It's not the most timely report to be sure, but I was finally able to sit down and watch Villa's 1-0 win over Blackburn in the Asia Trophy last night. It's tough to take too much away from a game like this, but there were a few things that I found worth mentioning.
- Villa kept the ball on the ground far, far more than I would have ever expected. Much of the build-up was directed through Jean Makoun and though Villa weren't shy to use Gabriel Agbonlahor and Darren Bent's speed on the counter when the opportunity presented itself, they were far from negative.
- Richard Dunne looks like he's lost about 25 pounds. Predictably, he looked far more effective than at most points last season. I don't doubt than Dunne's injuries were a big part of his poor conditioning last season, so if he's able to stay healthy and stay in shape it will be a huge boost for the defense.
- Stephen Warnock didn't do anything stupid. I remain unconvinced that this will continue.
- Speaking of Warnock, the fullbacks were deployed as attacking weapons rather aggressively. Dunne and Collins stayed very, very deep for the most part but Young and Warnock went forward a whole lot, with largely positive results.
- Predictably, most of Villa's better chances came via the cross, but they were better at picking their spots than they'd been at times in the past. I really hope that's a trend that continues, because there is nothing more frustrating than seeing early crosses whipped aimlessly into the box, past everyone and out of play.
- Emile Heskey started on the left again, and though I'd be concerned were he the team's starter in that position he actually looks to be not all that terrible an option as a backup there. He can defend, he's reasonably clever, he's not the worst crosser of the ball you'll ever see and his hold up play was instrumental in the lone goal of the day.
- Emile Heskey as a left midfielder is also adorable.
- Ciaran Clark entered the game in the 74th minute and played in the midfield. I love Ciaran Clark as a defensive mid, and I really, really hope it's something McLeish is willing to try with more regularity.
Shay Given is awesome.
Barry Bannan started on the right. He was very Bannan-y; clever as all get out, great delivery, and seemingly unaware of his size when defending (in a good way) but still somewhat prone to making poor decisions in dangerous areas. That will get better with experience and he'll get more of it this year, but it's definitely something of a concern. He was still quite good.
- I think the thing that excited me more than any other was the role assigned to Gabriel Agbonlahor; Villa were ostensibly in a 4-4-2, but Gabby was functionally playing the same role Ashley Young played last season. The difference is that Heskey and Bannan were playing much more as midfielders than wingers so there wasn't a whole lot of 'swapping' per se, but Gabby was everywhere. Sometimes he'd be up top with Bent but the vast majority of the time he was on a band just behind, flying down either wing or making runs into the box from out of nowhere. He was an absolute handful for Blackburn and putting him in this type of position is a fantastic use of his skills; he's not the most technically gifted player on Earth, but he's as fast as anyone in the league and will absolutely bust his ass when he's in a role with which he is comfortable. Gabby was a huge disappointment last season, but he never looked anywhere near comfortable. He looked comfortable in this game, and that was hell for Rovers.
- Blackburn are still awful, but they're not quite as awful to watch as they used to be. Which is good, since we will be playing them 875 times in the next 6 months or so.
All in all, an encouraging performance, especially considering Charles N'Zogbia wasn't on the pitch and Marc Albrighton didn't enter the game until it was past the hour mark. Blackburn is a bad team that will probably be in relegation trouble once again this season and pre-season results aren't worth paying much attention to, but there are definitely reasons to feel encouraged by the performance. I didn't see a lot that made me think there's untapped potential that could rocket Villa back up the table and into contention for Europe this season, but I similarly saw no reason to believe they're going to be in any real danger of another relegation scrap either.
We'll have a better (but still absurdly incomplete) sense of where this team is at when they face Chelsea on Saturday. I'm not especially concerned with the attack; between Bent, Albrighton, N'Zogbia and Agbonlahor, this team is going to score a few goals. The defense is another matter; it's looked quite good so far, but it's also had to deal with Walsall and Blackburn; Chelsea could go third choice at every position at still put out a significantly better side that either of those clubs. If the defense looks solid against Chelsea, I might actually move from "not freaking out" to "cautiously optimistic" which would be a pretty nice place to be, considering all that's gone on over the course of this past year.