We all know how this season is likely to end. Villa are better and more stable than they were last year. So there's not likely to be a relegation battle (/furiously knocks on every piece of wood in reach). Nevertheless, the defense is still largely questionable, and there doesn't seem to be a great link between the back and a fiercely strong front line. With the problems the club has, even in light of its strengths, I would assume most people would agree that Aston Villa will finish comfortably mid-table.
Given what we've been through the past couple of seasons, "comfortably mid-table" may actually seem like the optimist's preview of the coming campaign. But if the pieces fall correctly, I think there's a chance that Aston Villa could challenge for a European position. Let's take a look at this unit-by-unit. Keep in mind, this idea represents everything going right. Do I think this is what will happen? Certainly not. But I think there's a chance, and it's enough that we can be excited.
Last year Aston Villa had some of their best play come from Brad Guzan. Certainly, the American keeper let in quite a few goals, but a lot of that had to do with a porous defense. Remember, in addition to giving Guzan more things to block, the poor defense also made him play with a bit less caution, trying to prevent chances before they were realized.
Given that Guzan is still relatively young in keeper years - they're like anti-dogs - and it's reasonable to expect him to continue improving given an entire season of starting. Additionally, the defense may not be great, but it will be better. I'd expect to see Guzan be one of the club's standouts again, allowing far fewer goals than last year.
Even minor improvements here would be useful. With the strikeforce that Villa have, they may not need the sort of defense that can routinely hold onto a clean sheet. But with Jores Okore adding some real skill and Antonio Luna forcing Joe Bennett to step his game up (or lose his spot) it's easy to envision this unit doing more than just minor improvements. Ron Vlaar can be a bit streaky, but he's capable of putting together enough strong shifts to help compensate for problems elsewhere.
Last year the defense conceded 69 goals. That's not happening this season. The realistic expectation is probably something like 60 goals allowed, but it's not too hard to envision them dropping that number to the low 50s.
The only sure thing here is Ashley Westwood. And that's not bad, given that Westwood is one of the club's most consistent players. From there, we saw Fabian Delph improving at the end of last season and early preseason signs point to a continuation of that. Leandro Bacuna, Yacouba Sylla, and Gary Gardner will round things out. This is a unit that's never (at least as it's currently constructed) going to be stellar. That said, if Paul Lambert can get them to play solid, possession-based football - with the occasional focus on a quick counter - that may be all the club needs.
Well here's where the whole idea for this article came from. If you're only playing two forwards, you'll start Christian Benteke and then take you pick from Andreas Weimann, Nicklas Helenius, or Gabby Agbonlahor. Any pairing of those would work, but we've seen especially good results from Benteke/Weimann, and there have been signs that Agbonlahor/Helenius could be good. If Paul Lambert wants, he can put one starting strike pair out to begin the match and then swap them out for fresh legs in the latter stages.
But let's dream for a bit. What if the club runs with three strikers? What if, as they did against Walsall for a few minutes, they decide to use all four. Agbonlahor has shown that he's got some ability in creating - mostly as a result of his speed - and Helenius seems to have quite the eye for a good cross. It's not hard to imagine Paul Lambert using a three- or four-striker formation every once in a while and creating utter chaos on the opposition defense. I'm almost torn: is this a better tactic against a poor team (so the defense won't have to worry too much) or against the best teams in England (hoping that the shock value will play into our hands).
However he plays it, I think we can rightfully expect an improvement on 47 goals scored last year. This is the optimist speaking, so why not bump that total by... 13. That's approximately 1 extra goal every 3 matches. Add that to the optimistic look at the defense and you've got 60 goals scored to 53 (or so) allowed.
From there, it's only a matter of tweaking a few things. Start the season off strong and take 2 of the opening 3 matches. It's absolutely possible. Arsenal haven't looked great this preseason and Liverpool is beatable at Villa Park. From there, we've got three weeks in which the club can glide by on the good feelings and try to tie up any last-minute transfers. Survive the opening part of the season, and there's no other stretch that looks terribly devastating.
I think 15 wins are definitely a possibility (6 against the newly-promoted clubs, those opening 2 I just mentioned, and then a smattering of wins from West Brom, Norwich City, Sunderland, Southampton, Newcastle, and Fulham). That's already 45 points. Add in a few shock wins here and there and we're suddenly looking at 18 or so wins. From there, we could add 10 draws and 10 losses. End total? 64 points. That, in the last five years, is good enough for 6th place. Get to 6th, and you're challenging for a spot in Eruope.
It's hard to see the team doing much better than 18-10-10, but if everything falls just right, it's something that could be achieved. Realistically, this club isn't quite there yet. But it sure is fun to dream.
In case you're wondering, here's how my dream scenario works in terms of schedule (not printing each fixture here because god only knows what laws that might break, but this is a 1-to-1 matchup)
W, L, W, W, D, D, W, L, D, W, W, W, W, W, D, L, L, W, W, D, D, L, W, D, W, W, L, W, L, L, D, L, D, W, W, D, W, L