Aston Villa’s win over Blackburn in the League Cup was yet another step forward as the club that came so close to upsetting the ‘Top Four’ last season seeks finish the job this time round. Gareth Barry left Villa over the summer as he felt that Manchester City stood a better chance of qualifying for the Champions League, though many felt the move was motivated by money. Barry’s decision may have been the correct one as City look increasingly impressive under Roberto Mancini but what of the club that he left behind? Villa look as strong an outfit this season as last; so have they really missed their former captain?
Barry was one of Villa’s standout performers last season; despite intense speculation linking him with a move to Liverpool and a rift with the manager that led to him being removed as captain, he maintained a high level of performance throughout the season. With Villa he was more attacking central midfielder than he is now; he was the creative influence in the centre of the pitch and many of their attacks began with him on the ball.
This season, Villa lacked this in the early part of the season as the likes of Steve Sidwell and Fabian Delph struggled to match Barry’s dynamic performances. Though Villa’s results were good; their football did not flow as easily and though Stiliyan Petrov did what he could; he lacked the physical presence of Barry in the attacking third. At this point in the season, Barry was playing poorly for Manchester City so it could be said that both the player and the club were struggling to adapt to life without the other.
Stewart Downing’s return to fitness has changed Villa’s season as his availability has allowed James Milner to move into central midfield. Milner is a wonderful player who continues to improve; his natural talent combined with his work-rate make him perfectly suited to a role in the centre of midfield. Over the course of the season so far, he has been one of the most impressive performers in the country and has seemingly guaranteed himself a spot in Capello’s World Cup squad. His move to the centre has infused Villa with real drive and creativity, adequately replacing Gareth Barry.
Barry has regained his form in recent weeks, and though he is limited to a more defensive role with City, he is still a dominant player in midfield. There is no doubt that Villa would be a better team with Barry in the side (a midfield three consisting of Barry, Milner and Petrov would give any side problems), but Villa’s strong performances over the course of the season and Milner’s emergence have meant that they have not been too badly affected by his departure.