Amazing Ron Vlaar pic C/O Ron Vlaar's Twitter

Amazing Ron Vlaar pic C/O Ron Vlaar’s Twitter

Not enough experience.

Youth experiment gone wrong.

Terrible in defense.

Destined for the drop.

That was the common refrain when commenting on Aston Villa last January. The team had just lost three matches around Christmas by a combined score of 15-0, and it was difficult to imagine any team in the league playing worse than Villa at that time.

However, what somehow got lost in the rush to call them terrible was that the team was suffering from a horrendous spate of injuries, including ones to both of the first-choice center backs. In fact, Aston Villa actually suffered the most man games lost to injury of any team in the league last year, wresting the award from perennial winners Arsenal. Injuries on that scale would cause serious problems for all but the biggest of squads, and it obviously caused major problems with Villa’s smaller, rebuilding team.

Luckily, the boys in claret and blue healed up and things turned around. They won five of their last ten matches outright, drawing two, and finished 15th, five points clear of relegation.

2012-13
League Finish
: 15th
Notable Cup Finishes:  Capitol One Cup Semis
Goal Difference Rank: 15th
Shot Dominance Rank: 17th
PDO Rank: 15th
Note: I explain what the metrics mean and why you might care in the metrics appendix at the bottom.

A narrow escape for a team that used to be a European mainstay, but one that was always possible during what was certainly a transition year.  Gone was the hopeless, soulsucking football commanded by Alex McLeish. In its place was… well, no one was quite sure, really.

In their one season in the top flight under Paul Lambert, Norwich played a bunch of different tactical formations. Pegging Lambert for a style other than “adaptive” or “counterpuncher” has been difficult during his time in the Premier League. I think he’s an excellent manager who sets up his teams to help nullify the opposition, but even after keeping an eye on his work for the last two years, I can’t really describe how he prefers to play football. That’s fairly unusual in this day and age, and another thing that makes Villa interesting to follow.

Also gone were the free-spending days under Martin O’Neill. What remained was a giant wage bill filled with underperforming, overpaid players and a raft of kids. Lambert’s job was to figure out who was actually good, jettison the leftovers, and make sure they stayed in the Premier League. Thanks to a plague of mid-season injuries, it nearly didn’t happen. But everything came good in the end, which is why I’m writing a preview about them instead of QPR or Wigan.

I talked to people early last season and I told them I thought this was a three-year rebuilding project. Part of the issue is that the high-paid dross at Villa had all been given long contracts as well, so shifting them would be difficult. Another part of the issue was that Villa had simply recruited badly in the last 3-4 years – it takes time to overcome that (just ask Liverpool). And the final part of the issue is that what the players were asked to do under Alex McLeish was really nothing like football. Like anyone suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, it takes time to work through that.

(And hugs. Lots of hugs. “It’s not your fault.” I feel more sorry for players forced to work for McLeish than I do for those who have to work for Tony Pulis, and that’s saying a lot.)

Outgoing
Richard Dunne left on a free. 33 years old and injured the entirety of last season, it’s pretty clear Dunne’s best work is behind him, especially for the likely wages he was on. Obviously he landed at QPR. Also leaving on free transfers were Eric Lichaj and Brett Holman (who just arrived last year). The only player Villa have “sold” so far this summer was Jean Makoun, who was out on loan all of last year, and is now back in France permanently.

We also know that Villa are waiting for a team to meet their asking price on Darren Bent (allegedly £5M plus his large wages), and would gladly accept any reasonable offer to take Stephen Ireland and the last year of his wages off their hands as well. Beyond that, Villa either need what remaining talent they have left, or simply don’t have an decent surplus to sell and raise extra funds.

Incoming
Lambert, and whoever he has running his analytics/scouting network, are very adept at shopping for players. Benteke was a revelation last season, but so were Lowton and Westwood, both of whom were purchased from League One and stepped directly into Premier League action. I would have been fine if they sold Benteke for £25M, because I feel like Lambert could have found more bargains to replace his production. Instead, the big guy backed down of his transfer request in exchange for a fat pay rise and another season in Birmingham. That works too!

I was asked fairly explicitly by a reader with reference to Villa’s new signings, “Who the hell are these guys?” It’s a fair question, as Villa sign players from one of the widest ranges of countries and leagues in the Premier League. I shall do my best to answer.

okoreJores Okore – The most expensive of the new signings (£4.1M), Okore is a 21-year-old center back from Denmark, “known for his pace and strength.” Looking at film, he’s corded up with thick muscle, a lot like Benteke, but not as tall. He even has Champions’ League experience with Nordsjaelland, which is unusual for Villa players, and he’s played seven times for the senior Danish national team. This feels like one of those signings where Lambert and Villa’s scouting staff make everyone look dumb for not buying Okore themselves.

Nicklas Helenius – He’s tall. Like, 6’6” tall, which is only one inch short of ole’ Crouchy. The thing is… he doesn’t move like Crouchy. Watching this kid run (age 22), he’s neither knees and elbows, nor hulking. He moves like a smaller player who’s been stretched on a rack until he was tall enough to play in the NBA. This is a good thing.

Also unlike Crouchy, Helenius takes free kicks, seems legitimately quick, and has a pretty reasonable skill set. Watch the highlight video below, and try and remember if you’ve ever seen Crouch pull away from central defenders in a foot race. We’ll see whether he gets refereed as badly as Crouch has over his career (there is a huge anti-tall-player bias among referees), but he seems like he’ll provide another good, dynamic option up front.

It’s not like he was hidden, either. He was the Danish Superliga player of the year, scored 14 non-penalty goals in 33 matches, and still only cost £1.3M. And as noted, Okore played in the Champions’ League last year. I’ve mentioned how much I appreciate their scouting work, right?

The goal for number 7 in this highlight real is preeeeetty sick. [Edit- the video I’m referencing was deleted. I found another – the highlight I mean is at around 1:30 here.] I’m also trying to imagine teams marking both Helenius and Benteke late in games during set pieces. Oh, and add Vlaar and Okore (who is built like a redwood tree) to that. That will be fun to watch.

Aleksandar Tonev – He’s 23, plays for the Bulgarian national team, and plied his trade for Lech Poznan (they of the famous celebration) in Poland last year. In 22 starts, he was substituted off 20 times.  That is the sum total of the information at my disposal. I got bupkis here, kids.

Leandro Bacuna- A 21-year-old box-to-box midfielder from the Netherlands, Bacuna came cheap (just under £1M), and is another excellent prospect. Much more detailed information is available here, where Mat Kendrick picked Michiel Jongsma’s brain for all the relevant deets.

Antonio Luna – A 22-year-old left back, who was owned by Sevilla, but saw most of his playing time on loan with Mallorca last year. Aaaand that’s all I know.

Conclusion
I know last year was stressful for Villa fans, but they have to admit it was a lot more exciting than watching the team under Alex McLeish.  47 goals scored! 3 points better than the terribad 38 they earned under the dour Scot. Heart attacks nearly every single week! What’s not to love?

This year should be a bit less stressful and more fun. The talent level in the team is significantly better than it was last year, and Paul Lambert is a good manager. They aren’t through with the transition process – there’s still some older, overpaid flotsam to get rid of, and they could use another star and more depth – but this team has more in common with the good squads under Martin O’Neill than the last two years of relegation terror.

While I wasn’t entirely sold on Benteke’s performance last year, he’s an undeniable physical presence, and good enough to win a few games practically by himself. Adding better bodies around him, which they have done, should ease the burden on the big Belgian and allow him to be a bit more efficient in his play. Bacuna and Helenius seem like excellent value finds, and combined with Agbonlahor + Weimann, Villa can cause teams problems on the offensive end this year. This is by far the best group of attacking players Lambert has ever worked with.

The defense was a major weakness, but one that was exacerbated by injuries, especially in mid-season when they conceded 15 in three matches around the Christmas holiday. Okore and Luna will help with that, as should another season of maturation for what again looks like the youngest team in the Premiership.

After last year, this all probably looks wildly optimistic, but I feel fairly secure that Villa have turned a corner now, and are on their way up. Midtable security and maybe a decent cup run is easily within their reach.

 

Metrics Appendix
Shot Dominance is a measure of how many shots a team concedes versus how many they take themselves.  This measure is useful in predicting where teams will end up in the table at the end of the season. It’s not perfect, but it is useful. It falls down a bit when faced with unique offensive systems like at Barcelona and Manchester United under Alex Ferguson, where they take fewer shots overall than you expect from great teams, but the chances they create are significantly more likely to score.

PDO is a measure of how well a team converts shots on the offensive end and saves shots on the defensive end. Good teams tend to post high levels of PDO and bad teams low levels over time, but there is a huge regression to the mean with this measure as well. Thus analysts tend to look at extremes of PDO as “luck factors.”