Happy Friday, fellow Blues. Good to be one day closer to City's next match, which is tomorrow morning against Aston Villa (10am EST, NBC Sports Network). City travel to the Midlands to take on a young Aston Villa team looking for an upset. I talked to Aaron from Villa's SB Nation Blog '7500 to Holte' for a closer look at the club ahead of tomorrow's match.
- B&B: Through 5 games Villa sit in 13th with an even goal difference and a few nice performances against some of the top teams. Have things been generally going to plan so far?
7500: Yes and no. In some ways the opening-day win over Arsenal was a bit of a curse, because it raised expectations to such a degree that whatever letdown that came next was going to be a bit of a gut-punch. But Villa outperformed optimistic expectations in their next two outings, taking both Chelsea and Liverpool right to the wire and arguably being unlucky to emerge from either game without a point. Villa's showing over those first three games got quite a few people ahead of themselves, and the loss to Newcastle was a bit of a crash back to reality. The win over Norwich City was nice, but it felt somewhat undeserved, and Tuesday's thrashing at the hands of Spurs was a pretty harsh reminder that this team still has some significant weaknesses that good sides can potentially exploit to somewhat demoralizing effect.
So, in a roundabout way, Villa's come back to square one. No one really knew what to expect from this team coming into the year, and after exceeding expectations right out of the gate they've come crashing back to Earth again. This could still be a very solid team when all is said and done, but they could just as easily find themselves flirting with relegation once again. At this point, it's anyone's guess.
- B&B: Christian Benteke has just been ruled out for around 6 weeks. How will Villa cope with this big loss?
7500: It's really quite impossible to tell. When people think of what Benteke means to Villa they're prone to gravitate towards his goal scoring record, and that's understandable as it's quite impressive. But in reality, he's meant so much more to this side; his ability to win aerial balls and find the runs of his teammates has been the (often overlooked) linchpin of Villa's dangerous counter-attack, and though Libor Kozak looks capable of scoring some goals in his own right he's clearly not the physical specimen Benteke has shown himself to be. Gabby Agbonlahor has quietly fulfilled a great deal of the promise he showed early on his career and Andi Weimann is still more than a handful on his day, so it isn't as though VIlla is inherently toothless without Benteke. But they're almost certainly going to have to alter the way they play, and that's always a bit of a crapshoot.
- B&B: Paul Lambert is now in his second season as Villa manager. Thoughts on how he has been overall so far? If you could, what changes, if any, would you make regarding his managerial style?
7500: I'm quite pleased with Lambert to this point. He has an ideology, and it's one that I think makes a great deal of sense for a club like Villa; buy players that fit the system, buy them young, and buy them cheap. The (relatively) big-spending days of the Martin O'Neill era are long since gone, and instead of going big on expensive targets in the vein of Darren Bent and Charles N'Zogbia and filling out the rest of the squad with castoffs such as Alan Hutton and Stephen Ireland, Lambert has shown himself to be content to spend smaller sums on high-risk/high-reward players such as Benteke and Jores Okore, while plucking gems such as Ashley Westwood and Matthew Lowton from the lower leagues. The strategy doesn't always pay-off at lest immediately- but it's a lot less frustrating seeing a bargain buy like Joe Bennett struggle to find his feet than it was to watch an £8m signing like Curtis Davies fall down the ranks and be cast off to the likes of Birmingham for a bargain-basement price.
But Lambert's upside is, as it often gets, his downside; he has a very specific vision, and that can lead at times to severe stubbornness. Last season Villa nicked some very impressive results using a 3-5-2 formation- including their signature 3-1 win at Anfield- but Chelsea exposed its weaknesses in their 7-0 win and other teams were soon to follow. It was clear about 15 minutes in to the Chelsea loss that Lambert's (admittedly clever, given the constraints) system had been solved, but he stuck with it for far too long and it's probably not too much of an accident that Villa's winter swoon followed shortly thereafter. Likewise Lambert's steadfast refusal to play or to sell Darren Bent last winter likely cost Villa a fairly handsome sum of money- potentially £6m, if the papers are to be believed- and though it's difficult to get too worked up about someone else's money, it's also frustrating to see a valuable asset mismanaged so horribly.
- B&B: Form and injury situation at Villa currently? Do you foresee any changes in personnel for the match?
7500: Aside from Benteke, Ashley Westwood is still doubtful for the weekend, which is unfortunate because he's likely Villa's most creative midfielder and Villa's remaining strikers aren't especially great at creating for themselves. Fabian Delph, Gabby Agbonlahor, and Ciaran Clark are all supposedly likely for the weekend, but given VIlla's result luck with injuries and the gamesmanship of their training staff, we'll see when we see.
- B&B: Finally, a prediction for Saturday? Where do you see the key battles being fought on the pitch?
7500: Villa's back line is so unpredictable that it's pointless to try to guess how they'll dare against City's attack. One would assume that it would be poorly, but this team is capable of pulling legendary defensive performances out of their nether regions in between surrendering bags of goals to Bradford City, so who knows. With that said I'll say the key for Villa is finding a way to integrate Kozak into the counterattack; Libor is not the swiftest fellow in the world to begin with, and between Agbonlahor and Weimann he looks positively sloth-esque. Players like that can still manage to create a great deal of havoc on the break, but given Villa's largely chaotic approach to the art of counter-attacking, it will be interesting to see if they can make the kind of sophisticated adjustments needed to make up for the loss of Benteke's athleticism.
As for a prediction: I'll go 0-3 to City. Villa's a mess at home and I don't think they've fully come to grips with the loss of Benteke just yet. I don't see this game being the bounceback.
Many thanks to Aaron for his time!