A look ahead to Aston Villa's season under new boss Paul Lambert

Last Season: 16th
In: Ron Vlaar (£3.8m, Feyenoord), Matthew Lowton (£3.8m, Sheffield United), Katrim El Ahmadi (£2.8m, Feyenoord), Brett Holman (Free, AZ Alkmaar
Out: James Collins (£3.2m, West Ham), Carlos Cuellar (free, Sunderland), Emile Heskey (contract expired)

  

Villa fans will want to forget last season as quick as humanly possible as it was grim viewing. Poor at the back and toothless up front, especially when Darren Bent's ankle ligaments tore in late February. The club and owner Randy Lerner reacted quickly, dismissing Alex McLeish who, despite not deserving the lack of support many gave him, did not do enough to convince anyone that he could turn the club around.

The arrival of Paul Lambert will prove to be the most significant of any transfers the club completes between now and the start of the season. Lambert and Norwich were a revelation last season, finishing level on points with fellow newcomers Swansea and receiving half the credit. Lambert had led Norwich from League One to 12th in the Premier League in 3 seasons and Villa fans will be hoping he can perform more miracles with them.

The club has lost long serving players James Collins, Carlos Cuellar and Emile Heskey but it would be fair to say that none of them had their best days ahead of them. Indeed looking at Norwich's team the average age was consistently in the low 20s and Lambert will want to reinvigorate Villa by blooding more of the youngsters that the club's excellent academy produce. Players such as Barry Bannan, Chris Herd, Marc Albrighton, Gary Gardner and Nathan Delfouneso will all be given chances to impress.

Perhaps the biggest question is what Lambert does up front. Darren Bent's return to fitness will prove timely and if fit and motivated can be relied on for 15+ league goals. Gabriel Agbonlahor is an entirely different question, for whatever reason Agbonlahor's career has stagnated in recent years and it is hard to see what kind of player he is. If Lambert can reinvigorate the club captain then he will have access to a player who for all intents and purposes was AWOL for much of last season, if not then he will have to give serious consideration to letting him go.

Tactically Lambert was one of the league's more adventurous and astute bosses last year. He was able to change formations and tactics on a regular basis. He possessed strong and direct forwards (Holt and Morrison) who thrived on early service and crosses and also willing runners in Simeon Jackson and Wes Hoolahan. On paper Villa posses talented wingers too, but Albrighton and N'Zogbia both failed to shine last year.

For Villa this season will be very much one of transition as the club looks to finally move away from the Martin O'Neill years which delivered short term excitement but not a long term legacy, and towards a squad that is far younger and hungrier. Lambert will be expected to improve both results and performances and anything approaching upper mid table will be a success.

Predicted Finish: 11th
 
Key Man: Barry Bannan has made more headlines away from the pitch in recent years but that does not change the fact that the youngster is a very gifted player and the best passer of a ball that Villa possess. Lambert may well try and use him in the same way that he used Wes Hoolahan at Norwich and deploy him just behind the strikers.

Underrated: Not so much underrated as unknown but Dutch international Ron Vlaar is certainly an upgrade from James Collins as a centre back. Physically powerful he will have no trouble adjusting to the Premier League although he does have the tendency to get caught of position. His partnership with Richard Dunne will be vital to the club's hopes. 


One to Watch: Given the number of youth products blooded last season one could choose any number of players here but I've plumped for Nathan Delfouneso. An England U21, he is still very raw but does have excellent movement which was a trademark of Norwich's strikers last term. Expect to see him given more chances alongside Darren Bent.