In general, I'm not much for panic and doom-saying. Where Aston Villa are concerned, these past two seasons have made me downright weary of negativity. The problem with that is that there has generally been a very good reason people felt negative about the state of the club; the team was not only bad, they were largely under-performing and there didn't seem to be much of a plan that inspired a whole lot of confidence. That's why the hiring of Paul Lambert led to such an upswing in the spirits of Villa fans at large; here was a man that had a proven track record of achieving impressive things with few resources, committed to attacking football and building a hungry team in a sustainable way. He had an exciting vision for this club and its future, and he was more than willing to share it. It was a breath of fresh air, and it was exciting. With all the positive feelings emanating from the club and its supporters at the start of the season, it was easy to ignore a rather unfortunate bit of reality; this team just isn't very good.
Now that the games are underway and we've had an extended look at the 2012-13 version of Aston Villa, that reality has become more and more difficult to ignore. The majority of the club's fans are still willing to give Lambert their backing; he isn't the one that created this mess after all, and there's compelling reason to think he's the right kind of man to pull the club out of it. And the team has shown signs of what it's capable of being in a thrilling comeback win over Manchester City in the League Cup as well as a dominant 2-0 win against Swansea at Villa Park. But more often than not this team has been really quite bad. Most worryingly, they've been quite bad against teams like West Ham and Southampton, against whom you would expect a team with mid-table aspirations to look at the very least competitive.
That's why games such as this one are so important. It's tough for anyone to be convinced that Aston Villa is especially close to turning the corner if they can't take care of business against a Norwich City side that's looked fairly horrendous for much of the season. While it's true the Canaries are fresh off a shocking 1-0 win over Arsenal, it's important to keep three things in mind:
A) It was a shocking in large part because to that point in the season Norwich had been absolutely horrendous.
B) Norwich won the game despite Arsenal keeping over 70% of the possession, and if it weren't for the inability of the Gunners to convert their chances into actual, real-life goals it's tough to see it holding up.
C) Aston Villa managed to beat City at the Etihad, so it's not like results like this don't happen from time-to-time.
That's not to take anything away from the Canaries; it was a deserved win, and a whole lot of fun to watch from a neutral perspective. Paul Lambert may have defined the more recent era of Norwich City in many ways, but he's not some kind of charmed miracle-worker (nor is Chris Houghton an incompetent buffoon.) There's still a decent amount of talent at the club, and it's difficult for me to believe that they're genuinely as bad as they looked through the first seven games of the season. But at this point, it seems clear that this season will be a fair bit more challenging than last.
Similarly, I don't believe Aston Villa is as bad as they've looked so far this season either, and I'm still reasonably optimistic that the young players that have been asked to carry the load will start to click and make this a competitive team before things get to be too dire. But if that belief is to persist, Villa need to start winning games. There's nothing that justifies expectations quite like living up to them. I don't think it's fair to anyone involved to be unreasonable. The way the Fulham game ended was a kick in the gut but few people expected to take anything from that game at the start. Spurs played Villa off the pitch, but Spurs are a legitimate Champions League contender that's incredibly tough to beat at home. I can deal with games like that, and most reasonable Villa fans can do the same. But dropping points in winnable games just isn't acceptable, even with the understanding that rebuilding this club is going to take some time.
In the Premier League, there just isn't that much time to go around. One of the starkest differences between American sports and football in much of the rest of the world is the speed with which teams are forced to improve; in baseball or football, teams routinely go through some very lean years with young and inexperienced squads as part of the rebuilding process, and without the fear of relegation and the majority of the best young talent coming through the draft it's a totally justifiable approach. But with the threat of the drop, that luxury doesn't exist. You can be mediocre and survive, but you can't be out-rightly bad and have much hope of sticking around. Somehow Villa managed it once, and I'd rather not tempt fate.
To be clear, it's not as though anyone should freak out if Villa can't manage to take three points. After this game, there will still be another 29 to play. But it's fair to say that reasonable people have a right to be concerned even a this early date. A win wouldn't erase those concerns, or even come close. But it would help a whole lot. I think everyone's ready to believe that this team is poised to take a step in the right direction. God knows I am. But we need something to make that optimism seem a little bit less hopeless.