It’s October and seven premier league fixtures have already taken place. There are four clubs who have yet to taste defeat. Of course, reigning Champions Manchester United staying undefeated comes as no surprise. After all, they did go much of last season without losing. Perhaps, the only minor surprise is that not only are they undefeated, but they’ve virtually thrashed every team they played. The other Manchester team is also undefeated. Again, to no surprise as their net spending would make Real Madrid’s Perez blush. It’s the other two clubs that are surprising. Aston Villa and Newcastle have both remained undefeated into October. This comes as a real shock considering both were fighting relegation a few months ago. Newcastle have won four games and drew two, sitting pretty at fourth. Aston Villa have drawn four and won two, sitting not as pretty but relatively comfortably at seventh.
Out of the two, Aston Villa interests me more. Not only, being from the midlands, I have a soft spot for the Villains, but the team itself bought two remarkable stories last season. Naturally, I’m talking about the stories of Stewart Downing and Ashley Young. Before last season, they’ve both been marked as “decent premiership players, nothing more” and yet, Ashley Young established himself as a key figure at Old Trafford while Downing is an automatic starter at Anfield. Their successes are interesting because, looking only at the stats, you have two very average players who scored 17 goals and assisted 20 between them. Those are fantastic numbers, especially considering neither passes very well.
And yet, the Villains lost two players that contributed nearly half of Villa’s goals last season. The glamorous appeal of Champions League football and stadiums such as Anfield and Old Trafford are too much to resist. So, what do Villa do now that their key men are gone? Well, they bring in a manager who previously got their heated rivals Birmingham City relegated. Naturally fans weren’t keen on him, but that alone should be enough to warm up to him. McLeish has a reputation of playing boring football. But, it’s the same boring football that took Birmingham to a cup in 40-odd years and helped Scotland beat France in Paris. The fact is that while McLeish plays dire football, he knows how to organize defenses well. And, considering the fact that Villa conceded the second most amount of goals last season, that’s exactly what they need. And what has McLeish done?
With Brad Friedel leaving for Tottenham Hotspur, he bought in Shay Given from Manchester City. Given has spent a lot of time on the bench due to Hart’s rise to prominence, but anyone with half a brain knows the kind of quality Given has. He’s one of the most consistent keepers in the premier league. The number of mistakes he’s made could be listed on one hand. And, boy, Shay Given has been a complete gem for Aston Villa so far this season. Even if you don’t watch their games, MOTD alone will show at least three Given saves per match. He’s kept him in many matches. What could have been losses turned into draws and what would have been draws turned into wins.
Charles N’Zogbia is the other big signing for them the past summer. Losing Young and Downing is a blow, and nobody is saying that N’Zogbia is in the same class as duo, but he creates chances. Chances that the in-form Agbonlahor and Darren Bent tend to put away. And, really, that’s all people as of wingers. There were matches last season where Young’s pass rate fell down to the 30% range and Downing no better at 40%. And, yet, they scored goals and assisted goals. It’s the end product that matters and N’Zogbia has that.
Finally, the biggest cause of Villa’s form hasn’t even cost them a penny. Gabby Agbonlahor, Barry Bannan, and Marc Albrighton have all played a huge role so far in Villa’s rise and they were all academy products. Agbonlahor is in lethal form - easily one of the best strikers in the country outside the big three (Rooney, Aguero, and Dzeko), while Barry Bannan (ofted lauded as the Scottish Scholes, Xavi, or Iniesta) has a passing range and vision not commonly seen in a kid his age. The best part about Bannan, however, is the fact that he seems to get the best out of Stephen Ireland and that’s a task and a half for anyone. And, Marc Albrighton isn’t starting nearly as many games he did last year but that’s mostly due to the form of Bannan, Ireland, and Stiliyan Petrov. But, whenever the young Englishman came on, he did well.
Will Villa remain undefeated for the rest of the season? Not a chance. They play City next and there’s only one undefeated streak that can go on there. But, is this enough to spark a little bit of hope in the Villa faithful, especially after a summer that saw them lose their two best players? Most definitely.