Yesterday, Aston Villa were hammered 4-1 in a preseason match away to Groningen, a side in Holland's Eredivisie. And while conceding four goals is never a good thing—preseason or not—it's time to take a deep breath, analyze where Villa are, and maybe find out they're not in that bad of a place.
Groningen's season had, well, already started a couple of weeks before yesterday. And while they were defeated 2-1 over the two legs of their Europa League play-off by Aberdeen, there's something to be said for a team two and a half weeks removed from their opening competitive fixture vis a vis a team that's still two weeks from its opening competitive fixture. And while all of that doesn't excuse conceding four times, here are ways in which the preseason has been less horrible:
Jack Grealish and Charles N'Zogbia are playing really well
Most would agree that the biggest issue for Paul Lambert's Aston Villa side last term was the team's inability in most matches to create anything organically going forward. The majority of attacks came off the counter attack and more often than not, the Claret and Blues found it extremely difficult to create chances through an attacking player. We can sit here and debate whether or not Marc Albrighton—now with Leicester City—was Villa's best playmaker or a headless chicken all day long but the point remains that Villa entered the transfer window without a true creative force in an attacking midfield role. The signing of Joe Cole seemed to be the answer to the problem but he went and got hurt and hasn't had an overly productive preseason.
But it's been the return of Charles N'Zogbia and the emergence of Jack Grealish that should have supporters at Villa Park anticipating the new season. Grealish is just 18 and is coming off of a great season on loan at Notts County but most didn't expect to his creative spark shine through so strongly during preseason. Combine that with the fact that Charles N'Zogbia is finally starting to look a little bit like a player that was once worth £10 million, Villa should be cautiously optimistic that their No. 10 problem might finally be solved.
Andreas Weimann and Darren Bent have scored goals
One of the other problems for Villa last season was undoubtedly the inability to consistently get goals from, well, anybody when Christian Benteke was injured. And despite appearing in all but one of Villa's Premier League fixtures last year, Andi Weimann only managed five goals—the winner against Manchester City, goals in back-to-back matches in January against Liverpool and West Brom, and the brace against Hull that kept Villa up. It's a total that simply wasn't good enough from a guy that scored 12 goals across all competitions the previous term. To see him bagging a few goals and assisting on others this preseason is huge for Villa as the kid's not that bad of a player. Now if Lambert would ever actually play him as a striker, we might have something good on our hands.
And whether or not we'd like to admit it, Darren Bent is one of those players that getting any sort of contribution from could prove vital for Villa. When push comes to shove, he still cost the club around £20 million and is still one of the club's highest-earning players—if not the highest. It's a lot of money that Lerner's invested in one player and quite frankly, for Villa to get to the best position they can this year, they're probably going to need a few goals from the England international. And perhaps most importantly of all, considering this is Darren Bent we're talking about, is that he's been involved in build-up play and actually recorded an assist earlier in preseason. Look, I'm not saying he's going to go out and score 15 goals but he looks like a player that could poach a couple as a super sub. Which would be good.
Ron Vlaar hasn't been involved in preseason yet, guys
Villa fans made such a fuss over the defensive performance in yesterday's first half without even really taking into account the fact that the back four may very well be a unit entirely comprised of second-string players. If you asked me who my preferred Villa back four is, I'd without hesitation tell you it's Kieran Richardson, Jores Okore, Ron Vlaar, and Leandro Bacuna and it surely wouldn't be the team that started yesterday's match—Ciaran Clark, Nathan Baker, Philippe Senderos, and Alan Hutton.
When push comes to shove, I wouldn't be surprised to see Hutton or Clark in the opening day lineup to allow Richardson and Bacuna to play on the wings but the centre back pairing is almost certainly going to be better than Baker and Senderos. One of two things is likely going to happen with Ron Vlaar—he's either going to sign a new extension with Villa that keeps him at the club or he'll probably fetch a pretty decent transfer fee that would likely be reinvested into the squad. I still maintain that Lerner isn't suicidal in trying to sell the club and still maintain that with the various potential suitors for Vlaar—Southampton, Manchester United, and now perhaps Juventus—Villa would be able to receive a good sum for the Dutch international despite the fact that he's in the final year of his contract. But there's not as much we can say here until we get further word on the situation out of B6.
Also, Stoke failed to beat Blackburn today
OMG! How can Stoke beat Villa if they can't even beat Blackburn?!? When push comes to shove, preseason matches are about evaluating players and gaining some fitness. And granted, it hasn't been the best or most exciting preseason for Villa, but there's a lot of negativity out there that's a little unfounded. Just because Lambert's men couldn't beat Groningen doesn't mean they can't turn it on with the first team against Stoke nor does Manchester United's win over Real Madrid yesterday in the International Champions Cup mean that Louis van Gaal's are surely going to win the Premier League title again.
Let's take a step back from the ledge. Remember, it's the preseason, stupid.