Ashley Young celebrates
As far as the game went, Villa started well for a side that had been drubbed 7-1 by Chelsea just two weeks before the reunion at Wembley. They controlled much of the possession through the first quarter-hour, a spell that culminated in Gabriel Agbonlahor’s chance in the 16th minute.
Who knows what might have happened had he scored, or had referee Howard Webb signalled a penalty. John Obi Mikel’s challenge on the Villa striker was a blatant foul inside the box, a clear infraction if there ever was one.
Of course, it’s easy to criticize Webb’s poor judgment; it’s somewhat more difficult to admit that Agbonlahor’s opportunity was one of the few Villa created that put direct pressure on Chelsea goalkeeper Peter Cech. For all their enterprise, for all their huffing and puffing, Villa did very little that actually threatened Cech and the Chelsea defence.
This is where Young comes in. He played a decent enough semi-final in what has been a superb season. And at 24, he has been fully worth the nearly £10 million paid for him in 2007. Even that might be an understatement. I don’t think it would be at all nefarious to suggest that Young has been Aston Villa’s best player, and one of England’ best wingers, since his move to Villa Park. So why sell him? How about for all the reasons just mentioned?
Barcelona and Real Madrid are reportedly tracking the player, as will Bayern Munich as soon as Franck Ribery leaves Bavaria. They’re certainly not alone. Young is a hot commodity at the moment, and Martin O’Neill could probably fetch as much as £25 million for him this summer.
That money, in turn, could be used to bolster Villa’s central midfield corps. Say what you will about the uselessness of Emile Heskey or the lack of depth at defence, the club’s most pressing problem is in the centre of the park.
The match against Chelsea was case in point. After the Agbonlahor foul, all Villa could muster were crosses from wide areas and the odd counter-attack. Some of this was down to Chelsea’s strength down the middle, but most of it can be chalked up to Villa’s lack of it.
For the money gained from selling Young, coupled with whatever investment Randy Lerner is prepared to make, O’Neill could bring in one, two or even three midfielders with passing ability, physical presence and a willingness play directly at the opposition. Stewart Downing could move back to his preferred spot on the left, and James Milner could line up on the right, where he was so effective earlier in the season. You’d lose something in a man-for-man replacement of Downing for Young, but you’d more than make up for it by strengthening the team’s spine.
Young’s sale would also spell the end of an irritating stereotype: that Villa are a predominantly counter-attacking side. Mind you, it’s been an accurate pigeonhole for the past few years, and weakness in the centre of the park is mostly to blame.
Think about it. When the central players are ineffective, the ball is consistently played out wide where a streaking winger will pick it up and take it down the flank. It’s the blueprint of a counter-attack, and it’s how Villa go about the majority of their games.
It needn’t be so. Yes, selling Young would be difficult, but it would hardly be a concession of defeat. Rather, it would be a signal from management that a problem has been identified and the necessary, albeit painful, remedy has been applied.