Hurrah! after two weeks of tedious international football 'proper' footie is back with Everton back at Goodison Park for a clash against Aston Villa. Our win against Fulham two weeks ago shot us up to the dizzy heights of eighth. Though I fear that will be as good as we are going to get this year with injuries starting to bite. But a quick look at our opponents on Saturday give a stark reminder of how things could be a lot worse.
Villa have spent the past few seasons competing with us at the top of the Premier League only to fail, like us, to break through that glass ceiling. A troubled year under new boss Gerard Houllier has left them just a point above the relegation zone, with a flurry of 'relegation six-pointers' to follow their clash at Goodison.
I was fascinated to hear then the views of a Villa fan heading into the final crucial part of the season so I approached SBNation's excellent Villa blog 7500 to Holte for a Claret and Blue view on Saturday's game. Aaron Campeau answered my call and is the man who faced up to my questioning:
1) Just a few years ago both Everton and Villa were competing at the top end of the Premier League, Toffees fans are all too aware of their club’s problems but what has gone wrong for the Villans this season?
"What hasn't gone wrong?" might be the better question here. From the lack of movement during the summer transfer window to the untimely (to say the least) departure of Martin O'Neill, to never-ending injury crises. Any time a new manager is brought in there is going to be an adjustment period, and more often than not that adjustment period is going to entail poorer than hoped for results. But it's been more than just the managerial change and the turmoil that's followed; pile that on top of some key injuries, the petulance of some key players and an extremely tight bottom half of the table and Villa are in a relegation battle that I don't think anyone saw coming.
2) On a similar note, in your opinion how much blame goes to Gerard Houiller – who got a lot of stick during the Wolves game - and how much to Martin O’Neill, who left the club on the eve of the season?
I have some problems with Gerard Houllier and I want to be clear on that right up front. Injuries forced something of a youth movement at the start of his tenure and a lot of the younger players performed far better than I think anyone expected only to see themselves out of the picture as soon as the regulars (many of whom have been ineffective for a while now) returned. I have no earthly idea why Barry Bannan is at Leeds United or Nathan Delfouneso is at Burnley because they are both players that Villa could certainly use at the moment. I certainly don't agree with all of his tactical decisions either.
With that said, I'd have complaints with any manager on the face of the planet. No one is perfect and that almost certainly includes myself, and I'm sure if Jose Mourinho was named Aston Villa's manager tomorrow I'd find something to complain about. In my eyes, Martin O'Neill leaving in the manner that he did pretty much doomed any chances Villa might have had of competing for a spot in Europe and no matter who took over I think they would found climbing too far out of the bottom half of the table to be a fairly tall order. Because of the parity outside of the top six or so this season, there's not a lot of safety to be found and in that regard I think Houllier's reign looks a bit worse than it probably should.
3) Players who cost a lot of money always carry with them extra pressure – has Darren Bent lived up to your expectations since his move from Sunderland?
Not yet. He made an immediate impact in his first game, scoring the winner against Manchester City, but since then he's been largely anonymous. He's had some uncharacteristically bad misses and he flubbed two absolutely nailed-on chances in the loss at Bolton which Villa likely should have won by two or three goals. That said, it's far too early to call him anything approaching a bust. Bent isn't a complete forward and he needs chances created for him. Villa is in such disarray at the moment that he's just not getting the service he needs. Assuming Villa stay up (and I'm still reasonably confident that they will) I have little doubt that he'll prove his worth in the long run. Even great players have rough spots.
4) Evertonians are desperate for a new owner to come in and back David Moyes with funds – from the outside Villa owner Randy Lerner seems like the perfect chairman, who backs his manager without interfering, is that the case?
It's difficult to complain about Randy Lerner. He gave Martin O'Neill massive amounts of money to spend, invested heavily in the youth system and facilities, has facilitated open lines of communication between the board and the fans and in general stays out of the spotlight, preferring to keep a low profile and let the football people make the decisions. Despite the fact that a lot of the money spent my O'Neill ended up going towards players who seldom played (which was likely a major factor in his decision to resign) Lerner was not shy in giving money to Gerard Houllier in January, leading to Bent, Jean II Makoun and Michael Bradley being brought in for a total somewhere in the neighborhood of £30 million. He has money to spend and though he clearly wants Villa to be run in a sustainable fashion, he'll provide and infusion should it become necessary as it was this winter. It's clear that he loves the club; the Villa tattoo on his ankle and his reaction after Ciaran Clark equalized right at the death at Stamford Bridge can attest to that. He's about as good a chairman as the fans could hope for.
5) Player wise who has been the greatest disappointment for Villa this season and who the greatest surprise?
In terms of surprise, it's tempting to say Marc Albrighton as he's been better than I think most people expected but he's been on the radar for several years now. Everyone knew he would end up a good player, it just came a little sooner than a lot of folks would have thought. With that in mind I'd have to say Ciaran Clark. Clark was a good prospect coming into the year but at this point I think it's fair to say that most people's preferred center back pairing would include him. He was forced into the defensive midfield early in the season and performed capably and he's spent a fair amount of time at both outside back positions (more typically left back since the arrival of Kyle Walker on loan from Spurs) and done quite well. He's still young and he'll make mistakes from time to time but they're rarely disastrous and he continues to improve. Within a couple of years he could realistically be an elite Premier League center back and there's no way I would have thought that possible in August.
In terms of disappointment, I think it almost has to be Stephen Warnock. Warnock has never been a serious threat going forward but that's less important at Villa than it is with other clubs because of the sheer number of talented wingers in the squad. Defensively, Warnock was fantastic last season and his place in the England squad was well deserved. He fell off a bit towards the end of the year but the same could be said of practically everyone and coming into the year left back wasn't a position that anyone was really concerned about. Unfortunately he looked just as bad at the start of the season as he did at the end of last and he only got worse from there. He's spent the last few months training with and playing for the reserve team, a fall from grace if there ever was one.
6) Villa & Everton have produced some memorable matches in recent years, what has been your favourite Villa/Everton clash over the past few seasons?
Honestly I'd have to say Villa's 1-0 win at Villa Park earlier this year because at the time it strengthened a lot of the faith I had in this squad and their ability to bounce back from adversity; this was a week after Villa lost 6-0 to Newcastle and days after Rapid Vienna knocked them out Europe. Villa's only goal came on one of their only real chances of the game and if I'm being honest there's no way they deserved to win, but it was a gutsy performance that gave me faith that, despite the disappointment of the preceding week, everything would be all right.
7) What formation will Villa deploy on Saturday and who are the key men Everton should watch out for?
We've typically seen Houllier play something approaching a 4-2-3-1, Makoun and one of Petrov or Reo-Coker holding, Downing and Albrighton or Agbonlahor on the wings, Ashley Young just behind the striker and Bent up top. The key to the formations success is the interplay of the second band of attackers; one of the major criticisms of Houllier has been his use of inverted wingers and failure to play Ashley Young on the wing but the criticism isn't really based on fact. In reality where the players start isn't going to be where they finish, or even where they spend the vast majority of the time. The wingers will swap sides often, Young will drift out wide with (typically) Downing sliding behind Bent, Agbonlahor will slide in next to Bent. The back six are fairly rigid and Bent is almost always up top, but the middle three move around a lot and they can be an absolute handful for opposing defenses. When the attack is clicking it's a thing of beauty (or horror, depending on your perspective) and aside from the Wolves game it's been clicking an awful lot lately. When it doesn't, Villa pose absolutely no threat to anyone.
8) This is a question I always ask – if you could sell three players and bring three (realistic) replacements in, who would they be and why?
In terms of who I'd sell, it would probably be Ashley Young, Richard Dunne and Stilyan Petrov. Young is an excellent player but his value isn't likely to get much higher and he almost certainly has his eyes on a more competitive club as I almost certainly would were I in his position. I'd be very sad to see him go, but it's also important to realize when a players value to other clubs is higher than it is to yours. Dunne was tremendous last year and he's still got enough in the tank to bring back a fair amount of money but his wages are very high and he's obviously not happy at Villa. Petrov is the odd one here; he's not likely to command a lot on the transfer market, he's a fan favorite and when he plays he's the captain. Unfortunately, because he's the captain he plays a lot more often than he should and he's a liability more often than he is an asset. At this point it would be best just to cut ties and allocate his wages and minutes elsewhere.
As far as who I'd like to see brought in, left back is certainly a serious deficiency at the moment. I don't know how realistic it is but I would be ecstatic to see someone like Fábio Coentrão at Villa Park. That's likely shooting a bit high, but that type of player; I like by defenders to defend (hence the reason Kyle Walker tends to drive me insane) but the ability to pose a legitimately dangerous attacking threat from the back is certainly nothing to sneeze at. Creativity in the center of the pitch would be a lovely thing and though I think Barry Bannan is capable of providing that I have the feeling Houllier might not see eye-to-eye with me in that regard. I see what a player like Rafael van der Vaart has done for Spurs and I try to envision him playing for Villa and it really would be a thing of beauty. Lastly, Tim Howard. Because he's awesome. But I guess you already knew that.
9) Villa are to good to go down aren’t they? Surely??
Probably, but so was Newcastle two years ago. I'm not counting my chickens just yet.
10) And finally…. a prediction for Saturday.
Villa are prone to letting in goals and I don't see any reason to expect Saturday to be different. I think the most likely outcome would be something like a 2-2 draw (and I'd be more than happy with that) but if the attack isn't working then it could get ugly and end up 3-0 to Everton. In any event, I'd be quite surprised to see Villa take three points.