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American Born Villan

Aston Villa, From Chicago to the Holte End of the World

Month

September 2013

Aston Villa 3 – Manchester City 2: Beating the Blues

We still have a load of issues to address, but you know what? We will get better. And we’ve just bought ourselves a little time in which to do it.

I’ll admit it: I wasn’t looking forward to watching us play Manchester City. Yes, I had dutifully set my DVR to record the game, and, yes, I was hiding from the score as I spent the first part of Saturday coaching my AYSO teams. But I expected nothing. With a team that can’t win on the road playing a team that can’t win at home, my natural sense of fatalism kicked in and I assumed it would be City who would see their streak end first. They have bought some terrific players and, at times, have played some great soccer.

Then my friend John tweeted at me: WHAT A GAME. I had been avoiding Twitter, but an inadvertent glance at my phone’s lock screen let me know something was up. Then other tweets arrived. I was buoyed, thinking that, if nothing else, the game would be worth watching. Perhaps Villa had scored an equalizer, or even gone ahead, before ultimately succumbing to a Dzeko strike in stoppage time. Another loss, probably, but perhaps more hope for the future.

Then someone tweeted WE ARE VILLA and I thought, hold on, we got a point!

Funny how the mind works.

Anyway, back at home and with the kids sent off to the showers, I finally watched the game, hoping against hope that . . . I don’t know, could we have actually won this thing?

Andreas Weimann
I know exactly how he feels. Except for the part about scoring the winning goal in a game nobody expected us to win. But apart from that, Andreas Weimann and I feel exactly the same way.

Well, you know the result, and I finally do, and it’s certainly one of the most unlikely come-from-behind victories I have ever seen. We gave up thirteen corner kicks, and two goals from corners, and relinquished possession for long stretches (we had only 33% overall) while we played five men across the back.

And yet! OK, El Ahmadi was offside, but only half a step. It doesn’t take anything away from the play. And what a free kick by Bacuna. The more I see this guy, the more I like him, and not least because he seems to actually enjoy playing the game. (Why don’t more players smile, I wonder? Surely getting paid to play the game you love can be fun?) And, finally, brilliant distribution from Guzan, a nice flick on from Kozak, shocking defending from City, and a confident finish from Weimann, who really has deserved to be on the score sheet more often this season, given his relentless desire to move forward.

Against Norwich, we got three points for a poor game. Against City, well, on balance we were outplayed—and we have to do something about our woeful defense of set pieces—but we finished our chances when we needed to. And City, despite having some of the best players money can buy, didn’t have what it took to close out what should have been their first three points on the road.

We have played six, lost three, and won three. We’re in ninth place. (Manchester United is in twelfth!) We won six points against two teams you have to figure will finish the season in the top four. We still have a load of issues to address, but you know what? We will get better. And we’ve just bought ourselves a little time in which to do it.

Final thought: Taking Villa out of it, this is shaping up to be an entertaining season. The top of the table (currently Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea) looks like it might be up for grabs, and the next three spots (Southhampton, Man City, Hull) show signs of change as well. No, I don’t expect the Saints and Tigers to be there for long, but in a weekend where Villa beat City, Tottenham played Chelsea to a draw, and even the Baggies beat Man United, it feels like anything is possible.

Which, as we all know, is an all too rare feeling.

Imagine following La Liga!

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Villan of the Week: Rick Leong

Rick Leong with daughter Hope
Raising the next generation of Villa supporters: Rick Leong with daughter Hope

I met Rick Leong, chairman of AVFC California, last month at the North American Villans meet-up in Chicago. Given his obvious passion for all things Villa, the amount of time he devotes to supporting the team, and the fact that, like me, he is both an American and a relatively new supporter, I wanted to hear his story!

The Starting Eleven

Where were you born, where do you live now, and what do you do for a living?

I was born in Oakland, California and live currently in Castro Valley, California (eastern portion of the San Francisco Bay Area). I work for the local public water utility.

Like most Americans, I thought “Where do you start?”

How and when did you choose Villa?

Like most of us, I didn’t choose Villa—Villa chose me. Growing up in America, my attention was on and I played the standard American sports. My teams continue to be the Oakland Raiders (NFL), Oakland Athletics (MLB), Golden State Warriors (NBA), San Jose Sharks (NHL). I didn’t follow football in the States (NASL, MLS) until 2004 when I was introduced to the San Jose Earthquakes. I was captivated by the Beautiful Game. As my interest grew, I had to learn more about the international teams where football was prominent. Of course the EPL, being the most well-known league, was a league where I felt called to pick a team to support.

Like most Americans, I thought “Where do you start?” All the other teams I support are based close to my hometown. This would be different. At the time, I was volunteering at a local children’s hospice and as I read about each of the EPL teams, it was Villa’s new relationship with Acorns that started my love of Villa. I heard of Acorns through my volunteering and knew that my team was chosen for me.

What was your happiest moment as a Villa supporter?

My happiest moment as a Villa supporter was my opportunity to visit Villa Park for the first time in 2012 and to play in the Lions Club Chairman’s game on the hallowed grounds. Even for someone like me, with a much shorter history supporting Villa, playing on that turf was magical!

What was your most painful moment?

Hearing the news about Stan.

Which team would you most like to see Villa beat this year?

Chelsea. I know that we can do it. I still have that bitter taste in my mouth from last season.

Who is your favorite player on the current squad?

Brad Guzan. Partly because he is an American, but mostly because I respect him so much for his professionalism and loyalty to Villa.

Who is your favorite player of all time?

Nigel SpinkThis is a tougher one for me as I am still in need of absorbing so much more of the Villa lore. The person that comes to my mind immediately is Nigel Spink. When Rimmer had to leave early in the ’82 European Cup final and Spink had to come in—I just can’t imagine being in that situation. Then to perform the way he did to secure Villa’s most cherished victory—he is a Villa hero!

What are your favorite sources for Villa news?

The network of Lions Clubs, especially those here in the U.S. Also from fellow Villans in the UK via Facebook.

Rate yourself as a fan. What are your best and worst qualities?

I am a rabid Villa supporter. Best quality? Maybe loyalty, winning or losing. I can’t imagine supporting any other EPL team. There may be other teams that I follow, but Villa is my #1 . . . in any sport and anywhere!

Where do you usually watch games?

The Mad Dog in the Fog in San Francisco.

What are you usually drinking?

Guinness is my go-to pint, but I love trying new things!

Extra Time

Battle of the Brads: Friedel or Guzan? Do you believe Little Brad will eclipse the achievements of his American predecessor, or will Big Brad be the Baddest Brad of all time?

I actually refer to Guzan as “Big Brad” as I believe he is of slightly larger stature than Friedel. Friedel was a great keeper for Villa, but I really do think Guzan will eclipse Friedel’s career at Villa. Guzan’s loyalty to Villa really impresses me and I hope that this continues to pay off for him in his career. Both are great American keepers, but Guzan will not only become a Villa legend, he will also take over the #1 spot of the U.S.A. from Tim Howard . . . it is only a matter of time.

Aston Villa 0 – Tottenham Hotspur 4: Caught With Our Pants Down

No red for a penalty-area pantsing? Hell, you get a yellow card for taking off your own shirt!

AVFC v AYSO: Week 3

So, as I’ve mentioned, I coach my two sons’ AYSO teams, a commitment that, while it often keeps me from watching Villa in real time, is one I thoroughly enjoy. A perfect Saturday for me—wins for Villa, the Tigers, and the Dark Knights—feels like nine points. (Even better when both Graff boys get goals.) Last year, unfortunately, AVFC was a bit underperforming when compared to my AYSO U8s and U10s. Will this season be different?

Over the last three games (I had to lop off Villa’s Arsenal win to make it an equal number of games), my U10s, the Tigers, lead the table, with my U8s, the Dark Knights, ahead of Villa on goal differential.

The Chicago Tigers top the table
The Chicago Tigers top the table

 

Norwich 0 – Aston Villa 1: Ugly Win, Beautiful Three Points

True, Paul Lambert’s team selection was a bit of a surprise. But does anyone else remember the days when Martin O’Neill’s squad sheet could have been chiseled in stone, so rarely did it change? When, late in the season, with the players running on fumes, he still acted as though he had no one he could trust to bring in off the bench? There may be such a thing as being too willing to flirt with new lineups, but then again, it seems to be working out well for Jurgen Klinsmann and the USMNT. So I, for one, am willing to trust our skipper.

For the first five minutes, Villa looked by far the better team. If I remember the sequence right, Weimann got off one decent shot and one great shot that, sadly, hit the post. I feel terrible for the guy: he runs like a greyhound and works like a . . . well, another kind of dog, and he just deserves more success. Later in the game, when he skied one over the bar, I could sense his growing desperation.

Libor Kozak finds the back of the net
Libor Kozak finds the back of the net

Anyway, in the sixth minute, when Ciaran Clark handled the ball to give away a penalty, I thought, right, here we go again. Dreamtime is over. Back to searching for an equalizer.

And then . . Brad Guzan showed us why he is The Man. I also feel sorry for him, to be on this kind of form in the Tim Howard era. Any other time in history and he’s the starting goalkeeper for the U.S.A.

So the penalty save brought fresh hope, and then Benteke came off injured. Mentally, some Villans are already running scenarios well into the future—well, if he’s out for two or three months, then he won’t leave in the January transfer window, which means we’ve at least still got him this spring, and if he’s out until spring, then do we have him next year?—when Libor Kozak comes on, shoots, is denied, and then is given a second chance by Gabby that he can’t miss.

Libor! Libor! I’m sorry, but it’s a bit too close to Latka, or Balki, or even Borat, though the fact that it has only two syllables does make it easier to chant (poor Ricky van Wolfswinkel).

Anyway, from anticipation to despair to elation to despair to guarded optimism—rapid-fire sequence of emotional zigzags that pretty much sums up what it’s like to follow Villa. And surely this Libor fellow is a fluke? I kept worrying about Benteke on the bench. How could he be smiling? Maybe the smile is a good sign, as is the fact that he clearly didn’t want to leave the field in the first place.

This was the first game since the win over Arsenal that I was able to watch as it happened. Imminent AYSO coaching duties meant that I didn’t have time to get down to the pub and back (and it’s probably not advisable to coach U8s and U10s with beer on my breath), but I wanted that feeling of watching the game with others. And so I opened up my laptop and logged in to Twitter and set Tweetdeck to #AVFC.

The experience was interesting—it’s fun to see the screen light up after saved penalties, injuries, goals, etc.—but distracting, too. I found myself watching the game itself with only half my attention. And, true to the curse of social media, instead of just marveling at whatever dramatic thing I’d just seen, I found myself struggling to say something witty and succinct. The Age of Social Media is the Age of Narcissism: could that yellow card have actually happened if I didn’t find something funny to say about it?

Anyway, I did enjoy seeing clever things from other Tweeps, and appreciated finding some facts and photos along the way. But back to the game. Villa continued to look good on the counter, and there were moments where I felt that old optimism, that old sense that we’re going to run off two or three quick goals and put the game out of reach. And surely we need to, because our defense looks shocking. We’re cursed on the back line, aren’t we? Okore looked as though he would become an important bulwark on a solidifying defense; now, with Vlaar and Clark in center, and a possibly out-of-position Bacuna at right, and Luna at left, we look as though we’re standing on sand that is crumbling away at our feet.

Luna in particular looked shockingly vaporous. Maybe the Arsenal game was a fluke, but I thought then that he looked like a great addition: a fast, athletic back, alert to offensive opportunities, willing to race tirelessly up and down the wing. But how can he play better against Arsenal, Liverpool, and Chelsea than against Norwich? I’m not writing him off yet, but he needs to show more consistency.

And, speaking of bad days at the office: Aleksandar Tonev. After his first long but errant shot, I thought: glad the boy’s got confidence. After the second: maybe a bit too much confidence, but hey, why not? After the half-dozenth long and off-target shot I wanted shake him silly. I’m sure he just wants to impress, and I know Lambert will have a word, but it’s not the debut I would expect from a professional player. Judging from the comments on Twitter, it’s either time to loan Tonev to a team in the second division or cut off both his feet before ceremonially burning him at the stake. He needs time but, of course, we don’t have a large margin for error.

I’ve already gone on too long, so I’ll close by saying this: on Saturday, I didn’t really recognize this team, and it’s not just because of the new faces. We looked haphazard and tentative where, only a few games ago, we looked organized and confident. (Speaking of organization, do you know who we could use in midfield? Michael Bradley. Too bad Villa never had the vision to bring him in for a try. Oh wait, they did? Pity. I guess he’s not good enough for a thirteenth-place team. He just barely managed to find a starting position at a first place team in some place called Italy, after all.)

Hopefully this win will offer some confidence to play our best game again. It was ugly but, for now, those three points are beautiful.

Reasons for Optimism

Tonev is no Benteke, but he might just do the job.

Gabby. No idea why Lambert took him off. He and Guzan were our two most valuable players.

We still look dangerous on the counter. If we can pinch an early lead against teams like Norwich, it will draw them forward, giving us an even better chance of that second goal. And we will need a second, or third, or fourth goal. This clean sheet will be an anomaly this season.

Bradley Edwin “Brad” Guzan

Reasons for Pessimism

Jores Okore is out for the year. Lambert has expressed his faith in Ciaran Clark and Nathan Baker. He may be right. History will have fans wondering otherwise.

Christian Benteke. How soon will he be back?

Antonio Luna

Alexander Tonev

A midweek League Cup game at home against Tottenham, a team that is second in the table and second in form. Given that games at Villa Park hardly seem to give us an advantage. I think we’d be extremely lucky to get a good result. (On the other hand, Andre Villas-Boas has just announced that he’ll field a team of reserves, so . . . there goes that unfounded optimism again.)

Norwich – Aston Villa: My Preview

Notice how I left the quotation marks off “preview” this time? After last week’s explanation as to why I don’t do real sports-guy analysis, I started thinking: why not? Why don’t I dip my toes into—just an inch or two, mind you—into the muddy waters of statistical prognostication? Consider my shoes off, my socks neatly balled inside, and my pants rolled up just over the ankles.

Simplest stats first. Aston Villa currently sits at 17th in the table on 3 points, with Norwich at 15th on 4 points. And, while Villa have a goal differential of -1 (scored 5, conceded 6), Norwich are -2 (scored only 3 while conceding 5).

In form, Villa are 18th, having followed their famous win the Emirates with three straight losses. Norwich are 16th, with a draw, a loss, a win, and a loss. But the opponent is everything, right? Villa’s first four matches were against Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Newcastle—teams that sit 2nd, 6th, 1st, and 8th in the league respectively. Norwich’s competition has been Everton, Hull, Southampton, Tottenham—teams in 9th, 16th, 11th, and 3rd. True, they drew Everton (the team that just beat Chelsea), but their lone victory was a 1-0 win at home against Southampton.

Andreas Weimann puts the Canaries in a coal mine
Andreas Weimann puts the Canaries in a coal mine

So Norwich don’t look too tough, but spot them a goal for being the home team, and another goal because we haven’t kept a clean sheet in forever (with Okore’s season-ending injury weakening an already patchy back line), and suddenly it looks a lot tougher.

Intangibles? Well, Lambert has done very well with Villa against his old club. Last year the two teams drew 1-1 at Villa Park, but later in the season the Villans won 2-1 at Carrow Road, and also 4-1 away in the League Cup. Both teams are struggling to score goals, but Villa’s 1.25 goals per game looks a lot better than Norwich’s .75.

This is all pretty basic stuff, right? As with any statistics, it’s important to know which ones to use. Either that, or find someone who has done the number-crunching for you. And who crunches more numbers—when they’re not crunching kneecaps—than a bookie? A quick scan of the odds shows that, despite some strong facts in Villa’s favor, the bookies are all just a little bit in favor of Norwich carrying the day—but only just. One oddsmaker has 9/1 for a 2-1 Villa win, and 8/1 for a 2-1 Norwich victory. Bet365 has Norwich 7/5 to win, Villa 11/5 to win, and a draw at 12/5.

Play the safe bet or the slightly less safe bet? Well, if I played a safe bet to win, I would have hitched my wagon to Manchester United during the glory years. I believe Villa’s offense will put the Canaries on the back foot early and they’ll go on to win 2-1. Maybe even 3-1. (They’ll let in a goal just to keep things exciting until the final whistle.)

It’s too early to start talking about must-wins—and I do believe the team will gel, and will have better results—but if we can’t pick up points against teams in the bottom half of the table, then we’re going to be in trouble, aren’t we?

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