Blog by: My Old Man Said
“He’s got great talent, he can pass the the ball, he covers the ground, he loves to tackle,” enthused Simon Grayson as he spoke to the BBC about a teenager making a big impression at Leeds United. “He’s a young kid so he’s going to go through ups and downs in his career, but the lad’s got huge talent.”
Simon Grayson’s comments regarding Fabian Delph in March 2009 were remarkably prescient. To say that Delph has experienced ups and downs since joining Aston Villa would be something of an understatement.
In recent months, however, the Bradford-born midfielder has emerged as one of Paul Lambert’s most important players.
Martin O’Neill took Fabian Delph to Aston Villa in August 2009, when he was an 19-year-old starlet. At the time, Manchester United, Everton, Manchester City, Tottenham, Arsenal, and Newcastle had all shown interest in the youngster before Leeds eventually agreed to sell their prized asset to Aston Villa for an estimated £8m. Leeds chairman Ken Bates praised the manner of Villa’s approach for Delph, and it was perhaps this respectful approach which helped Villa secure the player ahead of other interested clubs.
Managers who had circled the Leeds youngster took note of Delph’s authoritative all-action style as he played 42 games for Leeds United during the 2008/2009 season. All six of Delph’s goals that year were eye-catching, particularly his brace against Walsall where the youngster made strong, lung-bursting runs from midfield and confidently struck home from distance. Gary McAllister, who would later work with Delph again under Gerard Houllier, predicted a bright future, “Fabian Delph has come through our academy and is an exciting talent as well as being very competitive. He is a natural footballer.”
Following Delph’s arrival at Villa, he made his debut against Fiorentina on 8 August 2009 when Villa beat the Viola 1–0. The teenager showed glimpses of his natural attacking instincts as he confidently surged forward and unleashed several stinging shots towards goal. It was a performance that showed the player’s exuberance and tenacity, but unfortunately the development of Delph was stunted in his debut season due to a lack of first team football.
In 2009, Martin O’Neill was attempting to build a squad capable of qualifying for the Champions League and it appeared that the Villa manager saw Delph as a player for the future, rather than a player for the present. In the 2009-10 season, Delph made only nine starts for the club, five of which came in Cup competitions. Frustratingly for Delph, Martin O’Neill didn’t believe in rotation and the youngster found that his path to the first team was blocked by players such as Milner, Petrov, Reo-Coker, Gardner and Sidwell.
In terms of Delph’s development, a pattern emerged during Martin O’Neill’s four years at the club, in that he never really attached much importance to the position of defensive midfield, and instead preferred to share out defensive duties, or muddle through by converting a long list of players to play the position.
An example of O’Neill’s tinkering came after Stiliyan Petrov’s first season at the club where Petrov struggled in the attacking-midfield role. Villa had invested £7m on a player who had scored freely for Celtic, but following Petrov’s move to England, the Bulgarian found it difficult to cope with the pace of the Premier League. In subsequent seasons, Petrov was re-deployed in other central midfield roles aided by Nigel Reo-Coker who was meant to add strength and legs to Villa’s midfield. Unfortunately, the former West Ham midfielder lacked skill and tactical discipline and Reo-Coker frequently voiced his discontent at playing defensive-midfield rather than his preferred box-to-box midfield position.
Many Premier League clubs were using a player in the Makelele role, where teams fielded a defensive midfielder who could win the ball cleanly and swiftly distribute possession to a team mate. Martin O’Neill, however, was fairly dismissive of modern football trends and preferred to play with a two-man midfield without assigning specific holding duties to any player. Petrov and Barry, for instance, were competent when in possession but lacked mobility. Milner and Petrov were slightly better due to Milner’s selfless running, but following the departures of Barry and Milner, Steve Sidwell failed to make an impact at the club and Villa were again forced to rebuild the midfield following a high turnover of players.
Months of frustration during the 2009-2010 season saw Fabian Delph earn the reputation of a hard man in training due to his spiky tackles and tenacious appetite. Martin O’Neill had identified technical flaws in Delph’s game which the coaches sought to correct at Bodymoor Heath, “He can learn, because his body is open up to injury and the slightest awkward turn and twist could mean he will do himself some damage,” O’Neill told the Birmingham Mail in February 2010.
Regrettably, O’Neill’s advice was not heeded by an over-eager Delph who then ruptured his cruciate ligament a few months later and was removed from the training ground on a stretcher. The youngster’s painful experience was something he was unlikely to forget as he remained injured for the next eight months. Oscar Wilde once said that, “experience is simply the name we give our mistakes” and Delph’s mistake might have been avoided had he only listened to Martin O’Neill’s advice. In any event, the painful error proved to be a harsh lesson in the youngster’s development as Delph remained plagued by injuries for the next two seasons.
Delph’s woes continued under Gerard Houllier when he broke down with an injury against Manchester City early in the season. Alex McLeish then arrived in the summer of 2011 and Delph was keen to enjoy an injury-free campaign,“It has been up and down for me since I joined Villa, but I’ve stayed positive and I think I’ve got stronger mentally,” the midfielder said.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Delph looked rusty on his return to action under McLeish, and Villa fans feared that a yellow card was never too far away as the 21-year-old midfielder continued to make impetuous and rash challenges. McLeish had praised Chris Herd early in the season who he saw as a dynamic option in midfield and it was clear that McLeish didn’t fully trust Delph. McLeish eventually decided to loan Delph to Leeds after the player had fallen down the pecking order in central midfield behind Herd, Clark and even Heskey. Delph joined Leeds in the January transfer window after only 10 Premier League appearances under McLeish.
Paul Lambert therefore inherited a dejected and football-starved Fabian Delph in the summer of 2012, and many Villa fans were uncertain whether the player still had a future at the club. The rehabilitation of Fabian Delph under Lambert began languidly as Aston Villa made a dire start to the 2012-13 season where Delph featured intermittently.
Paul Lambert began experimenting with the central midfield positions soon after he arrived at the club in order to find the best combination. Delph (19 appearances), Herd (9 appearances), Westwood (28 appearances), Bannan (18 appearances), Holman (16 appearances), Ireland (9 appearances) and Karim El Ahmadi (12 appearances) were all given the opportunity to impress, before the manager settled on a more regular combination of Ashley Westwood and either Delph or Bannan (and later Yacouba Sylla).
Delph did not convince his many doubters in early matches under Lambert, particularly after a stale performance against Norwich where Villa drew 1–1 at home. Delph looked stiff, one-footed and unable to move the ball forward. In addition, the midfielder seemed reluctant to make any runs or break through the lines. Fans wondered whether the exciting box-to-box midfielder who Villa had bought from Leeds would ever regain his joie de vivre.
Barry Bannan then kept Delph out of the Villa team in a spirited 1-1 away draw at Newcastle United which lifted Villa out of the relegation places. Delph was forced to bide his time as Bannan continued to play well against Swansea in Villa’s 2–0 home win. Paul Lambert then suffered a humiliating away defeat to Southampton, where Villa lost 4 -1 to the newly promoted team. With a League Cup game next on the horizon, Lambert was able to give Delph and the other Villa substitutes a chance to play as Villa travelled away to Manchester City. Surprisingly, Villa emerged with a 4–2 victory in which Delph impressed along with Gabby.
Delph’s performance against Manchester City in a close 1–0 league loss marked a personal turning point in his season. He was dominant, authoritative, bossy and passed the ball well. Lambert was quick to praise the youngster after the match, “He is playing extremely well. His level of performance in games is extremely high.”
Villa fans didn’t really see the real Fabian Delph however until around February 2013 when Lambert began playing a 4-3-3 formation with Sylla tasked to sit behind Delph and Westwood. Delph started looking like a £8m player again as he tackled, passed and barked out orders from Villa’s midfield. Sylla’s inclusion allowed Delph to drive the team forward, and Delph’s former inhibition as a defensive midfielder was replaced by a more daring and confident performance as a box-to-box midfielder.
Statistically, Delph retained the best pass success rate out of any Aston Villa player during the 2012-13 season with an 88% success rate, which was 33rd in the Premier League rankings below Michael Carrick. In addition, out of all the players in the Premier League who had attempted 20 dribbles, Delph had the best success rate with 85%. The midfielder certainly dazzled in the second half of the 2012-13 season and his performances in the 2013-14 season have, so far, been even better.
Fabian Delph is now looking like a £30m player rather than a £8m player as he has emerged from three matches against Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool with considerable credit. At the age of 23, there is a lot more to expect from him, such as increasing his attempts on goal and gaining composure in the final third of the pitch, and whilst Delph is now making interceptions, dribbles, and controlling the midfield, what really impressed me against Liverpool was his close control and calmness when surrounded by opponents. The young midfielder adeptly managed to twist and turn away from Liverpool players and start attacks for Villa whilst drawing opponents out of position. It was the sort of thing I expect to see from top class players like Sergio Busquets rather than Fabian Delph.
Against Chelsea, the youngster was imperious. He had the most successful dribbles – 3, recovered most balls – 9, made the most interceptions – 4, and also made the most successful tackles – 5. Delph’s scintillating start to the season continued against Liverpool where he collected the most interceptions – 6 and had the most passes in the final third – 14.
It’s fair to say that Delph was man of the match in the games against Liverpool and Chelsea and should the young midfielder continue his early season form then Villa have a top player in the making.