If you squint really hard and sort of tilt your head a little you can see it. Look past the thirty-seventh "they're doomed!" article, crane your neck around the lingering doubt that you have from the past half-decade of trauma, and just consider what you have before you. Tim Sherwood, the brash, egomaniacal, tactically questionable manager who everyone in England predicts the worst for and who made Villa fans fall in love with him. Randy Lerner, still lurking in the shadows but now distributing money like an ATM again. Tom Fox, the former Arsenal exec turned Aston Villa CEO, signing players to new contracts and bringing in a data-driven sporting director.
Once you look in the right way, you can see success in this club’s future. It's not a Premier League title. It's not Champions League play. It may not even be a cup. But it is success, and it's there because Aston Villa have done what they need to do this summer to bring that back into focus.
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Let’s get one thing straight from the beginning: Aston Villa are not going to set the world on fire this year. They finished 17th last season and if you watched them play under Paul Lambert you know that staying in the Premier League was not a foregone conclusion. It took an almost-miraculous turnaround under Tim Sherwood to save this club. It wasn’t the great escape put on by Sunderland or Leicester, but it was close.
So yeah, Aston Villa aren’t exactly coming from a position of strength in the 2015-16 season. Take an already bad team, subtract Christian Benteke and Fabian Delph, and the math is clear, concise, and obvious. And that seems to be the math that most preview writers are doing this year. That 17th place team will struggle to replicate their performance and will spend the 2016-17 season in the Championship.
There’s an obvious problem with that though. AVFC - CB - FD = Bad is a pretty obvious equation. But it’s also leaving out something: MR + JA + IG + JA + RG + JV + LK. I don’t think a single one of Micah Richards, Jordan Amavi, Idrissa Gueye, Jordan Ayew, Rudy Gestede, Jordan Veretout, or Libor Kozak (not to mention role players like Jose Angel Crespo) are better than Benteke or Delph. But given the fact that at least four of those players will be in every match, none of them have to be individually better. They simply must be collectively better, and that should be pretty easy.
That becomes even more true when you remember that they’re replacing players who were the backbone of a team that finished 17th. Amavi comes in to take the place of Kieran Richardson who himself took the place of Aly Cissokho. There are several choice logs that Tim Sherwood could have signed who would perform markedly better than either of those two. The Gueye/Veretout pairing has easily as much potential as a Delph/Tom Cleverley midfield, with the former in each being roughly equal and the latter probably being a step up for Villa right now.
Kozak, Gestede, and Ayew are not great Benteke replacements, but that’s only a problem if you think that a team should score most of their goals through one player. If you think, instead, that this might be a club who spread things out a bit more (and everything from simple football logic to preseason performance supports that view) then those three can more than make up for the loss. Get seven goals from each of them and you’ve replaced Andi Weimann, Gabby Agbonlahor, AND Christian Benteke before you look for your goals elsewhere.
And what about that "elsewhere"? Well, you’ve got Scott Sinclair, who has been absolutely on fire in the preseason and may have made a case for himself as some sort of strange withdrawn striker/best finisher on the club. Or maybe Veretout, who had seven goals at Nantes last season. Compare that to Fabian Delph, who scored three Premier League goals in six seasons with Villa and you start to see a rosier picture.
Or how about Jordan Amavi? If preseason has told us anything it’s that Amavi is everything Villa fans were hoping he would be. His pinpoint crosses have been incredible and his defense, while not mind-blowing, has not been as woeful as we’ve come to expect from the position. Rudy Gestede was a bit of an odd signing, but if there is one thing we know he is good at, it’s scoring goals with his head. When you know that you can simply take Amavi by the shoulder, point at Gestede’s head and say "pass it there" and you’ll have goals, suddenly the signing of the latter makes sense. Gestede was made for Amavi.
Any way you cut it, this is not a club who should score only thirty-one goals again. Given Sherwood’s proclivity for attacking football, it wouldn’t surprise me if Villa hit fifty this year, and even that might be low.
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But that same attacking style will lead to this team’s biggest problem: the defense is going to get battered. Preseason showed us that the back line is prone to lapses of concentration. New captain Micah Richards, who is an intelligent, seasoned player, is likely not best suited to be playing centre back. But given that the promise of playing there is likely the only reason Villa have him, you can expect to see a lot of that.
The right-back position is a bother, too, which is a real shame when you consider how good Amavi will be at the left.. If you play Alan Hutton you’ll get generally solid defense and non-existent attacking capabilities. Play Leandro Bacuna and you can flip those two. So the question becomes: Do you want to have an attack and make other teams defend both sides, or do you want to have a defense and not rely on winning every match 5-3? (Of course the real irony is that Villa could improve their CB and RB positions simply by shifting Richards to the right and replacing him in the centre with someone naturally suited to that position, but hey.)
And then there are injuries. For the past few years it has seemed as if Aston Villa have had more injuries than any one team should contend with. Last year they were focused in the back line. If that happens again, depth quickly becomes an issue. Nathan Baker has just signed a new contract, but he’s not great cover (not to mention just as likely to get a head wound as a crash test dummy). Jores Okore is great and full of potential but coming off of a rickety knee. Philippe Senderos is… still alive?
So a shaky defensive back-line (except you, Ciaran Clark. We still love you!) left open by crazy attacking football? Expect to see a few implosions. Remember 6-1 to Southampton? Or perhaps 0-4 to Arsenal on May 30? Yeah, those may happen again. In fact, strike the "may." We will see a couple of those this year.
There is also the fact that this is a club who don’t know each other very well. For the opener against Bournemouth, it’s highly likely that nine players will be starting who did not start the FA Cup final just seventy days before. That’s 81% of the starting XI. Of those nine, six could be new signings altogether. I’m not convinced that Villa are at a huge disadvantage in this regard (after all, other clubs will have to deal with new players, too). But there is a danger that if this whole experiment takes a while to get off the ground it could sabotage itself before it even gets started. There is a very real chance that, come this time next year, I could be writing about Villa’s pending season in the Championship.
But I don’t think that’s how this plays out. Relegation is one extreme. Go the other way, for a second. Pretend that everything clicked instantly and all of Sherwood’s players played at their best, and you could be looking at a squad who shock England and finish sixth. And if we’re trying to figure out which of the extremes is more likely, I truly, genuinely believe it’s this miracle scenario. Last year Sherwood showed that the Villa squad he took over were not nearly as bad as they looked, and he's since improved in numerous spots around the pitch. Why should relegation worry us now?
Like I said, though, finishing in a sport to qualify for European play is a miracle scenario. Reality probably has Villa coming in somewhere around 12th this year. That’s not inspiring, and it’s not something that makes you think of glory. But when you consider the half decade of relegation terror we’ve put up with, 12th sounds lovely. Imagine entering April not even being worried about relegation. Maybe starting that month in 8th and then fading a bit down the stretch, but knowing that missed opportunities won’t translate into a drop.
And that’s what you can see when you look just right. You can see a team who are comfortable in the Premier League again. A team who have talent to develop, players to sell, and a foundation upon which to build for the future. You don’t see glory, and you don’t see anything that deserves to be accompanied by a stirring soundtrack. You see mediocrity. Beautiful, lovely, mediocrity.
Asking for more at this point is simply being greedy. That can be fun, but let’s be realistic. Be mediocre this season and you set the stage for glory soon after. We’re so close to that we can almost see it. Don’t screw it up now, Villa.