Hope: The story so far; ten games in. #avfc

As any seasoned Aston Villa supporter will tell you, life can be full of ups and downs.  This 2011/12 season to date has been no different.  Where promising steady early season form has massively stagnated into a recurring theme of “must try harder”.  Wasteful finishing, erratic defending and the distinct lack of victories as the club approaches the crucial winter period do provide cause for concern.  And the whole squad appears to be guilty to some greater or lesser extent.

And whilst in just ten games we have seen the best and worst of the squad that McLeish has at his disposal the season remains young.  There is no crisis, we are a long way from “must win” games and there are far, far worse teams in this division than Aston Villa.

But being distinctly average is not a concept wholly unfamilier to the Villa faithful.  If one is truely honest, it has quite literally defined our Premier League years.  Depressing?  Entirely.  Factual?  Unfortunately so.  Aside from the occasional flirt with relegation, a couple of League Cups and a spell of madness under Martin O’Neill the fanbase’s collective efforts have been to try to stir some life into a grand old club.  But I for one would take distinctly average, for now, over playing in a lower division or brief bankrupting efforts to break into the games modern elite.

And that is why it must be said that the abject dissollusion around Villa Park these days should be of no surprise to anyone.  After all, it is the default setting.  Throw in a former Birmingham manager, watch your most creative players move on in the summer and a finance biting economy – there are going to be empty seats.

But all is not lost.

The positives are there.  We have a manager who has a redeeming attribute of frankness and honesty about his style.  Not in the patronising “back our boys” type of mentality, but to date has told things largely as they are.  Again as fans we don’t always want to hear this, but it logically means that he is seeing what we see on the pitch.  This isn’t always the case.

Another improvement has been the teams adoption of a more physical style.  This hasn’t been widely recognised for its benefits as the team finds its feet under new direction, but there have been few games where we’ve been outmuscled or out-fought.  I want to see measured agression, guile and some passion.  And whilst Alan Hutton’s tackle at Villa Park verses WBA was as strong as could ever be allowed – it is something that has certainly been missing from our team. 

But guile and grit need not be to the detriment of style and quality.  Think Viera in the Arsenal team of the early 2000’s or Roy Keane in the midst of Manchester United’s dominence.  And this is Villa’s problem, we lack this quality across the team to see through this necessary bite.  And that’s not McLeish’s fault, not until he has the chance to identify transfer targets he wants and discovers whether the Lerner well of money has indeed dried up.

Villa are the definition of a team in transition.  A horrible phrase in football.  And a horrible concept to have to watch week in week out.  Villa have been within this stage for what will be two seasons shortly.  Three managers, three sets of ideas, three ways of training, three sets of wanted/unwanted faces, three transfer windows.  One outcome – dissapointment.

You can see this in the way our team plays each week. 

To give some examples:  Warnock/Dunne represent the brash no-nonsence styles of defending that get you results.  It might not be pretty, but with a decent midfield holding player it works.  But put alongside a stop gap like James Collins and a ? for right back, it falls apart.

Midfield:  Do you wanted youthful exhuberance? Bannan/Albrighton?  A foot in?  Herd/Delph?  Experience?  Petrov? Point to prove? Ireland?  Wildcard:  Heskey? 

Attack:  Bent – a predatory striker whom was serviced by Young/Downing week in week out.  Now feeding off scraps from N’Zogbia.  A player who maruaded off Rodellega at Wigan, and was of no fixed abode on the pitch.  Agbonlohor?  Passionate, pacey, but where does he fit into a team that needs him to make the run, run onto the pass and score the goal?

None of this represents the makings of a settled approach – it’s working with what you have.  This is McLeish’s biggest problem.  Finding order amongst chaos.

And this translates into dissapointing results.  Late goals conceded against Sunderland & QPR through ropey defending.  Points lost through the pressure of Bent having to score his one chance a game – it is not sustainable.  Particularly as it does not leave room for anomolies such as Herd’s sending off against WBA, when game plans and form go out of the window.  And the reality that there is no hope of containing Manchester City. 

But it is hope that we should keep.  We are in a league that contains Blackburn, Wigan and recently promoted teams such as Norwich, Swansea and QPR.  Life would have to deteriorate immeasurably to result in a position lower than the aforementioned.  And a word of caution to those noting the steady successes of newly promoted clubs – they need look no further than Hull or more recently Blackpool to gauge early promise.

Because it all boils down to perspective.  There are always moments where you can watch in bemusement at shocking defending.  A late equaliser.  An inexplicable miss.  But then you fail to notice the little improvements or changes that take place.  And change takes time, it won’t always be pretty but we as a club need for once to pick our direction and stick to it.  Who knows what some stability might bring?

Tomorrow represents a chance to affirm the previous statement, as Norwich visit Villa Park on a ‘high’.  We certainly shouldn’t be fearful, for all the focus and attention upon their promising start, there isn’t a great deal to shout about for the visitors.  A draw at Anfield?  Liverpool are no Manchester City.  And it should not be forgotten that Norwich have only managed draws against likely relegation candidates Wigan and Blackburn.

So there’s certainly hope after a mere ten games; we Villa fans just need to hang on for the ride.

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