The midfield may not have been Aston Villa's worst unit last season, but it's easy to see how, if it had improved, things could have gone much differently. And even if there were bright moments, they were largely marred by terrible performances. Performances like twice having less than 30% possession against Southampton. In more rational moments, I realize that perhaps I should be more angry at the offense or the defense (seriously, 4-1 to Stoke and Swansea?), but my gut instinct is that this midfield was everything that was wrong about Aston Villa this year.
Oddly enough, on a team that was plagued by injuries, Aston Villa only used five midfielders this season. Conveniently, that's also the number of fingers we have. So here, for the first time ever, are Aston Villa midfielders rated as fingers. They are presented in alphabetical order by last name.
Fabian Delph - Thumb
My first instinct was to name Delph the index finger, because it's the finger with which we do so much. But then I realized that one of the things that makes humans special is the thumb. Without it, we pretty much we be lost and unable to use most basic tools. Seriously, try going without your thumb for a day. Do anything you can to not use it. What you'll find, I think, is that while you can accomplish things you can only do so in the most hackneyed of ways. The thumb elevates us from "doers of things" to "doers of things with at least a semblance of panache."
And that's what Fabian Delph was for Aston Villa this year. He did it all for Villa, becoming their first box-to-box midfielder since the departure of James Milner. Some of his best moments came in transitions from defending to attacking, and running the length of the pitch in doing so. For instance, his amazing goal against Southampton that won the match for Villa:
That may actually be my favorite Villa moment of the year. A player who wasn't even on the screen when things start streaking past everyone and scoring a goal in full stride.
Delph made things possible for this club. They could have won a few matches without him, but it would have been far more clumsy than the low standard we already saw. Try living without Delph for a season, and I think it'll be just as bad as going without your thumb for a day.
Karim El Ahmadi - Index finger
If you lost the last three fingers and were left with only your thumb and index finger, I think you could get along decently well. El Ahmadi had bad moments this year. Plenty of them. Moments like when you accidentally get your index finger under a knife, or jam it trying to play basketball. But for much of the season he was quietly solid, helping Delph to hold down what often felt like a two-man midfield. Like Delph, he too could play in all three phases of the game, but he was a little less adept at defending and attacking than Delph.
But ever so often he would do something that would surprise us:
And in those moments you could see what he brought to the team. KEA is not amazing, nor will he ever be. But this season he proved himself to be a dependable player who could contribute fairly regularly. After Delph, he was what made the midfield work. It didn't work too well, a lot of the time, but it's tough to imagine Delph being able to do it alone.
Yacouba Sylla - Ring finger
The middle finger was oh-so-tempting here, for obvious reasons. But then I remembered the ring finger and how it can't do anything well and I had my answer. Yacouba Sylla had a decent run towards the end of last year, and many of us hoped that I would continue into this season. It did not. He was terrible, and merely thinking about him on the pitch makes my blood pressure rise.
Worse still was the fact that he had the temerity to complain about not being given enough playing time. The money quote was something to the effect of while he had seen many nice stadia, he wasn't in England as a tourist.
Could've fooled me, because he sure as heck wasn't here to do a job this year.
Aleksandar Tonev - Pinky
Lay your hand flat naturally on the table and look at your pinky. Is it with the other fingers, or is it sticking out a bit on its own? It's a pretty even split in most people. Mine is out on its own, and according to some palm-reading website I just found it means that I am independently-minded. If I actually believe that, I think I will be struck dead by the gods of irony.
But I think of Tonev as a bit like the pinky: he splits a lot of us. I think we can all universally agree that his shoot first and eschew questions in favor of more shooting later policy is a touch annoying. But the question becomes: does he have anything to offer the team?
Since we only saw him for 596 minutes this season, it's a bit hard to tell. He had moments where he moved the ball around decently well, but all I can really focus on are the shots. That said, he didn't actively hurt the team very often, so it's tough to be mad at him. In fact, he's a player I often forget is around. Just as I often forget my pinky is around until I hurt it and it starts annoying me.
Ashley Westwood - Middle finger
The middle finger is fairly strong, but it's not really used for all that much. Unless you want a big, emphatic gesture. Something like this:
or perhaps this:
I'll be the first to admit that I may rate Westwood a bit too highly. But as the season went on, I found myself becoming increasingly comfortable with him holding down central midfield. It's not that he was ever all that great, but rather that he didn't make too many mistakes. Rare was the occassion when you could point to a Westwood error and blame it for something going wrong.
And encouragingly, he grew better as the season went on. I'd have never sung his praises after the first few months of the season, but by the end he had settled down and seemed to realize what his role with the club was. He's probably better suited to coming off the bench than he is to starting, but Aston Villa didn't have that luxury this season. And when he was put in a tough position, he generally performed pretty well.
Anyhow, if you don't agree with my evaluation, I've got a big ol' Ashley Westwood to wave at you.