When the Premier League schedule was first announced, Aston Villa fans could have been forgiven for feeling dispirited at their first few games. Instead of getting some middle of the road performers, or even one of the promoted teams, Villa faced the daunting prospect of Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool all in the space of two weeks. Nevertheless, Paul Lambert and his revamped squad geared up and set out to prove themselves after a disappointing last season out.
An unprepared and perhaps overconfident Arsenal side was swept aside as Villa beat them 1-3 at the Emirates, before Villa went down fighting in a 2-1 loss at Chelsea. Three days later, a tired Aston Villa side went down 0-1 to a Liverpool side enjoying their best start to a season in half a decade, but Paul Lambert’s point had been made. His side, while still young and learning, were a threat to any team and could compete with anyone. In this article, we will look at some of the stars for Aston Villa in their first three matches.
First and foremost, and slightly surprisingly, is ex-Leeds midfielder Fabian Delph. The young Bradford native secured a move to Villa in 2009 at the tender age of 20, having starred in a Leeds team pushing for promotion to the Championship. Unfortunately, after a year of growing into the team, in the April of 2010 he suffered a cruciate ligament that kept him out of action for over nine months. His performance in the first half of an abysmal 2011-12 season was poor, and soon after he was loaned out to previous club Leeds, where he suffered another injury that put him out until the next season.
In the 2012-13 season, under a new manager in Paul Lambert and with a midfield partner is Ashley Westwood that complemented him excellently, Delph began to improve. The mistimed tackles that blighted the first half of his Villa career had gone, replaced instead by technically sound challenges. His positional play also improved, cultivating a two-man midfield with Westwood. His biggest strength, his dynamism, allowed him to contribute in both defence and attack, and he ended the season as one of Villa’s best performers.
This season, Delph started with a bang as he marshalled Aston Villa’s stifling three man midfield with an experience that belied his years. This performance was followed up by superb performances against Chelsea and Liverpool. Delph has already attempted 12 tackles this season, winning 8 of them, as well winning 33 of his 56 attempted ground duels. These figures are the highest in the team, highlighting Delph’s defensive improvement. As mentioned earlier, his positional discipline has also improved since his earlier career, leading the team with 11 interceptions.
It isn’t only defensively that Delph has improved. Thanks to a team-high 203 touches on the ball, he has also had plenty to time to create as well as defend. 105 successful passes from 131 attempted is, again, the most in the team, whilst he has also attempted over twice as many dribbles (14) as his nearest competitor, Gabriel Agbonlahor (6). A final encouraging stat illustrates his attacking threat as well as his defence, with his 63 passes in the opposition half once again being the highest in the team. Last season, Ashley Westwood anchored the Villa midfield, but this season Delph is proving he’s equally valuable to the cause.
Despite being only 26, Gabby Agbonlahor already has a storied past and a place in Villa’s history as their highest ever league goalscorer. When he first burst onto the scene in 2005, the jet-heeled local boy terrified defences up and down the country, and his steady progress reached a peak in 2009-10 under Martin O’Neill. However, O’Neill’s lack of squad rotation hindered Agbonlahor’s progress, and with O’Neill often deploying him as a target striker, his main advantage of pace wasn’t being exploited. Instead, Agbonlahor bulked up to the point where he began to lose his pace, and over the next two seasons he suffered. Chief amongst his troubles was his consistency; he would look like a world-beater for three or four games, before having an inexplicable loss of form and looking short of pace and touch for much of the rest of the season.
Agbonlahor was another player who profited from Paul Lambert’s arrival. Redeployed from striker onto the wing, he worked on balancing his speed and strength before finally managing to get into the condition that allowed him to retain his blistering pace and blend it with a bulky frame. He was Villa’s second highest scorer after Christian Benteke in the 2012-13 season, and showed a gradual improvement in consistency. This season, Agbonlahor has made a stunning start to the season, combining with both of his front three partners as Villa’s attack established itself as a force to be reckoned with early on.
Despite having no goals so far, Agbonlahor’s job as a complement to Christian Benteke’s battering-ram style has increased the Belgian’s effectiveness hugely. In the first game he terrorised the Arsenal’s defence, winning two penalties and being described by his manager as “unplayable” and “frightening”. In the next game, his pace allowed him to burn off Branislav Ivanovic, before a low cross found Benteke, who finished expertly. Agbonlahor’s end product has always been a problem, so this was a welcome sign of his improvement.
With rookie full-back Antonio Luna behind him, Agbonlahor has also had to be aware of his defensive duties. Agbonlahor has won possession in midfield 9 times this season, only 6 shy of Fabian Delph, and has also attempted 5 tackles. One of his strengths has always been winning fouls, either by strength or pace, and his 7 fouls won are again only beaten by Delph. If Agbonlahor can maintain this form throughout the season, he will be an invaluable asset to Aston Villa and perhaps to England too.
Enough has been said about Christian Benteke over the past year that the huge Belgian needs no introduction, but even without one the stats speak for themselves. 23 goals, 49% of Aston Villa’s goals scored or created, and one very bruised Chris Smalling. It was vital that Villa held on to their star striker, and Paul Lambert pulled off one of the coups of the summer by ensuring Benteke not only withdrew his transfer request, but also signed a new contract.
Benteke has already scored three goals in as many appearances, with two penalties against Arsenal followed up by a smart finish against Chelsea. His 3 goals came from 6 shots on target, and like last year his attacking contribution hasn’t just been restricted to his shooting. His 8 chances created is the highest in the team, and his 31 aerial duels won from 54 highlight the all-round offensive threat he offers. 110 passes attempted ties him at third-highest in the team, another indicator of how he represents the focal point of the entire Villa attack.
It is around these three players – and other early impressers like Ron Vlaar, Andreas Weimann and Antonio Luna – that Villa will look to mount their challenge for the top 10. Whether or not that happens remains to be seen, but Aston Villa fans will go into this year much more confidently than last.