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

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Aston Villa 2 – Leicester City 1: Sometimes Defense Is the Best Offense

Time stood still, and so did Hutton, until he finally got the shot off
Time stood still, and so did Hutton, until he finally got the shot off

A quiet Sunday at the Globe and only one Villan, a Brummie named Peter, was present as I walked through the doors with Bob Kemp and my father, Tom, visiting from Montana. Soon, however, we were joined by Simon, Kristen, Andrew, Nick, and Greg, plus a large handful of faces new to me (Ashley is the only name I can recall at the moment), possibly even shifting the usual yank-to-expat ratio in favor of the expats.

The Chicago Villans Facebook group, now numbering over 1,000 and outpacing even the Aston Villa America group, includes so many England-based Villans that Bob’s question on Friday (“Who’s going on Sunday?”) received just as many responses from Birmingham-area supporters with tickets to Villa Park as it did Chicagoland fans heading down to the pub. As much as I love hearing from random Villans worldwide, I can’t help but think we’ve lost a tiny bit of our identity as a local group.

Anyway: we won! Three beautiful points saw us reach the heady heights of 11th place! Granted, the table is congested, with teams you’d expect to do better not doing well at all (Liverpool, Tottenham, Everton), and teams you wouldn’t have expected to do very well surpassing expectations (West Ham, Southampton), with the end result that Villa are currently just as far from 5th place and European competition as they are from 18th place and relegation.

We’re 11th in the table and 8th in the form table but
we are continuing to climb the injury table as well.

But with a very winnable game against West Brom coming up next—they’re in 16th place and 18th in the form table—we could well be top half before we face Man United just before Christmas.

Villa started well and certainly looked most likely to take the lead until Leonardo Ulloa did just that for the visitors in the 13th minute, slotting home a ball that came off Guzan’s hand in a save attempt. Replays showed that the initial shot might have taken a deflection, making Guzan less culpable than he appeared to be. Still, while the pride of suburban Chicago remains an excellent shot stopper, he hasn’t been holding on to the ball very well lately, which only adds to our already frayed nerves.

Ciaran Clark, of all people, equalized just four minutes later, on a superb sliding header from an Ashley Westwood free kick. But when Westwood was stretchered off before halftime, taken out by a tardy tackle by James Vardy, I started to lose my conviction that Villa would score again. Our midfield can look shockingly lightweight, and without Delph, Westwood, or Cole, a one-one draw against the league’s worst team seemed a likely result.

I wasn’t counting on Alan Hutton, who completed his cycle of rebirth with his first competitive goal in FOUR YEARS. In the 71st minute, Gabby passed to Benteke who passed to Hutton, who seemed to stop time, or just stop, as he gathered the ball, thought about it, calculated the angle and trajectory and possibility that, yes, he might actually be able to take a shot on goal—before firing and, yes, SCORING A GOAL!

You just can’t rush some things.

Hutton was later yellow-carded for shoving Paul Konchesky, who apparently deemed his ankle-stomp insufficient and barked at Hutton with the seeming intent of making him pull a Benteke and get sent off. Instead it was the English-born player with the Russian-sounding name who was sent off, shown a straight red, although it was unclear whether the red was for the tackle or his provocative conversational style. Leicester fans will think it harsh, although for Villa fans it somehow balanced Benteke’s sending off against Tottenham.

Benteke himself was unlucky not to have scored on a couple of on-target headers and a breakaway. Though the final ten minutes provided sheer, nail-biting agony for the fifteen or so Villans on their feet at the Globe, that the game wasn’t closer was due mainly to Leicester’s man of the match, Kasper “Son of Schmeichel” Schmeichel.

As much as I’m buoyed by Villa’s recent form—we’re 11th in the table and 8th in the form table—we are continuing to climb the injury table as well. We’re now 3rd in those rankings, behind only Newcastle and Arsenal. And with more winnable games coming in the busy holiday-season schedule, if we play without Delph, Cole, Westwood, Cleverley, Vlaar, Senderos, and Baker, we could still struggle against beatable teams.

Although I’m much more worried about the midfield: clearly we can win without our first- or even second-choice defense!

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Burnley 1 – Aston Villa 1: They Stole Our Kit, They Took Two of Our Points

Joe Cole is cleared for takeoff
Joe Cole is cleared for takeoff

Oh, the wonders of techmology: just a few minutes to boot my aging laptop, a mad scramble to locate the password for my in-laws’ guest wifi login, a couple of attempts to remember my RCN password, then a helpless wait as the NBC Live Extra page loads and stalls and loads and stalls again. Watch a short commercial and voila—instant video!

It’s a strange experience, watching a game on a dashboard like a videogame console. The data at my fingertips is both fascinating and troubling. Why remember things when your device does it for you? I much prefer to have my remembering done by the lifelong Villa supporters at the Globe like Simon, Brian, and Rick.

The first half was a joy to behold as Villa attacked, attacked, and attacked again. Despite one supporter’s pregame insistence that Joe Cole starting was the last straw, I think most of us asked ourselves the same question: why hasn’t Joe Cole been starting all season? Villa looked lively and creative, and by the time Cole deservedly scored the first goal in the 38th minute, the only surprise was that we hadn’t gotten two or three of the things.

Match stats
I like all the numbers except the matching 1’s

The data on my dashboard seemed questionable, reporting that, by the end of the first half, Villa had an unheard-of 13 shots with 12 of them on target, but whether accurate or not, they certainly captured the gist of things. Burnley may have lost concentration in the scuffle just prior to the goal, but it was well earned on balance. Even better, the game was actually entertaining to watch.

Villa started the second half on the wrong foot, looking very vulnerable, but slowly imposed themselves on the game. Without creating as many chances or showing as much creativity as the first, still looked capable of seeing the game out, holding on to a lead created in the first half, something they’ve struggled to do all season. And Lambert’s substitutions seemed unlikely to create any controversy as they did last week: Cole was obviously tiring, and Grealish is a player fans are demanding to see. The latter had less of an influence than the former, but played well and had an influence. And in taking a largely anonymous Weimann off for Richardson, Lambert appeared to have made the right moves to see the game out.

Villa’s inability to hold a lead is woeful.

And then Okore, who had been having a very good game, got caught out of position and bundled Jutkiewicz over to prevent a goal. Danny Ings comfortably slotted the penalty home in the 87th minute to score the equalizer and break our hearts again. Due to a bend in the time-space continuum (or maybe just a delay in my video screen) I saw the yellow card and the goal noted on my videogame console minutes before I saw it happen. I felt like I’d been stabbed twice.

How many players have we seen make game-changing gaffes and blunders this year?

Villa seemed as shell-shocked as Burnley was energized, and the home team was thumping on the door in added time. They hit the post and shot just wide, barely missing their chance to take all three points.

For some teams, earning a lead is difficult but holding on to it is more routine, and it’s tempting to be clever and say that Villa has that problem in reverse. Also wildly inaccurate: for us, earning a lead has been extraordinarily difficult and protecting it nigh well impossible.

The Good News

There’s good news, right? After six straight defeats, three straight draws must be seen as an improvement. And getting a goal from someone other than Gabby or Andi is a big positive. Just last week I saw a post somewhere about Villa’s reliance on true strikers to get goals, set against a trend of other clubs seeing more offensive production from midfield players. Clearly, we need more than two or three players to get on the score sheet this season. And, with Benteke coming back, the odds of that happening are increasing.

The Bad News

A perfectly winnable game becomes, in the end, a hard-won point on the road against the league’s second-worst team. (Granted, we’re the league’s fifth-worst team, so maybe this should go back up under “good news.”) Villa’s inability to hold a lead is woeful. Their record stands at 3 wins, 4 draws, and 6 losses. But three of the last four have been winnable games: against Burnley and Southampton, we conceded late goals to turn wins into draws. And, against Tottenham, we conceded TWO late goals and contrived to lose the game completely. That’s two points out of a possible nine. Add those extra seven to our current tally and we’ve stolen Tottenham’s position this morning of seventh place.

As we say in the U.S.: coulda, woulda, shoulda.

I still believe this team can and will play better, and I’m not worried about relegation—yet. The players seem to slowly be regaining some belief, although I worry about the manager’s: Lambert’s body language looks awful, and he’s aging before our eyes. And he doesn’t even have Mr. Keane to keep him company on the bench anymore, either.

Nine games without a win and counting.

 

P.S. A note on the stats: NBC Live Extra has villa with 18 shots, 16 on target. The BBC had it as 18 and 7. The Guardian has it as 18 and 7. I didn’t keep count, but I guess Mark Twain’s words hold true: there are lies, damned lies, and statistics.

 

Aston Villa 1 – Southampton 1: The Point We Were Trying to Make

I took the afternoon off work to watch the game with Simon and Kristen at the Globe—best decision I’ve made in a while. My recent schedule has forced me to watch games at home, but why suffer alone when you can suffer with someone else?

I was expecting us to lose. Maybe badly. Southampton may be depleted by injury, but so is Villa, and Southampton’s not in second place for nothing.

And, honestly, I thought Gabby would fuck it up, that tantalizing breakaway one more opportunity rued, one more chance come to nothing. He may have been aided by Fraser Forster’s indecision, but it was a nice finish in the end. Despite what the commentators and the naysayers and the erstwhile supporters say, not every Villa success comes down to another team’s failure. They do occasionally do something right.

Why suffer alone when you can
suffer with someone else?

It was a boring first half made brighter by the goal, by the company, and by the Monday-afternoon Guinness I was enjoying. A bad game of soccer is still better than a good day at work. But as the game went on and we began to believe that, hell, we might just be able to take all three points, the commentators couldn’t get over their shock that Southampton couldn’t put Villa away.

Judging from the outrage on Facebook and Twitter, Simon and I were more or less alone in thinking it a good idea to take off Sanchez for an attacker. As Simon observed, Sanchez seems to tire and lose concentration late, and as anyone who’s watched our team is aware, a one-goal lead is our signal to start falling back further and further until we’re practically inviting our opponents to walk into the goal.

Whether Bent was the right attacker is certainly up for debate. He tends not to hold the ball, preferring to wait for a fast, accurate cross he can flick in at the near post. And as I recently observed, you have a better chance of surviving Ebola than Villa does of scoring from a cross.

So yes, I would have preferred Grealish, too. But hindsight is all. Had Lambert pulled Weimann for a defensive sub, some people would have been outraged at our defensive mentality. And had Weimann scored his chance, the whole question would have been moot.

At any rate, it was Gabby’s poor marking that led to the equalizer, and it’s possible Sanchez would have been in that position had he been on the field. It’s equally possible he would have committed the kind of late-game gaffe he’s prone to. And who would have thought to pull Gabby? He was having a pretty good game.

If you would have offered any sane Villa supporter a point before the game, they would have gladly taken it. The feeling that we dropped two instead of winning one certainly makes it hard to celebrate this result. But with even Crystal Palace winning on the weekend (granted, it was only Liverpool) and with other previous bottom-feeders Newcastle scaling the heights to fifth, it’s clear we can’t count on having three teams worse than us to survive. A positive result was essential and that’s what we got.

Now, Villa is certainly capable of losing to anybody, but with Burnley (19th place), Crystal Palace (15th), West Brom (13th), Man Ure (a very flattering 4th), Swansea (7th), and Sunderland (14th) coming up, and Benteke coming back, and hopefully some of our beat-to-shit back line returning to fitness, you’d have to think there are some points to be had by New Year’s. And it’s Palace and Leicester City again after that.

So here’s to a cup half full, no matter how bitter it tastes.

Aston Villa 0 – Arsenal 3: Top-Four Club Suffers Shock Home Defeat

Aston Villa LogoAston Villa’s pursuit of the Barclay’s Premier League title was dealt a blow Saturday by visiting Arsenal, who, despite their seventh-place table position coming into the match, were able to unlock Villa’s iron-clad defense with 192 seconds of inspired play and end Villa’s undefeated start to the season. Weakened by a virus sweeping through the camp—Nathan Baker was a game-day scratch, Ashley Westwood fell ill during warm-ups, and Andreas Weimann was unable to continue past halftime—Villa were able to contain further damage but could inflict none of their own. Their customary efficiency in front of goal (6 shots, 4 goals) was not to be seen. Fortunately, Sunday’s results favored Lambert’s men’s title chase, as 10-man Manchester City held leaders Chelsea to a draw at the Etihad. And, while Southampton’s victory at Swansea has them beating Villa on goal difference to claim second place, Villa remain within striking distance of the league leaders, whom they play this Saturday. It will be a true six-pointer as the Villans travel south to London, and the Lambert-Mourinho duel promises a technical masterclass that should have scholars of the game sharpening their pencils.

*     *     *

Wouldn’t that be a wonderful match report? Instead, despite Villa’s sterling start to the season, the commentators on Match of the Day, ESPN FC, Guardian Football Weekly, etc., have treated each of Villa’s victories or draws as an opportunity to talk about the other side’s weaknesses. (Liverpool lost to Villa? What are they doing wrong?) Saturday’s loss to Arsenal will undoubtedly be heralded by many as the moment the natural order began to be restored. A top four with Southhampton and Villa? A top seven with Swansea and Leicester City? Heaven forfend.

Look, we know Villa is overperforming.

(The loss may also have given grim satisfaction to Lambert’s detractors, but I’ll leave that topic alone for now.)

The third goal is too much for Kieran Richardson
The third goal is too much for Kieran Richardson

Look, we know Villa is overperforming. We know we’ve been a little bit lucky so far. And when we’re up against clubs who spend more on one player than we do on our starting eleven, the cold realities of talent and finance will play their part. We know we won’t be finishing in the top four or even the top seven. But, based on what we’ve seen so far, both from our club and from the likes of Crystal Palace through Newcastle, top ten seems eminently possible. (Thee-to-one odds on relegation? Don’t you believe it.)

Our defense, which was so inexperienced and porous, now looks tough and experienced. If Vlaar had been able to start, or even Baker, yesterday’s scoreline looks different—Cisshoko’s penchant for own goals aside. Our midfield and attack look much more confident. Until the first goal was conceded Saturday, it was Arsenal who was pinned back, and Villa who looked much more likely to score. Lambert’s youth movement isn’t entirely over, but he has proven that he’s not obstinate to the point of madness and brought in some tough veterans who should be able to provide the backbone we’ve been lacking. With Lerner’s backing, he’s brought some intriguing, low-risk options on board and the squad has grown just deep enough that it should show in an improved season.

Yes, we’re in the middle of a tough run of games, but we still have ten points from five games while teams such as Liverpool, Manchester United, and Everton are still struggling to find their form. And Christian Benteke is back in training . . . .

*     *     *

I watched the first half at home, was scolded for my language by my ten-year-old, and then headed out to the lakefront fields to coach my U10 and U12 teams. I was hoping their performances would take the sting out of watching three goals fly past an ailing Brad Guzan, but, to be honest, it was a small hope. I love all the kids on my teams, but I’ve been surprised this year to find some rank beginners on my squads—and, at this level, kids who can’t kick, pass, run, or defend tend to get found out quickly. Where do you even play them? There’s no hiding on the soccer field. I think my U10 team last year could have beaten my U12 team this year.

Well, my U10s played mostly even but ultimately went down 1-3, a genuine improvement on last week’s 1-6 where there were tears at halftime (not mine, I assure you, although I almost felt like joining in). My 8-year-old got the lone goal, I’m pleased to report. And my U12s battled to a narrow loss in a 3-4 thriller, their closest result of the season. So they’re getting better, and I remain sympathetic to Paul Lambert: we both know something about coaching on limited resources.

Further Reading:

Aston Villa Virus and Gunners Take Down Villa (MOMS)

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Villa Arsenal Collapse (MOMS)

Mat Kendrick’s Big Match Verdict (Birmingham Mail)

Aston Villa 0 Arsenal 3 Match Report (BBC)

Aston Villa 3 – Hull City 1: Relief and Mixed Emotions

After a convincing win at home that put an end to our relegation fears—this season’s, anyway—I feel relieved, proud, exhausted, deflated, and depressed all at once. And, yes, a tiny bit hopeful.

Relieved that it’s over, and we can watch the final two games of the season without worrying that we’ll be playing the Blues (and singing them) in the Championship next year. Proud that we achieved safety with a positive result, without having to let other teams’ losses help us survive. Exhausted because, you know. Deflated because the last remaining tension has been let out of the season. Depressed because, you know: another shit season. Hopeful because, without hope, how can you be a Villa supporter?

Embed from Getty Images

Not that the season hasn’t had its moments: beating Arsenal, Manchester City, and Chelsea. Picking up a point against the deadliest Liverpool side in years. A thrilling win against Southampton. Moments of brilliance that made futile losses against crap sides all the more maddening. We were owned by Fulham—Fulham!—who are going down.

It’s worth noting the players who played roles in the three goals. On the first, Gabby bullied his way down the left, literally pushing a Hull defender out of the way, before passing to Albrighton. Albrighton whiffed but didn’t give up, poking the ball to Westwood, who put it away neatly.

On the second, Baker’s two determined headers failed to find the net but Weimann, showing a poacher’s instinct, was in the right place at the right time to put a third header home. The Austrian’s celebration, cupping his ears in front of the fans, was a sad reminder both of his season and the support he’s lacking, and a telling contrast to the moment after he got the winner against Manchester City in the fall.  On the third goal, little-used Jordan Bowery played a perfect cross to Weimann, who scored on a deft glancing header.

With the exception of Gabby, whose spark has dimmed a bit as the season wore on, the rest made, at least on the day, a case for the youth movement, coming up big when they absolutely had to. Three of six players, Gabby, Albrighton, and Weimann, are Villa products; only one could be called a veteran. Supporters disappointed with the season—and I certainly count myself one of them—should keep in mind the role played by Benteke’s and Okore’s season-ending injuries. Had they both been available all year long, surely we would have been safe much sooner.

At any rate, the sense of support and unity finally shown by supporters for this last home game will probably dissipate quickly. We all want a stronger team and better results next year, and any two supporters will be of three minds as to how that can be achieved. And will Lambert be back? Will Lerner be back? Or will he sell the club, and to whom, and if so, what changes will take place?

It’s all too much to think about on a cold Monday in Chicago. I’ll watch the last two games, hoping they give me a few more moments to cheer about.

Swansea City 4 – Aston Villa 1: On Being an Athletic Supporter

Sometimes It’s Hard to Be a Villan

Down, down, we go - where we stop, nobody knows
Down, down, we go – where we stop, nobody knows

So, last weekend, a nil-nil draw at home against the Saints left some of us feeling like we’d stopped the bleeding. Optimists among us hoped for another precious point, or even three, away to Swans. And, when Gabby showed nice touch to bring us back to level at 1-1, even the pessimists might have felt a moment of optimism. I believe there’s some long-running streak showing that, when Gabby scores, Villa wins.

Well, that streak is over. And, in the West v West derby, West Brom’s win over West Ham lifted them to 15th place, dropping us to 16th. And Sunderland—Sunderland!—picked up three points over Cardiff, moving them out of the relegation zone, and one win away from being level with us. I would have called Cardiff the only team worse than us, but a look at the form table shows Villa are absolute rock bottom with one draw in the last six games. That’s one point out of eighteen possible.

Aston Villa: In poor form
Aston Villa: In poor form

But you don’t need me to tell you how bad things are. And I’ll spare you reliving the blow-by-blow. I haven’t even been on Facebook or Twitter since the loss. As painful as it is, listening to the supporters gnash their teeth and beat their breasts is even worse. Or should I say, “supporters”?

Yes, I’m an Athletic Supporter

I’ve been thinking about that word a lot lately. As some of you will recall, I recently wrote a post in which I explained why I use the word soccer instead of football. I’d be happy if you read the whole thing, but the short version is that, as an American living in the United States, I think it makes the most sense to use the word recognized by the greatest number of my compatriots, even if I don’t get to sound as cool down at the pub.

But, because I spend so much time talking soccer with football fans, much of their vocabulary has crept into my own speech. I’m no purist: sometimes I’ll say pitch instead of field, or touchline instead of sideline, or Grant Holt instead of Tim Tebow. I can’t help it, I’m only human.

I also use the words support and supporter, which aren’t part of American sports argot. And I do so utterly unthinkingly. A few weeks ago, when we had some friends over for dinner, I uttered a sentence that included the phrase, “Aston Villa, the team I support . . . ” when my friend James interrupted.

“Wait, wait, wait—the team you support?

“Yes, in England, there’s—”

“You support them financially?”

“No, I mean—”

“I’m picturing a team of poor English children who can’t afford soccer shoes. Is it something like that?”

Eventually, I was able to clarify my position by using a word he recognized—fan—although James’ misapprehension was clearly the explanation everyone preferred. (Frankly, even I enjoyed imagining myself as a wealthy patron of the sporting arts.) And, though I didn’t have the time to expound any further on my feelings about the difference between the two words, I have lately realized why I really prefer the word supporter to fan.

To me, a fan is someone who idolizes someone or something, who basks in the glow of another’s achievement. The fan may spend a great deal of time following these achievements, may spend money on tickets and make scrapbooks and all the rest, but something about the word implies passivity, a one-way relationship between the adored and the adorer.

Supporter, however, is a noun derived from a verb. It’s muscular. It implies doing something. The supporter supports his team. You might argue that a supporter supports his team in the same way that a fan is a fan of a pop star, but I disagree. Lady Gaga will play her show and collect her revenue regardless of how well she engages the fans in the stadium. She may book fewer stadiums in the future if she doesn’t engage them, but, on the night, the mood won’t affect the outcome in a meaningful way.

It’s awfully hard for a sports team to win when the people in the seats are silent or booing. Supporters in the Holte End can help the team through cheering, chanting, and singing: there’s a reason that the fans in the stadium are known as the Twelfth Man. When they leave early, the players are bound to notice that, too. I think anyone in the sport would agree that match-day atmosphere (yes, I said match instead of game, didn’t I?) is a definite factor on players’ spirits.

This could have been the beginning of a beautiful symbiotic relationship
This could have been the beginning of a beautiful symbiotic relationship

Are those of us who watch from afar worthy of the name supporter? And does watching a game on TV help the team win? Well, yes and no. In the literal sense, obviously not. In a more material sense, well, yes, indirectly. The more supporters a team has, the more shirts they sell and the more money they make through merchandising, licensing, and so on. The more supporters they have, the more money they have, and, at least in theory, the better able they are to compete with other teams. So going to the pub, telling friends about the team, recruiting friends to follow the team, starting Lions Clubs—all those things help raise the team’s profile. And casual fans who become staunch supporters will one day go to Villa Park, where they can lend their voices on game day.

Not to get carried away, but, in this digital age, we could even make the argument that our online chatter is somehow a new kind of fan chant.

At some point I’ll need to refine this argument—this blog is where I share my first drafts—but I’d rather be a supporter than a fan any day. And why deprive my wife of the pleasure she gets from calling me an athletic supporter?

If there’s anyone who needs our support right now, it’s Aston Villa. So, as we sit three points above the relegation zone, with three games to play, I’m sending all positive thoughts to Villa Park.

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