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On Remaking the Attack and Why Robbie Keane Should Stay In Glasgow

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We're late into April and the finish line (if not the final order of the table) is well in sight. Understandably, a lot of talk has begun to shift to the summer transfer window. Given Villa's position towards the middle of the league in terms of goals scored (having notched 51, good for eight place and closer to the soon-to-be relegated tenth placed attack of West Ham at 44 than the 59 of seventh placed Everton) it is somewhat predictable that a great deal of the chatter amongst supporters seems focused on bringing in another scoring threat.

There's little reason to concern oneself with the defensive ability of the team going forward; their 35 goals allowed was fourth fewest in the league, seven shy of Manchester United's leading mark. Take into consideration that a full 20% of Villa's goals allowed this season came over the course of one afternoon, an afternoon during the course of which they looked less like themselves than at any point in the season, and the excellence of the back line becomes more clear. (This is not to say that the Chelsea result should be dismissed; it happened, after all, and must be taken into account. But it was such an outlier that a proper analysis will take the deviation into account.)

Few would argue, however, that Villa's ability to put the ball into the net has not been a problem this season. If the club is to take another step forward next year, it is an issue that needs to be addressed. As is so often the case, much of the focus seems to be on individual players with very tangible impacts; it is a popular belief that Villa need to land a "true twenty goal striker" in order to improve significantly upon their offensive output in 2010. While it is certain that such a player would be a welcome addition to this (or most any other) side, I am skeptical that landing such a talent is likely. Further, I am not convinced that it is really the best course of action for the team to take.

If one is to take a look at the leading goal scorers in the EPL, it should be readily apparent that scoring twenty goals over the course of a single campaign is a fairly difficult task. You see names such as Rooney, Lampard, Drogba, Tévez and Torres, truly world-class talents in every sense of the word, the caliber of player that is quite difficult to come by, much less after it has already been identified as such by the world at large. Players such as these are expensive, especially for a team like Villa that, while not poor, are not especially likely to spend the money required to add names such as those to the roster. There are also somewhat lesser talents, such as Bent and Defoe. While I do not wish to diminish their abilities in any way, I feel that is important to note that these players benefit from systems which they are extremely well suited (in Bent's case by virtue of being the only attacking player on his team that represents any real threat.)

It is also important to emphasize that Villa's somewhat modest goals-scored tally is systemic in nature; this is a team that is at their best playing deep and capitalizing on the counter-attack, Milner feeding through balls to Gabby onto the break or Young whipping crosses to Carew in an under-manned penalty area. Once opponents began to recognize the threat at goal Villa represented, they began to play them much deeper, in effect helping to neutralize the counter and exploit their greatest offensive weakness, that being the ability to find openings in the defense when in possession in their opponent's end. Watching the ball bounce about the midfield with no real sense of menace while opposing defenses swarmed Ashley Young became quite frankly beyond frustrating at times.

I don't doubt Ashley's ability in the least, but when opposing teams are able to focus their efforts so completely on a single player there is very little that player can do. Gabriel Agbonlahor is likewise a truly gifted player, but his brilliance is in finishing and finding seams on the counter, not in creating space and chances in a crowded area. James Milner has emerged as a truly brilliant player this season, but his brilliance is most apparent before the threat becomes materializes, either when imposing his presence in the midfield or taking aim from impossibly long range. John Carew makes for a terrific target and possesses an unlikely level of grace for a man of his size, but he is honestly a role-player on a team of the level Villa should be striving for. I adore the big man, but he is not the answer to this team's struggles. Aston Villa employ a great many talented attacking players, but given the system they use (and a system which, though it is often unpopular, plays to its greatest strengths) the sum of the parts does not necessarily lead to the desired results.

I do not believe that adding a prolific striker is likely to cure this team's ills, at least not to the degree that it is popularly believed. The name most often bandied about these days seems to be Robbie Keane. Robbie Keane has been a fine player over the course of his career, but does anyone truly believe he would be an upgrade over John Carew? His ten goals in thirteen games at Celtic is an impressive figure to be certain, but Scotland is well below England in terms of the quality of competition and at nearly the age of thirty it seems more likely than not that his level of effectiveness will begin to dip at some point in the near future. He offers the same basic set of skills as Gabriel Agbonlahor at a much lower level of quality.

Realistically, Robbie Keane is the caliber of striker Villa could likely land this summer, given what would seem to be their likely budget. For certain teams, this level of striker would be a decent use of resources and a genuine difference maker, but I do not believe that is true in this specific case. Villa need two very specific things in their attack; a forward who can control the ball and distribute to space and a fullback that possesses the ability to get forward without sacrificing the integrity of the back line. Emile Heskey was supposed to fill the first need, and at times he has done so; when Heskey is healthy and effective, Villa's attack looks sharper, more focused and far more dangerous. Unfortunately Heskey has not often been healthy or effective and even rarer both at once. Carlos Cuellar is a tremendous defender, one with the ability to fill a significant role on nearly any team in the world. Unfortunately that role is not fullback, and Villa are at an extreme disadvantage completely ceding any attacking ability from that position.

When a team has a problem, supporters tend to focus on the most obvious solution. Can't score goals? Buy a striker! Unfortunately, this line of thought ignores a great deal of what goes into producing a strong attack. Another threat to supply the ball on the wing will force defenses to stop focusing so much of their attention on Ashley Young. A center forward of attacking mid with the ability to distribute into the area from the middle of the field and perhaps even more importantly to control the ball in the opponent's end to allow space to open up creates an entirely new offensive dynamic. You'll most likely get a far greater impact from that combination of players than you would from a striker while filling two holes and not spending a great deal more. (In fact, if MON believes as I do that James Milner could be effective in a more attacking role in the central midfield you might not have to spend much at all.)

None of this is to say that Villa going out and spending money on a striker is a bad decision. MON is aware of the abilities and potential of this team to a far greater degree than I. This is simply to say that to focus on one player or position as being the answer to such a complex problem is seldom wise. Aston Villa have several positions on the field in need of an upgrade and they most likely have somewhat limited funds with which to do so. They'll need to spend wisely this summer. They could go the Manchester City route (albeit with a somewhat reduced bankroll) and try to land the biggest name available, or they could consider need and system and find the best available value that suits their needs. Given MON's history these past few years, I have a feeling I know which route he will take. It might not make the biggest splash in the world, but it's difficult to question the results.