Barclays Premier League
Another Christmas slump sees the Villans slip to a forth consecutive defeat.
Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. It is an opportunity to mark baby Jesus’s birthday, relax with family and tuck into Mum’s finest pigs in blankets. If you’re an Aston Villa fan however, the festive period has lost its shine ever so slightly. Few need reminding of the carnage of Christmas 2012 but in case you were too busy gorging on mince pies, the following video may help jog the memory.
Since the beginning of advent this term, Villa have accumulated just 3 points from 5 Premier League games, a largely fortuitous win on the road at Southampton back on December 4th . Defeat at a combative, if not bulldozing Stoke City outfit last Saturday and a spineless home performance against Crystal Palace on Thursday, has left the Brummie fans calling for the head of Paul Lambert. Sure, Villa are missing the influential presence of Ron Vlaar, the goals of Christian Benteke and long-term injuries to the likes of Jores Okore and Charles N’Zogbia have been unsettling but countless problems remain unsolved. It is my purpose to draw those to the surface.
1) “The lads are doing just fine …”
says Paul Lambert time and again. It’s a great pity that the fans’ bank balances are not looking quite so healthy. Over the festive period the games come thick and fast, requiring the spectator to shed out £70 in 2 days should they attend both the Palace and Swansea matches. The pattern of play is dour, a passing sequence regularly beginning with Ciaran Clark, finding its way to Fabian Delph before some 20 passes later arriving back at the feet of goalkeeper, Brad Guzan. It bears an uncanny resemblance to the England national side who haplessly fail to unlock the door of opposition defences at major world tournaments. What arguably aggravates the home fans even more than the mundane playing style though is the manager’s stubborn refusal to admit that his team were not good enough. There are a finite number of times the same clichés can be used, and patience is wearing very thin.
2) Monotonous Midfield
Barry Bannan secured a move to Crystal Palace in the summer months and in his absence, several Villa players have been rehearsing his signature over-hit Hollywood passes. The usually neat and tidy Ashley Westwood has been the main culprit sending set pieces harmlessly over attackers’ heads while inexplicably picking out opponents. The former Crewe man admitted that he had not “hit the heights” of his debut Premier League season in mid-November and a sensational sweeping strike against West Brom aside, his performances have been lacklustre.
Delph meanwhile has continued to establish himself as one of Villa’s better players with his no-nonsense tackling style and marauding midfield runs. Even he has found himself stifled of late however, Villa too often camped outside their own 18 yard box for him to make a positive impact. When the team are in possession, he seems hurried to manufacture something and is quickly becoming accomplished at losing the ball when looking to dribble past an opponent. Against top half teams it’s been no picnic just to keep the ball either, the Villa defenders harangued by forwards when they’d rather have ample time to hand around a basket of salmon and dill sandwiches.
Lambert prefers to play with a midfield 3 and because of this it is disconcerting that Villa have the 2nd worse passing percentage in the division. With the extra man in the heart of midfield, possession should be quickly claimed and more easily recycled. However, Villa still struggle to keep the ball unless it is being rolled along the back line. You’d be hard pushed to find many worse passers of a football than Yacouba Sylla and Karim El Ahmadi. The pair, renowned for their willing industry, can make sideways balls look troublesome and although the latter does weigh in with the occasional goal, is finding himself unpopular among the Villa ‘not so’ faithful.
3) Where’s the width?
As already suggested, Lambert favours selecting a robust midfield 3 and this can hinder any threat in wide areas for the claret and blue. The Scot has fiddled about with the formation throughout the season, initially preferring wing backs in Bacuna and Luna before reverting to 4-5-1/4-3-3 systems, when flaws became exposed in their defensive capabilities. In the last couple of fixtures, a more conventional 4-4-2 formation has also been trialed without success. Marc Albrighton has returned to the team on the right side of midfield with the goal-shy Andi Weimann slotting in on the left. Having suffered from various ailments over the course of a most miserable 24 months, Albrighton is showing glimpses of quality that earned him praise during the Martin O’Neill reign. He’s direct, happy to swing in an early cross or equally eager to knock the ball past his opposite number. Teaming up with the marginalised Matt Lowton down the Villa right seems the solitary source of attacking threat at this moment in time.
4) Shoot on Sight Policy
Aleksander Tonev joined Villa with high hopes having been recommended by fellow Bulgarian and former Villa captain, Stiliyan Petrov. His first few months in Birmingham have been most forgettable though and is fortunate that a montage of his most embarrassing goal attempts is yet to have been created. In principle, a shoot on sight policy is no bad thing; keeping the goalkeeper on their toes particularly during the winter months may force the odd mistake. It is essential to hit the target however. Currently it is only the Villa ballboys being overworked as they retrieve his wild drives from the Holte End rafters. In Tonev’s defence, he’s not the only player to send his shots closer to the corner flag than somewhere between the sticks. Delph is occasionally over-zealous in pulling the trigger when disgruntled murmurings start up around the ground. Weimann too has been known to send his goal attempts into orbit but is hardly flying high right now.
5) Post-Boxing Day Sales: All Beards Must Go
Villa have been far from razor sharp and though unlikely, their poor performances may have something to do with a sudden growth of facial hair. A trio of regulars have sported a rugged complexion this season but the macho look has failed to strike any fear into their opponents. More is known of summer import, Antonio Luna’s beard than his defensive credentials thanks to the endeavour of the parody twitter account @LUNAS_BEARD. Nathan Baker is another to have braced himself for the cold snap by pulling up his winter furs. Whether it has made the no-nonsense centre back less streamlined is difficult to say, but Baker is two yards short of the speed needed to keep pace with the Premier League’s finest. The third and final under-performer to have let nature take its course is Andi Weimann. Having signed an improved summer deal, the wing-forward is yet to recapture his spark that saw him form a fearsome partnership with Benteke last season. Weimann anticipated my warning and decided that a fresh face was needed for the Palace match but still couldn’t find his scoring boots in the loss to the Eagles. The Austrian wide-man volleyed at Speroni when he had time to take an extra touch before ballooning over a cut back from just inside the area.
Nobody was expecting immediate revolution as was nobody anticipating consistency with Villa. However, having seized a get out of jail-free card at the end of last-term, it would have been pleasing to see the Villans make their way around the board unscathed and collected their £200 for passing go. As it is they’ve struggled to deal with the rigours of the property market and the price of selling key personnel over the last few seasons has proved an immensely costly one.
The Theatre of Dreams, home of Manchester United. Unquestionably, the one club that every boy who is born with a football at his feet, hopes will come calling for his services one day. Defender, Joe Dudgeon was fortunate enough to have his request answered back in 2006 at just 16 years of age when he signed to be part of their scholarship programme.
Lifting the lid on his time at the English Defending Champions on Tuesday evening, Joe rather sheepishly admitted that he found Sir Alex Ferguson rather “intimidating”. It’s difficult to believe that he was on his own in that regard as the fearsome Scot, aside from being a master tactician, was universally renowned for his half-time hairdryer treatment. That said “He (Fergie) had a lot of time for everyone” and Joe clearly recognizes that starting out at United has given him the perfect platform to achieve footballing lift-off. As with most things in life though, it has taken the flower buds some time to blossom and after four arduous seasons with the developmental squad and then the reserves, it was difficult to stomach when the rewards of regular first-team football were not forthcoming. It was time to look elsewhere.
“At United I was always a youngster. There were a lot of people there … you were a minority”.
Having achieved his move to a “refreshing” Hull City in 2011, the player capped 4 times by Northern Ireland at under 21 level, was looking to assert himself in a then combative championship outfit. The transition to life on the east coast was reasonably plain sailing, particularly since other United graduates had recently rocked up at the KC stadium. Despite excelling at the beginning of the 2012/13 season with nine solid performances, a devastating knee injury was lying in wait to crock the left back for the rest of the campaign. As he slowly begins a return to full fitness, the 22 year suggested that “[a lengthy spell on the sidelines] was torture but it made you appreciate being in football”. Renewed by that sense of optimism, he is looking forward to pulling on a Hull City jersey once again and will no doubt have an eye on this season’s Boxing Day fixture. It reads: Manchester United (H).
Following the press conference, I was keen to catch up with Joe and plumb deeper into life at the top. However, the full-back also found himself quizzed about whether young, home grown players are all too frequently overlooked for first-team places.
At 8:18 on 21/10/2013, many would say that Selhurst Park witnessed one of the greatest strikes ever to be recorded in the Barclays Premier League. Full Swiss International, Pajtim Kasami, favoured over Moroccan maverick, Adel Taarabt, has struggled to hit the ground running since his move to Fulham in 2011. However, trailing 1-0 at beleaguered Crystal Palace, Lilywhites supporters were brought to their feet in spectacular style when Kasami darted onto a hopeful long ball. He majestically brought it down on his chest before unleashing a thumping volley from the most outrageous of angles. It left long-serving Eagles keeper, Julian Speroni, unable to do anything more than flap an ineffective hand in the direction of the Kasami bullet.
Now every goal counts, but the very nature of scoring a screamer is something that writes a player’s name into footballing folklore. We have here, five top-flight acrobatic attempts which rival – if not better – Monday night’s peach. Wayne Rooney’s belter against Newcastle in 2005 and Robin Van Persie’s stunner at The Valley the following year have not made the cut, but be prepared for extraordinary efforts.
5th Place: Matthew Lowton
Chesterfield born, Matt Lowton, has always had an eye for goal, despite his main responsibility being at the opposite end of the pitch. This was evident when he lit the Britannia Stadium up last April with a scorcher from the best part of 35 yards. For a full-back to show such sublime technique is testament to the modern footballer, with defenders easing the scoring burden off forwards. That said, after Lowton had put Villa in the driving seat with just 3 minutes to play, Christian Benteke inevitably went and put the result beyond all doubt! The unerring accuracy of this volley, has earned Lowton a place in my top five.
4th Place: Matt Taylor
I have given forth spot to another full-back and another Matt. Scoring an impressive 23 in 178 appearances for Portsmouth between 2002 and 2008, Matt Taylor caught the eye with some breath-taking efforts. One that rests long in the memory is the instinctive volley at home to Everton in 2006. With the ball rebounding around in the centre of the park, it momentarily popped up, encouraging any soul brave enough to chance his arm. Unfortunately for Tim Howard, the ever-willing Taylor was closest to the ball and with a swing of the boot, left the visiting keeper wearing a deep shade of crimson.
Bronze Medal : Wayne Rooney
With the best three to chose, it’s getting serious. Therefore it would be a travesty of justice not to include Wayne Rooney’s overhead kick in the 2011 Manchester derby. With the 80 minute mark fast approaching, the Liverpudlian simply created something out of nothing. Nani’s cross was fractionally behind the onrushing strikers and yet the flat trajectory enabled England’s number 10 to execute one of the hardest skills to master. This was the result …
Runner-Up: Paul Scholes
Renowned as one of the greatest English midfielders to barely earn International recognition was Paul Scholes. Plying his trade as a tenacious box to box midfielder, he was capable of netting with unrivaled skill. His finest goal arguably came at Villa Park in December 2006. Similarly to the Lowton strike, the opportunity for a shot presented itself when a corner was only half-cleared. However, the most impressive quality of this strike was the length of time he had to wait before catching the ball so sweetly. Any sportsman will tell you about the dangers of having an eternity to make a decision but Scholes was unfazed. An incredible player; shame that he couldn’t tackle.
Champion: Robin Van Persie
However hard defenders try, you just cannot keep this man out of the action. Once a Gunner, now a Red Devil, Robin Van Persie has been scoring goals for fun since his breakthrough season of 2007/08. With United requiring one more victory to claim last season’s Premier League crown, Van Persie saved his best work for last. He notched a first half hat-trick which included a mouth-watering second goal. The dropping volley over the shoulder is an incredibly difficult art, but the Dutch forward tucked it away with aplomb to spark celebrations across the red half of Manchester.