With City’s pre-season having finally kicked in with real intent – Friday night’s bruising clash with Bastia an ideal step up in intensity – thoughts can finally start creeping toward that tricky looking opener at Molineux.
And yet while there are likely to be a few comings and goings prior to the big KO (the latter likely to outnumber the former) it starts to become interesting to compare the Class of 2015 with its 2011 equivalent – the one that strode imperiously to the Promised Land.
To begin with, four members of said class remain. John Ruddy, Russell Martin, Andrew Surman and Wes Hoolahan all formed part of Paul Lambert’s core and look likely to figure in the thoughts of Neil Adams.
Certainly, assuming Ruddy is still in situ on August 10, he’ll be No.1 and Russell Martin, as captain, is sure to be central to Adams’ plans – even if it means a switch inside to central defence. Both will be ‘go to’ men in the dressing room having been there and done it in the Championship.
They formed part of Lambert’s core. They will do the same for Adams.
In addition, Surman and Wes have both recently been on the receiving of Adams eulogies and everything points to them being part of the masterplan. Certainly the manager’s comment, post-Bastia, that the Irishman is ‘enjoying it and wants to be part of it’ suggests we’re going to see plenty of those dancing feet.
I hope so.
In terms of central defence, where once we had Elliott Ward and Zak Whitbread, we now appear to be heading toward a Michael Turner/Ryan Bennett combo – at least as things stand. On paper I’d suggest, given their greater Premier League experience, the latter would win by a short head. Let’s hope it’s the same on grass.
Russell Martin may also have something to add to the centre-back debate if his transfer from shirt ‘2’ to shirt ‘5’ is anything to go by, but equally he’s a proven performer at right-back in the Championship.
Certainly Martin’s desire to push on, particularly when a narrow midfield diamond gave him the freedom of the right flank to charge down, was a potent attacking threat in the Championship first time round. Who can forget him rampaging through those open swathes of Portman Road to make it 4-1. The mere thought still induces goose bumps to this very day.
Steven Whittaker – for all his Premier League struggles of last season – should be an adept performer in the second tier and, while neither he nor Martin have the cavalier ability of Martin Olsson, both are equipped to provide a solid presence down the right side.
Adams may think one swashbuckling full-back is sufficient.
At left-back, assuming he stays, Olsson is a shoe-in although, unlike others, I have no problem with Javier Garrido as his deputy. I just have a niggle that the Swede remains on the radar of some of our Premier league friends and we may be the subject of one of those ‘too good to turn down’ offers. Let’s hope not.
In midfield, we currently usurp the Class of 2011 in terms of numbers. Whether we do so in terms of quality remains to be seen.
While the Lambert midfield would struggle to compete with the likes of Leroy Fer and Bradley Johnson in terms of athleticism and – certainly in the case of the latter – desire, only Surman comes close to David Fox if we’re talking quality of passing.
Given that Fox was allowed to depart the Fine City back in May, it seems Adams – who was once a self-confessed admirer – saw no room in the current midfield for one who, for all his exquisite passing ability, was occasionally perceived as a little lightweight. Or, to put it another way, one who was the very antithesis of the aforementioned Johnson.
Elsewhere across the midfield the current crop compares favourably. For Andrew Crofts read Jonny Howson.
But where they really excel is when it comes to pace. The diamond didn’t need, or at least rely, on ‘flyers’. The current squad has them in oodles.
Nathan Redmond, Elliott Bennett, the Murphys and even Anthony Pilkington, when those knees and ankles permit, can all put the hammer down when required. If fit and healthy they will offer something different. Something that was missing last season and was rarely seen in 2010/11.
Throw Hoolahan and Surman into that midfield mix and the permutations are numerous. With so many options available Adams’ biggest problem may be finding that right combination before the season starts.
The current striking options are also greater in number, but in terms of quality…
While it’s too early to judge the effectiveness of new signings – Lewis Grabban and Kyle Lafferty – in the yellow jersey, both have done more than enough previously, in the Championship, to suggest good things ahead. But we’ve been there before. The proof of the pudding etc
Equally if Gary Hooper is still a City player on August 10, there is every reason to believe he will give Championship defences a rough ride. A one in two goalscoring ratio at Scunthorpe suggests a 20 goal haul, with the wind in the right direction, is definitely within his grasp.
The big question is will he be here.
Ricky van Wolfswinkel is another who may fall into the Adams ‘enjoying it and wants to be part of it’ group. If so, for all his trials and tribulations of 2013/14, he should be equipped to do in the Championship what he did so successfully in the Eredivisie and the Primeira Liga.
Of course there is also Jamar Loza, who looks to be in Adams’ thoughts, and not forgetting one Luciano Becchio who has already proven himself in the English second tier with that team from Yorkshire.
Options aplenty. But would any of us swap them for Grant Holt and Simeon Jackson at their pomp?
So, how do the two squads compare?
As a list of names it’s difficult to argue against Adams’ current crop, but the ‘greater than the sum of its parts’ quality of the 2011 squad was what set it apart. That, and the liberal sprinkling of magic dust administered by Master Lambert.
If there is some left in the bowels of Colney let’s hope Neil stumbles upon it.
But, it’s almost upon us. Two weeks today and the Yellow Army will be Black Country bound.
And I can’t wait.
Stewart Lewis says
I fear one or two of the mentioned players will no longer be here come 10 August. As Gary says, though, that will still leave us plenty of options. The one I’m wrestling with is this: we have the makings of a sharp diamond (don’t we all love Wes when he’s firing?), and we also have turbo-charged wingers. Unless we can sneak 12 or 13 players onto the pitch, though, the two don’t mix. Do we commit to one approach as Plan A, or try to keep both as equal options?
Very good point by Gary about the diamond suiting Russ as a marauding full-back. Why didn’t we see that kind of intelligent analysis from the ITV/BBC pundits at the World Cup?
Ash Diback says
For the opening game of 2010-11 (Watford at home) it was;
Ruddy, Ward, Nelson, R. Martin, Crofts, Fox (Smith), Hoolahan, Surman, Jackson (Holt) and C. Martin.
My preferred start at Wolves would be;
Ruddy, Whittaker, Martin, Turner, Olsson, E. Bennett, Howson, Hoolahan, Redmond, Lafferty and Grabban…I’m assuming Fer and Hooper will not be around.
Conclusions: defence – much stronger this time, midfield – overall, current one just pips it for pace if not passing, and up front – the big unknown but I’m hopeful that the new boys will shine.
Holty and Jackson came up with a lot of 90+ goals back in the day which got us a lot of points. Hopefully the current class will have sewn the games up without needing to resort to such fingernail-chewing tactics. Wolves away is as tough as it gets for a kick off.
Of course the biggest difference maybe off the pitch i.e. the Lambert v Adams comparison – can Neil make the right choices/decisions at the right time (with so little experience) which Lambo clearly did?
Douglas Millar says
I agree with the assessments in the article and with the conclusion that the team has to perform better than the sum of its its parts.
My main concern is where the goals will come from. There would not have been a place a place for Grabban or Lafferty if City had stayed up. Hooper has not showed himself totally committed to the cause. And RvW is likely to go on loan if the opportunity arises.
The frequent talk about bids for Redmond is unsettling. Great strength in depth is fine provided players stay fit. But we all remember the injury to Eliot Bennett and the difficulties of Anthony Pilkington.
Lambert’s strenghth was to mould whatever players were available into a successful combination. Lets hope Neil Adams can do the same.
IMO, we will see more variations in formations under Adams, who has said he wants to keep the opposition guessing each week. I like the idea of dropping Elliot Bennett back to WB when the diamond is played, so that he and Olsson can maraud forward to provide width and pace to overpower stubborn defences. The one player we’ll miss from 2011 is Holt, but I think we now have more than enough to compensate for that. I’m feeling confident now.
Keith B says
The revival of Wes is very welcome but it is important for any of us, or even him, not to get too carried away.
As Stewart (1) says we all love Wes when he’s firing. Sometimes though he simply isn’t allowed to fire, which will be fine if that gives (say) Redmond more freedom on the wing.
So Adams needs to try to work out when to play Wes and when not, just as Lambert did (but Roeder and Hughton didn’t). And Wes needs to accept that he isn’t the right guy for every game.
I do not like the idea of Elliot Bennett as a wing back, can’t see him being defensively strong enough, not just in open play but also on set pieces.
Whilst we will miss Holt for his ability to go to war with centre backs early signs are that Lafferty has similar credentials; if there were odds for our first red card of the season I guess he’d be quite short-priced.
I think we have a very tough start to the season because as well as the first two away games Blackburn were on a roll in May and as far as I can see haven’t lost anyone significant from their squad.
I don’t expect a fast start, especially if the current spate of niggly injuries continues, which of course will mean those who didn’t want Adams in the first place could be calling for his head before the end of August.
But I like the way the squad is shaping up and even if we lost Olsson, Fer and Hooper (pocketing presumably £10-15m in the process, depending on clauses that may be in place) we would have the funds to replace them.
As in 2010-11 I think we will have a strong second half of the season and make play-offs or better.
With regard to Elliot Bennett as WB, we do lose some defensive qualities, but without him the diamond players severely lack pace (Olsson and Grabban the exceptions). IMO, the diamond will be used primarily against weaker teams with weaker wingers and FBs, when we are trying to break down stubborn defences.
Ash Diback - 2 says
On second thought, I may have been a bit cavalier with my line up for Wolves – E. Bennett or Redmond should probably be on the bench with Johnson starting to do the dirty work away from home. I know he’s a ‘marmite’ player but opening day of the season we should show a bit of restraint from the off. I’ll stick with my original line up for the Watford game…I’m getting stressed and I don’t have the pressure of making these choices!
Probably “better equipped”, yes, but it’s about the appetite of those who are here and whether they’re willing to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in for 46 games
Excellent piece Gary.
I remain ever the optimist and looking forward to a first look tomorrow evening.
Gordon in Oz says
Pretty good piece Garry..well done.
There is no doubt that Lambert is the missing piece because at this level we have nothing to compare against him with Neil Adams.
Lambert made some courageous decisions that paid off at the right time but he does not seem to have been quite so fortunate at Villa. Maybe Adams can have the same good fortune…especially given his stated desire to play a brand of football that, like Lambert, has us on the front foot as often as possible
Lafferty apparently is a nuisance in the Holt mould so his benefit may be not in scoring goals but upsetting the opposition so others can.
The next two friendlies should be great indicators. Now all I gave to do is work out how I can get coverage of the games from down-under.
Keith Kennedy says
Apart from Snodgrass who as we know has already gone I will
Stick to my original thoughts and say that I do. It think anyone else will go.arsenal Have got another goal keeper so the thoughts of Ruddy leaving have receded ( he was alwYs going to stay) the only one I worry a little about is Olsson Leroy Fer told me after the last game that he was stating and has since reiterated thT so no fears no more moves IMO
Ben K says
Somehow I can imagine the line-up against Wolves looking like this:
Ruddy; Olsson, R. Bennett, Martin, Whittaker; Johnson, Howson; Redmond, E Bennett, Hoolahan; Lafferty.
In a now slightly old fashioned 4-2-3-1. Solidity in midfield, pace on the wings and the trickery of Wes between them in behind the centre-forward.
Being gung-ho is all well and good, but we can’t afford to have two strikers on the pitch as well as Wes, who is something of a luxury player. It’s away from home too so there’s bound to be some restraint.
Dave B says
@10 Lambert’s impact at Villa is underrated. He took a team that was 2 pts off relegation and has improved on that each season. It’s widely accepted Villa don’t have the clout they used to, but steady continuous improvement wins the race in the Prem.
It’s sad to see so few members of the promoted team in the lineup. It’s also a shame that a lot of our current crop have never known that our team can play good football. Assuming Adams makes a good impact it will be interesting to see how many of our players can shine.
Stewart Lewis says
Always an interesting perspective from Dave B (13).
In his first season at Villa Lambert finished 15th with 41 points; in his second (ie last season) he finished 15th with 38 points. Villa fans don’t exactly see that as ‘steady continuous improvement’, especially with a wage bill in the top 10 of the Premiership. I couldn’t possibly comment, but Villa’s faithful aren’t entirely convinced.
Dave B says
@14 Both seasons were an improvement on when he took over. In his first season Villa spent a lot of time close to relegation but inevitably ended up with more points and clear of danger. In his second season they were never really at risk of relegation and had enough points by March to secure safety.
So I’d say that was an improvement.
Bob in Diss says
Re 14-15. Dave B’s assertion that Lambert’s time at Villa has been underrated is extraordinary. As Stewart pointed out, they went backwards last year and lost 10(!) home games – I’m amazed he’s still in that job. But for our generosity home and away and a jammy opening day win at Arsenal (before they’d signed Ozil), they would have been in the relegation soup.
And what of his ability to spot, sign and develop lower league talent? He’s signed Joe Cole and Philip Senderos this summer! If I was a Villa fan, I would be very anxious for next season.
Most curious of all though is the appointment of Roy Keane as his right-hand man! Place your bets on how long that relationship will last.
Dave B says
To clarify, they were not officially ‘secure from relegation’ in March. But as things turned out they ended March with 34 points. Enough to secure safety.
Alan Pratt says
It was ‘nice’ of the French boys to turn up last night and great to see us score goals but I’m worried that we’ve only had 1 competitive pre season game to date. The goal glut in July surely is fooling no one? A scrap or two at Peterborough or Colchester would have been time and money more wisely spent.
To dip my toe into the ‘Lambert can do no wrong – discuss’ thread, at the time we were showing Hughton the exit door, polls of Villa fans were showing 80-90% wanted PL sacked – I don’t think they see the ‘progression’. However, their board showed him faith and they survived while our rash reaction to fans’ outrage was rewarded with relegation – the irony is not lost.
Dave B says
@16 Bob in Diss
What was extraordinary to me was many Norwich fans assertions that Hughton was going to carry us forward as a club, despite a whole year of the most pitiful football ending in relegation. Even to the bitter end many unwilling to say ‘sack him’, rather ‘we should reevaluate in the summer’.
Yet, Villa were clear of relegation all last season and survived.
Compare the two situations, Hughton took over a good team with a stable board, stable finances, and players wanting to join. Lambert took over a lesser team to Hughton, with a non committed owner, players wanting to leave, much larger expectations, and leaking money.
I wonder how much more successful he is realistically expected to be until they have a new owner. Two or three more places higher at most I’d suggest.
The biggest challenge Adams faces is not recruiting or keeping talent (we have that in abundance), but undoing two years of damage and instilling a winning, attacking mindset back in the team that Lambert had drilled into them.
Bob in Diss - 2 says
Dave B. – we really should be focusing on the new, Adams era and not rattling old skeletons. However, with a 31% win ratio after 2 seasons at Villa, it is hard to make a positive case for Lambert – you were calling for Hughton’s head long before he plummed those depths.
We may have peaked under Lambert but I suspect he peaked with us – the next few months should resolve these pretty minor debates.
Stewart Lewis says
Well said, Bob (20). Dave B will continue to believe what he wants to believe; some of us will challenge his wilder untruths. But there’s a more relevant, important – and potentially exciting – era at City to focus on. Roll on 10 August!