov had been a stalwart up the center in the past few seasons, and I don't think we all realized what he provided to the team until he was gone. But, without further ado, let's dig in.
The Best: Ashley Westwood
Westwood, who joined Aston Villa on the last day of the summer transfer window from Crewe Alexandra, was a perfect example of what Paul Lambert envisions for this club. Taken from a lower-league side for a reasonable fee (around £2 million), Westwood is a young player who showed surprising poise in midfield all season. He, with Fabian Delph and Barry Bannan, made the most appearances in the center of the pitch with 30 this year.
Westwood was never able to find the back of the net himself, but the weird thing is it never felt as if he were trying. He is, in every sense, a playmaker. In 28 league appearances he managed six assists and seemed equally comfortable playing up the middle and the sides. Amongst his great passes, the one that stands out most in my memory was this lovely through ball to Gabriel Agbonlahor to seal a win against Norwich City in the season's dying weeks:
It should be a real treat to see what Westwood can do in the next couple of years. He's got the ability to take Petrov's place, and he's got a bit more patience than the Bulgarian had. There's a boatload of potential here.
The Worst: Barry Bannan
Remember when Bannan earned himself the nickname "Bazza"? When we all thought the little guy could be an absolute dynamo for Villa? Well all of those dreams are dead. If you don't believe me, just ask Kirsten if you can get through the tears and sobbing. It's hard to say what precisely has gone wrong with our wee Scotsman, but he doesn't look like the wildly intelligent player we first saw glimpses of in the 2010-11 season. That Bannan had a great first touch, a deft way with passes, and remarkable vision on set pieces.
This year's Bannan, who got 24 league and 6 cup appearances, had none of those. He was, in almost every match he played, either a non-factor or a hindrance to Villa. He'd be out of position when the team was defending, and he'd make quick one-touch passes to the opponent when Villa had possession.
I'm not sure what else to say about Bannan. I'd love to see him succeed, but I can't imagine that Lambert has too much patience with him. Maybe it's best to see if anyone would like him over the summer and hope - for his sake - that things go better than they did this season.
The Rest: Fabian Delph, Brett Holman, Charles N'Zogbia, Karim El Ahmadi, Stephen Ireland, Chris Herd, Yacouba Sylla, Marc Albrighton, Gary Gardner
I'll be honest, I was planning on making Marc Albrighton the worst, but then all of the other writers pointed out that he hadn't played enough to earn that title. Largely, this group can be summed up with Albrighton. Loads of talent at one point, but largely unfulfilled in the season. In particular, El Ahmadi and Ireland were disappointing this season, as they both showed glimpses of their skill near the beginning of the season. By the end of the campaign though, fans could be forgiven for forgetting that either had existed based on how little they had contributed.
The bright spot in this group was Fabian Delph. Left for dead by many fans - myself included - Delph had a resurgence in the season's final third and has set himself up as a great pair to go with Westwood. Maybe he just needed to be in a position for a while and actually stick there. Once he got some stability, we began to see the results.
Summary and Outlook
I know there are people who would disagree with me on this, but I think the midfield is the club's biggest need over the summer. If the rumors about Aleksander Tonev and Ivelin Popov are true, it seems that the club is eager to address the issue. Even if this isn't the club's biggest need, it is an important one. A holding midfielder, the likes of what we thought we were getting with KEA would be nice.
That said, Delph and Westwood represent a nice core around which Villa can build. This was a bad unit, but it was not one entirely without hope. A few pieces here or there - and Paul Lambert has proven that these can be had on a budget - and suddenly Aston Villa have a midfield that, while it may not be amazing, would go a long ways towards correcting the problems we saw this season.