Aston Villa are now serious relegation candidates
In the summer, I made what I thought was a perfectly sensible prediction: I chose Crystal Palace, Sunderland and Aston Villa the three clubs I thought would be relegated from the Premier League. Palace and Sunderland had Ian Holloway and Paolo di Canio in charge respectively, while Villa were terrible last season and hadn’t exactly spent big in the summer on reinforcements.
But no, apparently predicting Villa to go down was considered radical. I had a long argument on Twitter with a Villa fan who was convinced they were heading into the top half of the table, and that their signings, Luna, Okore, Bacuna et al, could potentially propel them into Europe. Even beyond the hardcore, very few people seemed to think they would go down this year.
And if you look at the table, you might think they were right. Villa lie 11th, a perfectly acceptable mid-table position. But this is deceptive. Villa are only six points above the relegation zone, where the trio of Cardiff, Palace and Sunderland currently reside. While I expect Palace and Sunderland to stay there, I should imagine that the likes of Cardiff, and West Ham – out of the bottom three on goal difference – will eventually get out of it.
Aston Villa to win – 5.75
Draw – 3.80
Arsenal to win – 1.55
(All odds provided by Intertops.eu are accurate as of today and subject to change)
Around this time of year, there’s usually one team in a particularly negative spiral who still manage to pull out of it even when the odds are against them. Villa were that team last year, somehow clawing their way out of trouble in the spring with their host of Football Manager regens. West Ham may be terrible right now, but Sam Allardyce knows what he is doing (honestly, he does) and they will find a few improbable wins from somewhere.
Of the others, Cardiff are utilising the not-at-all-suspicious system of signing players with the same agent as their manager, so may yet improve. Swansea will kick on once they’ve got the burden of the Europa League off their backs. West Bromwich Albion now have a new manager, and Norwich will probably have one before the end of the season.
Villa’s form is still pretty inconsistent. They may have beaten Manchester City, Arsenal and Southampton this season, but that has tended to be the exception rather than the rule. You can’t expect those results to just appear when you’re in a relegation battle. They did at least beat Sunderland on New Year’s Day, but you would expect them to. But they have also lost to Palace, Stoke and Fulham since the start of December, though even that’s not quite as embarrassing as losing to League One relegation candidates Sheffield United.
While Paul Lambert draws attention away from his players by making comments about whether or not the FA Cup means anything, it’s worth considering that the squad, on an individual basis, isn’t very strong. Their summer signings, far from being the “bargain buys” it was implied they would be, have been just what you would expect them to be: average players who might be outstanding in the Championship but could easily be part of a relegation team in the Premier League. And then there is Christian Benteke, scorer of just five goals this season and without one since September, who has proven the likes of Tottenham and Liverpool right for not spending a ludicrous amount of money on him.
Villa are definitely in this relegation battle, perhaps even more so than some of the teams below them. They certainly shouldn’t expect much from the visit of Arsenal on Monday, who theoretically should demolish them. I’m obliged to say nice things about Arsenal as anything less than total 100% praise will inevitably lead to me being accused of being a “hater”.
After this, Villa’s next two away games are against Liverpool and Everton, but they also have winnable games against West Brom, West Ham and Norwich coming up in the next two months. It’s vital that they take points from these games, because after this they face Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United before the end of March, and, ignoring the jokes about David Moyes for a moment, you would not expect much from those three games.
Paul Lambert doesn’t seem to be under the same pressure as some of the other managers in the Premier League. And maybe that’s fair – maybe he’s doing all he can with the resources available. Randy Lerner seems to have just stopped backing his managers financially, and essentially justifying it as “austerity”. The problem is a football club basing its transfer policy around austerity is doomed: if you don’t seriously invest in the playing squad, in transfer fees and wages, you will be relegated. It’s the paradox of thrift in football: if you try and save money now by cutting it from the playing budget, it will cost you more in the long term when you’re playing at a lower level.
With the way Aston Villa has been run over the past few seasons, selling its stars and replacing them with faceless average youth team players or over-hyped youngsters from abroad, their fans should not be surprised that they are struggling year after year. At any level, some big clubs occasionally struggle despite spending big, but the clubs that never spend big nearly always struggle, and their complacency will eventually cost them. We can debate whether that’s morally right or not endlessly, but it’s beside the point: this is the reality of English football in 2014.
Aston Villa has enormous potential as a club: an ideal location, a large fanbase, a large stadium, and a great history. They ought to be a club regularly competing for the European spots. But if they continue to be run this way, they will be relegated. It may not be this year, it may not even be next year, but it will happen eventually. The club has totally stagnated and needs a total culture change, if not a change of ownership, to prevent it sliding into the second tier again. The problem is, with a conservative owner and a conservative manager in charge, I don’t see it coming.
Betting Instinct Tip – Arsenal to beat Aston Villa to nil is 2.70 with GR88.com
JAMES BENNETT (James) is a History MPhil/PhD student, who writes about soccer, Formula 1 and the NFL in his spare time to pay for his studies. He is also a Torquay United fan. He publishes articles in his sports blog, and you can follow him on Twitter and Google+.