Dead rubber. I mean really, what is there to say anymore at this point? Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa play each other this weekend in a match that, ultimately, doesn't matter. Oh, sure, if Villa punk Spurs and United go HAM perhaps they could pip into sixth and nab that last Europa spot. But really? Meh.
But I love talking to other fans about football, especially our sibling sites at SB Nation, so I reached out to 7500 to Holte, our lovely neighbors in the Aston Villa wing of the SB Nation Soccer headquarters. Aaron Campeau graciously agreed to answer some questions about Villa's nightmare season for me, and I did the same over there for him.
Uncle Menno: The injury situation at Villa right now would be hilarious if it weren't so dire. N'Zobgia, Benteke, Agbonlahor, Kozak, Okore... OMG the horror. Is this a "lost season" due to all the injuries, and can you say with any certainty that this was the contributing factor to Villa's underperformance this year?
Aaron Campeau: It's still kind of hilarious, as are a lot of ostensibly bad things about following this team. Okore and Benteke are the ones that hurt the most; Okore was by far the most exciting signing of the summer and looked like he could have been team's best CB in his (incredibly brief) playing time before the injury, while Benteke is pretty much the only player that can be reliably depended on to score goals on the entire squad. Kozak was solidly #2 behind Benteke in terms of the depth chart, but his absence has really been felt during Benteke's latest absence.
I definitely think the injuries have been a factor, especially down the stretch where Villa somehow willed their way back into the relegation battle. Benteke is by far the most special player on the team, and without him there's not really anything that separates Villa from the Cardiffs or Norwich Cities of the world. But injuries are always going to be a factor, and the way that the squad has been constructed makes Villa especially susceptible to them; I'm willing to admit that Lambert has had to endure a lot of bad luck this season, but the way he spent over the summer didn't do him any favors.
UM: Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure the Villa faithful weren't predicting a relegation battle when they hired Paul Lambert from Norwich a couple years back. How much of Villa's struggles this season can be pinned on Paul Lambert? Should he be replaced this summer, and with who?
AC: In general, I think that Villa fans were pretty understanding about last season. There was grumbling-especially after the League Cup semifinal loss to Bradford City-but in general people seemed to understand what Lambert was trying to do and appreciated how difficult it was. And towards the end of the year, Villa were playing some really entertaining football and looked ready to take a major step forward. The way they started this season seemed like further evidence that real progress was being made.
And then, for whatever reason, Villa regressed. Heavily. They weren't just losing, they were playing awful, boring football that was every bit as bad as the football played under Alex McLeish. There was the odd encouraging performance-mostly against top-four teams, bizarrely-but in general it was just miserable. Lambert's hinted that there were things happening behind the scenes that contributed to Villa's struggles, but without specifics it's hard to say whether or not there's something to that or just a convenient excuse.
With all of that said, I don't really see the point in sacking Lambert. He was given the near-impossible task of completely rebuilding the squad from the ground up with a very strict wage budget and pretty meager transfer funds. He's slashed the wage budget, brought in some decent young players that will likely have decent Premier League careers, and hit the lottery with Benteke (and perhaps Okore.) That he's managed to keep Villa in the top flight is genuinely impressive. He's made mistakes and it's hard to see him being the man to restore Villa to its former glory respectability, but he's done pretty much all he's been asked. If Lerner's sticking around and prepared to spend again, it would be a pretty classless move to sack Lambert and it's pretty hard to see the club doing much better in any case.
UM: To keep this string of depressing questions going, there are rumors circulating about Aston Villa owner Randy Lerner being "desperate" (according to the Mail) to sell the club. Think it'll happen? On a scale of Vincent Tan to Roman Abramovich, what kind of owner would you like to see take over operations at Villa?
AC: At this point I'm leaning 75/25 that Lerner will sell. A lot of things have happened in his personal life over the last few years and he's apparently not able to spend nearly as much time in England as he used to, and it certainly seems as though he's either unwilling or unable to invest as much in the squad as he was when he first bought the club. The last few years of belt-tightening, debt forgiveness and clear out of highly-paid players certainly look like preparation for a sale, but there's likely some confirmation bias at play there as well. In any case, something has to change for Villa this summer. The current situation just isn't tenable for too much longer.
If there is a change in ownership, my hope would be that Villa is purchased by the wealthiest person possible that isn't an outwardly reprehensible human being. As much as everyone likes a great story of a less-than-loaded club doing things "the right way" it's just almost impossible to be relevant in the Premier League without spending a ton of money. People can talk about clubs buying their trophies all they want; in the end, it doesn't change the fact that they won them.
UM: This being the last match of the season for both clubs, it's a bit of a dead rubber game. What, if anything, are you hoping to see against Spurs this Saturday? Go for glory and/or highest possible table standing? Play the kids? Recall the Powerhouse from Australia somehow and chuck him on?
AC: I want to see the kids. I'm not really concerned about table position, and it's not like Villa have a whole lot of pride to salvage at this point. Jack Grealish and Callum Robinson are both exciting prospects that have been given brief cameos this season, and it would be great to see what they could do with a full game. Nicklas Helenius has been a Villa player all season, but he hasn't really been seen since getting pantsed by Jan Vertonghen back in September.
In general, I'm just ready to see new players. This team is bad and boring and it would be nice if they were bad and boring with some different guys out there.
UM: On a related and somewhat silly note, Emilie Heskey is just the best, isn't he? Who would win between Emile Heskey and a hurricane? What if the hurricane were named Hurricane Heskey?
AC: I love Emile Heskey and will always love Emile Heskey. He was a legitimately excellent player in his prime and criminally underrated well into the latter stages of his Premier League career, and Villa could really use a player like him right now.
I wouldn't really worry about Hurricane Heskey, though. It would aim itself towards Florida and end up 5,000 miles off course without ever doing any real harm.
UM: As an American, I'll admit to not really having my finger on the pulse of the average British soccer fan, but I've always had a rather soft spot in my heart for Aston Villa. What do Villa supporters think of Tottenham Hotspur? Are Spurs evil, paragons of virtue, or just another big club that tries to steal all your players?
AC: I don't really have anything against Tottenham, though I'm not really your typical Villa fan; they seem to hate pretty much every other club. Spurs do annoy me a bit, though it's not really their fault; 5 years ago Villa were right there with them, and it was a bit of a race to see who could establish themselves as a Champions League caliber club and break up the top-four monotony. The clubs were pretty comparable in terms of size and historical success, and it really seemed like one of them were right on the verge of breaking through. Spurs got there first of course and though they haven't been able to crack the top-four again they're a well-run club that's always right on the edge of Champions League qualification and are globally relevant. Villa, meanwhile, are horrible. So that stings a bit.
UM: What do you expect from Villa this summer in the transfer window? What areas do you need to address in order to improve the side?
AC: I expect them to spend significantly more than they have in the past few windows, whether that's in the form of transfer fees or taking on bigger contracts. They pretty much have to; there are plenty of promising players in the academy but none of them are likely to make a major impact next season, and there's just far too much riding on next season to take a risk on players that aren't proven at very high levels. Ligue 2 midfielders and Ekstraklasa wingers just aren't going to cut it.
In terms of which areas of the squad need improvement, "all of them" probably isn't especially helpful, but it's not really inaccurate. Villa are set at goalkeeper and probably fine at striker, but they could use upgrades everywhere. Left back is a major concern if Ryan Bertrand doesn't make a permanent move and another legitimate starting center back would be a massive help, while Villa's complete and total lack of quality wing play was a constant source of frustration this season. More than anything though, Villa have to upgrade central midfield. Fabian Delph had an excellent breakout season, but he's the only starting-quality CM on the squad, and though he does a lot of great things he's not really a creator or a destroyer; Villa desperately need one of each.
UM: I'd normally ask for a score prediction, but really, who cares at this point? Let me close by asking: what are your hopes and dreams for Aston Villa next season?
AC: Actual, measurable progress. Villa's a club that's big enough to be pushing for Europe every year and to view FA and League Cup wins as realistic goals, but they've fallen so far that it's going to take a few years to re-establish that level. It looked for a few months as though that was going to happen this year, but at this point it's unlikely Villa will end up matching their points total from last season; that just can't happen again, because there's no acceptable excuse for it and the fans aren't going to stand for it.
Aaron Campeau is co-manager of 7500 to Holte, SB Nation's excellently run Aston Villa blog. On behalf of the writing staff of Cartilage Free Captain, I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Aaron for this exchange, and to say that you're all awesome people and this season was a train wreck and none of you deserve all this pain. Follow Aaron at @aaroncampeau.