Key Man: Christian Benteke
Predicted position: 14th
Having produced a superb second half of the season to drag themselves out of the relegation zone’s quicksands, Villa’s party looked to have come to an abrupt when their talismanic striker Christian Benteke handed in a transfer request.
The Belgian took some convincing but, 11 days after expressing his desire to leave the Midlands, Benteke agreed to withdraw his transfer request and what an important decision that might prove to be for Paul Lambert’s side.
The Scotsman’s days at Villa Park looked numbered last season as, between December and January, Villa conceded 15 goals without reply against Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Wigan, before bowing out of the Capital One Cup against Bradford and losing against Millwall in the FA Cup.
Villa’s board stood by their manager, whose faith in his young players never wavered and Lambert’s decision to gamble with youth paid off handsomely and the former Norwich manager added more young faces to his squad this summer.
New, and largely unknown, signings Antonio Luna, Leandro Bacuna, Aleksandar Tonev, Nicklas Helenius and Jed Steer are all aged 23 or younger, as is Jores Okore, a 20-year-old Danish international signed from Nordsjaelland for £4.
The Danish defender was signed to shore up a back-line that last season was perforated 69 times, the club’s worst defensive record since 1987. Villa, to put things into perspective, managed to keep a clean sheet in only five of their 38 games and things could have been much worse, had it not been for Brad Guzan and Matt Lowton.
The American keeper was the club’s Player of the Year, while the young right-back showed promise of developing into an England international and will be one of the players to watch this season, while new signing Luna should replace the inconsistent Joe Bennett at left-back.
Paul Lambert will be hoping his captain, Ron Vlaar, will enjoy a rosier season than his 2012-13 campaign, with the 28-year-old Dutchman failing to completely convince in his debut season, following a move from Feyenoord.
Lambert, the first Villa manager to start a new season having finished the previous campaign since 2009, has less to be concerned about in the final third of the pitch where Villa have plenty to be optimistic about, and not simply because Benteke agreed to remain at the club.
The Belgian might have scored or created 49% of his team’s goals – the highest percentage among any Premier League player – but Gabriel Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann were just as important, netting 16 times between them and both will be expected to supply Benteke this season.
Ashley Westwood and Fabian Delph were highly impressive last season, but they were part of a Villa midfield that struggled to produce goals as both of them and midfield colleagues Barry Bannan, Karim El-Ahmadi, Brett Holman, Stephen Ireland, Charles N’Zogbia and Yacouba Sylla scored a combined total of four league goals.
The midfielders’ profligacy will put added pressure on Villa’s front-men who, similarly to last season, won’t be able to count on Darren Bent’s help as the club’s record signing was left to train alone during pre-season and is still looking for a new club.
Villa are very much a club in transition but Lambert’s faith in young players has already paid off and the Scotsman will be looking to avoid another nail-biting end to the season.