With one of the hottest strikers in European football staying at Aston Villa over the summer, the Midlands’ side are being tipped by many as a potential surprise package of the season.
It could have been oh so different though, with Christian Benteke slapping in a transfer request that shocked the club and its manager, Paul Lambert. Within 24 hours of returning to preseason training however, the Scotsman had managed to convince Benteke to sign a new and improved four-year deal with no release clause in sight – by far Villa’s best signing of the summer.
The statistics make conclusive reading; Benteke was involved in a league high 49% of Villa’s Premier League goals last season and would have been irreplaceable, even for the touted £25m asking price. The only other two players in Europe’s top five leagues to outscore the giant Belgian in 2013 were none other than Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
So rather than another summer rebuilding job, this season we have had a strengthening job and Paul Lambert has now moulded his own side. Be they through academy graduates that he has placed faith in or his own signings, this team is his own. And for the first time in four years, Villa will have the same manager in place for successive seasons and the benefits from this should be visible from an early stage.
One of the areas that definitely needed strengthening from the 2012/13 campaign was the defence, despite some heroics from American stopper Brad Guzan. Matt Lowton and Nathan Baker were also both bright prospects in that area, but more was clearly needed with Villa’s last league clean sheet coming at home in December 2012. In case any more evidence was needed, only relegated duo Reading and Wigan (73) conceded more than Villa’s 69 league goals.
So by signing 20-year-old Danish central defender Jores Okore, who has Champions League experience and famously turned down a January move to Stamford Bridge, I’m excited that the pace and aggression in his game will turn out to be exactly what was missing last year and lead to a lot better defensive performances.
With Mikel Arteta, Thomas Vermaelen, Abou Diaby and Nacho Monreal definitely missing through injury, coupled with doubts over Bacary Sagna and Santi Cazorla’s fitness – this game could be there for the taking for Villa.
The attacking trio of Christian Benteke, Gabby Agbonlahor and Andi Weimann should strike fear into any defence after the goal-scoring prowess they demonstrated last year and Arsenal’s back line has looked far from impenetrable during a tough preseason. With the Englishman and Austrian flanking the big frame of Benteke, they amassed 16 league goals between them last season and that partnership has continued to flourish with Villa scoring 15 goals in their final four friendlies.
Weimann may have surprised some last season, but Agbonlahor will be expected to emulate his fine end of season form which saw him bag four goals in the final seven league fixtures of 2012/13, including a brilliant brace to grab all three points at Carrow Road and really kick-start Villa’s survival charge.
In the end it will be a case of who can score more than their opponents though, as obvious as that sounds. Neither team will want to concede first – Villa because they were so susceptible from counter-attacks last season and Arsenal because the anti-Wenger brigade will be out in fine voice – but there will be goals a plenty when either side is chasing the game.
There’s no expectancy on the visitors to actually get anything though, and leaving even with a point or a strong performance would be seen as a bonus. Failing to beat a team that finished 15th last season, in your season opener however, would be seen as far from the level that Arsenal fans expect.
At least it should be entertaining…