Note: Over the next twenty days, we will spend a day previewing each team in the Premier League in advance of the coming season. We''ll start with the promoted teams, then move up the table, skippingand saving them for last. We will finish on August 12, exactly one week prior to the Toon's opener with .
Aston Villa finished 16th last year, spending the majority of the campaign mired in a relegation battle, but some positive performances down the stretch kept their final match against Wigan Athletic from mattering. Christian Benteke was the breakout player of the season in the league, and his seemingly inevitable departure never happened. Now Villa have a valuable piece to build around in their quest to stay away from the bottom of the table.
I sat down with Aaron Campeau, co-manager of 7500 to Holte, SBN's excellent Aston Villa blog, to preview Villa's 2013-14 season.
Coming Home Newcastle: So, that was some escape, huh? What has to happen to avoid that heartburn again?
Aaron Campeau: If Villa can play the way they did towards the end of the season on a semi-consistent basis next year, staying up shouldn't be much of a problem. I still maintain that the only reason Villa ended up in the relegation battle is the lingering hangover from being pasted 8-0 by Chelsea that lasted well into the new year. It was scary at the time, but in the long run it might turn out to be a positive; the kids really grew together as the season went on, and managing to regroup and fight their way out of the relegation zone had to do wonders for their confidence.
CHN: The consensus seems to be that Villa are done in the transfer window. Do you think this is true? If so, how would you rate Paul Lambert's performance? What else would you like to see done, if possible?
AC: I don't know that I believe that they're done, though I wouldn't be shocked if that turned out to be the case. It's obviously too early to tell whether Lambert's signings in this window will pan out, but I'm more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt after last season. Like anyone I'd have loved to see a bigger-name player brought in; the week or so that Younes Belhanda looked like a legitimate possibility was a lot of fun, and as a fan it's nice having that sense of excitement that surrounds a big signing. But that was never likely to happen with Lambert in charge, and if he can keep mining gems like Benteke, Westwood and Lowton then it's tough to argue with his approach.
CHN: Christian Benteke is staying, which has to be fantastic news for you. What will he do for an encore?
AC: To be honest, I'm expecting something of a regression for Benteke. That's not to say he won't be an incredibly important player, but sophomore slumps aren't exactly a rare thing and he's not going to be taking anyone by surprise this season. As talented and physically gifted as he is, he still has some holes in his game that defenses were able to use against him as the season wore on, and I'd expect that to continue. I also expect him to make adjustments of his own and grow as a player, but it wouldn't shock me if he gets off to a bit of a slow start.
Of course, he did pretty much nothing but surprise me all of last season, so it's entirely possible he'll score 40 goals.
CHN: The defense was rather porous last season, especially away from home (more than 2 goals conceded per match). Will the story be different this year, and why or why not?
AC: I think it will. If you take out the nightmarish run during the Christmas season where Villa surredered 15 goals over three losses to Chelsea, Tottenham and Wigan, that average per match figure drops all the way down to 1.54. Obviously those games happened and they can't be dismissed out of hand, nor is 1.54 goals conceded per game an especially sparkling number in its own right. But the point is that stretch was an enormous outlier, and for much of the rest of the season Villa's defense was merely mediocre rather than out-rightly appalling. Towards the end of the year, it actually looked pretty solid. Jores Okore looks like a very promising player and if he can adjust to the Premier League quickly he should offer a pretty significant upgrade, while Antonio Luna gives Lambert another option at left back should Joe Bennett struggle. One of the issues last season was that the defense would put in a poor showing in one game but due to injuries or suspensions Lambert wouldn't have much choice but to put the same back four out there the next week. That should be less of a problem this time around.
CHN: Given your current squad, what would your ideal Starting XI be?
AC: Brad Guzan; Matthew Lowton, Jores Okore, Joe Bennett; Fabian Delph, Ashley Westwood, Leandro Bacuna; Gabby Agbonlahor, Christian Benteke, Andreas Weimann
CHN: What do you expect Lambert's Starting XI to be?
AC: I'm guessing largely the same as above. Yacouba Sylla in place of Bacuna wouldn't surprise me, nor would Bacuna sliding to the wing in the place of Weimann or Agbonlahor. It would be slightly less of a surprise if Ciaran Clark started the season as first choice over Okore, but not necessarily a shock. Anything else would catch me rather off guard.
CHN: What would have to happen this season for you to consider it a success?
AC: For me, last season was all about staying in the league. Much of the old core of the team was either shipped out or removed from the first team picture, Lambert established his philosophy, learned a lot about the caliber of players he has at his disposal, and put the kids through the ringer. This year, I'd like to see some real progress. Obviously challenging for Europe is far too high of an expectation at this point, but if Villa can comfortably avoid the relegation battle and make a bit of a push to break into the top half, that's an encouraging sign.
CHN: Where will Aston Villa finish in the table?
AC: I think somewhere between 12th-15th is a reasonable expectation, though given how tightly the table has been packed over the last few seasons I'm far more concerned about avoiding the relegation battle and showing legitimate improvement is more important than exactly where they end up. This team has a lot of very raw talent, and if they can keep this core together for a few years-minus Benteke, because that's not a realistic expectation-they could be back and challenging for Europe with some regularity.
Thanks to Aaron Campeau for taking the time to answer questions about Aston Villa.