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Aug 6, 2014

Lessons learned from Villa's preseason

The ESPN FC crew previews the Villans' season as they hope to avoid flirting with relegation for a fifth consecutive year.

Villa's preseason has been a mixed bag in terms of results, earning victories over Mansfield, FC Dallas, Houston Dynamo and Walsall; while suffering defeats to Chesterfield and Groningen. At this time of year, with manager Paul Lambert taking the opportunity to use as many of his players as possible, the true state of the team can be difficult to interpret. Nevertheless, there are notable lessons we can learn from Villa's preseason so far.

Out with the new, in with the old

Lambert wasn't merely paying lip service to journalists when, at the start of the summer, he told them that all members of the squad were starting with a clean slate. It's as if the Villa manager has wound the clock back two years. Shay Given, Alan Hutton and Darren Bent have all been fully involved in the preseason fixtures -- Hutton, in particular, has been playing like a man who desperately wants the shirt -- while four players Lambert himself signed have been loaned out. Nicklas Helenius, Antonio Luna and Yacouba Sylla have all agreed season-long loans elsewhere, and there's a fair chance none of them will play for Villa again. Goalkeeper Jed Steer, meanwhile, probably does have a future, but the next three months of his career will be spent at Doncaster Rovers.

It's all been rather surreal to observe, this U-turn in Lambert's thinking, an admission that he's made errors of judgement in the past two years. With Aleksandar Tonev expected to leave too, it's almost as if the bulk of last year's transfer activity didn't take place at all.

Enjoy Joe Cole when you can

Round One goes to all those who scoffed at the signing of Joe Cole, dismissing him as injury-prone and past it. Cole appeared in Villa's opening friendly of the summer, at Mansfield, before picking up a thigh injury. He hasn't played since. At 32 years old, the playmaker should still, in theory, have a good two or three seasons left in him, but there's a nagging worry that his fitness could be a real issue. The club is crossing its fingers that he can remain available for the majority of the season -- if Cole can rediscover anywhere near his vintage best, he could give Villa's attacking play a new dimension.

Charles N'Zogbia can make a major impact

After a season's absence because of an Achilles injury, Charles N'Zogbia is one of a handful of Villa players to have returned to the squad following a lengthy period of rehabilitation. The attacking midfielder has shown well over the series of friendlies, scoring excellent free kicks against both Dallas and Groningen. The Frenchman's inconsistency means he may not be a regular starter but Lambert should balance out his occasional anonymity against his ability to win matches. Lambert's pragmatic nature suggests N'Zogbia may spend more time coming off the bench than starting, which would be a shame.

Jack Grealish has a chance

The permanent departure of Samir Carruthers to MK Dons was a timely reminder that even the brightest of Villa's youth prospects aren't guaranteed a successful transition to the first team. Carruthers, a technically smart midfielder, didn't actually make a competitive appearance under Lambert. All eyes are now on Jack Grealish, who is arguably the most exciting individual to progress through the Villa ranks in a generation.

Two-footed, beautiful balance, unerring close control and vision, and soaked in confidence, Grealish is a lovely player to watch. He's young, but not too young, turning 19 in September, and he's done well in preseason. He was part of the squad that went to the USA, and scored in the defeat at Chesterfield.

"He's done his chances no harm," commented Lambert. Another loan spell away with the club is an option, of course, but it would be a hugely unpopular one -- this lad has magic in his boots and would probably stick another 5,000 on the Villa Park attendance if he got a run in the first team.

Goals will be hard to come by

Villa could really struggle for goals for the first couple of months of the season, at least until Christian Benteke and Libor Kozak are back in action. Without the pair, the options aren't appealing. Lambert will rely on Gabby Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann, who scored nine goals in 67 league games between last season. Neither have been in prolific form during preseason.

Aston Villa will struggle to replace Christian Benteke's production while the Belgian recovers from his knee injury.

The return of Bent could be crucial, although he missed the 1-0 win over Walsall with a knee injury, which Lambert will be praying is just a short-term knock. Callum Robinson, meanwhile, has been used sparingly. In Villa's three most recent friendlies, the team scored three times and none came from strikers.

Left-back might still be a problem

Lambert has signed four left-backs in his time at Villa, including last season's loanee Ryan Bertrand, and used at least three more players (Ciaran Clark, Nathan Baker, Enda Stevens) in that role. New signing Kieran Richardson is expected to be Villa's first-choice left-back, but the former Fulham man has been used in a variety of roles during preseason, and somewhat surprisingly, against Groningen it was Clark who started at left-back.

Joseph Bennett and Stevens, now back in the frame, have both played there during the friendly fixtures so, depending on how you choose to look at it, Villa either have a wealth of options here, or Lambert isn't satisfied with any of those players. The best alternative would be Richardson at left wing-back in a 3-5-2 formation, but Saturday's home friendly against Parma should provide a clearer idea of Lambert's thinking.

There really is no money for players

With August ticking along and the start of the season fast approaching, it's becoming apparent that there isn't going to be a secret transfer fund for Lambert to tap into, no matter how urgently Villa need two or three quality additions. If the Villa manager can move one or two of his current squad on, he may have room for a couple of new faces, but it's highly unlikely he'll have the budget available to bring in the kind of quality to lift his team to the next level. It's been a quiet preseason on that front for Villa, and the rest of August won't be much different.

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