As you might have noticed, we here at 7,500 HQ aren't feeling especially confident about this evening's game against Tottenham Hotspur. I tend to think our reasons are pretty defensible; Spurs are quite good, their 22 points and 5th place standing in the table made to look more impressive due to the fact that they've played just 10 games thanks to the postponement of their season opener due to the civil unrest in London (which seems like it happened a lot longer ago than mid-August.) That's coupled with the fact that Villa, while not necessarily bad by most measures, haven't been particularly inspiring in any real sense either. The defense has been mostly solid and the attack has had their moments as well, but there's just nothing about this team that says anything but "mid-table" so far this season. Spurs look to have a real shot at a deep run at the Champions League places; Villa don't look like real candidates for a relegation battle. Slightly different tiers at this point.
At the same time, there's this little nagging feeling in the back of my brain; granted, it could be some sort of parasite. It's tough to know for sure. But It's hard to fully shake the feeling that maybe, just maybe, this team is on stable enough footing to keep things close against any team in the league. And with the attacking talent in the side, there's always going to be a chance Villa can pull an upset. That's not a feeling I had very often last season (despite Villa somehow managing to earn some pretty decent results against the league's better sides) and it's not something the rational part of my brain is quite ready to accept this year either. But in some respects, it's tough to ignore the feeling that things just aren't quite so tenuous as they were last year. That' very different than believing that the club is headed in a better direction due to the fact that the floor is not the same thing as the ceiling, but even an outspoken Alex McLeish skeptic (cynic?) such as myself must acknowledge that the potential for gaudy numbers being put on the board by the opposition is less plausible this season than it was this time a year ago.
Most of that is tactical, of course; the defense isn't considerably better in terms of talent than it was last season; Villa have the same first-choice central defensive pairing and it's hard to make the case that Alan Hutton and Stephen Warnock are an upgrade over Ciaran Clark and Kyle Walker. Villa under McLeish is simply more focused on keeping the opposition from scoring than going on the offensive, and though it's tough to see that approach leading to long term improvement in the here and now what McLeish has done is hard to criticize too directly. This is a tricky gray area and it's one I'll get into in greater detail in a later post, but my problem with McLeish isn't necessarily the style he's employed to this point, because in a lot of ways (with some fairly important exceptions) it's a good approach given the talent at his disposal. The issue is more that this is the way he wants his teams to play, and he's going to go after players that fit his style. But I digress.
Point being, we kind of know what to expect from this one. Villa are going to sit very deep, keep Spurs from threatening during the run of play and make at least a passing effort to score on the break. And how you feel about that approach will go a long way towards determining how you feel about Villa's chances in this game. There's not likely to be a great deal of attacking intent shown by the fullbacks, which will lessen the opportunities for abuse by Spurs' talented wingers. The threat through the center of the park remains, but a bunkered Villa is difficult to break through. If Villa can present a credible threat on the counter and force Spurs to commit men to defense, that's a path to victory, or at least a point. But if Tottenham are able to control the game convincingly, not even a Villa side dead-set on keeping a clean sheet is going to be able to hold the line. Spurs may not be City, United or Chelsea but they're more than a match for Aston Villa when things are breaking their way.
How threatening Villa are capable of being may well come down to the fitness of Gabriel Agbonlahor. There's been no official word on Gabby's availability for this evening's match; the most extensive word to this point has been the requisite "hopeful" but given the nature of the injury it seems something of a longshot that Agbonlahor will be able to have much of an impact on things. That's bad news, because we've seen that Darren Bent isn't really the kind of layer that's capable of taking a game into his own hands. He needs help, and the only Villan that's shown a regular ability to provide it so far this season is Gabby. Charles N'Zogbia may have his long hoped-for awakening, Marc Albrighton may find the spark that made him look such a bright prospect last season, Barry Bannan may make a seamless return to the side. But Villa's best hope is wrapped up in Agbonlahor, and given their likely reliance on the counter he'll need to be close to full strength in order to make enough of a difference to swing things to the side of the visitors.
So. It looks a bit of an outside chance, but there's at least a reasonable strategy; defend well, take advantage of opportunities and give Bent his chances. It's at the very least plausible. And if Villa are able to take a point from this one, it's going to be evidence (that will be begrudgingly acknowledged) that Villa are in a better place (the emphasis once again on the near-term) than they were last season. Even if the performance isn't enough to take something from this game, things are set up favorably enough that a loss wouldn't do much immediate harm to Villa's standing. What's really needed is at least a semi-convincing performance, a solid effort away from Villa Park against what looks like a very good team. As unconvincing as this team has been at times this season, there's still reason to believe they can beat the general expectations laid out for them. Beating expectations in this game would be a nice start. It's not a likely outcome, and if they're unable to do it it's far from a disaster, but games like this are the ones that set the overall tone of the season. Everyone expects Villa to bear Norwich, Wigan and Blackburn at home. To go to White Hart Lane and take something off of Spurs? That's the kind of thing that can shift a narrative pretty quickly.