When he was the Latics’ talisman, the Wiganers paid tribute to Joy Division by declaring how the opposition would be torn apart by Charles. Often, this claim turned out to be correct, and I couldn’t help but think as his free-kick curled majestically past Jussi Jaaskelainen on Sunday afternoon that maybe, his Aston Villa career could be blossoming at just the wrong time.
Let’s rewind two years to the relegation run in of 2011, when N’Zogbia’s stand out individual performances almost singlehandedly kept Wigan afloat. Without him, I’m fairly sure we would have been relegated that season, even with the attacking talent of Rodallega, Moses, Cleverley and erm… Boselli to back him up. N’Zogbia was the one Wigan player whose cutting edge and ability to play in a much more talented team was evident. He stood head and shoulders above the rest so it was no surprise when he left the club in the summer, his destination though was slightly more shocking.
After Roberto Martinez transformed N’Zogbia into one of the most dangerous wingers in the league by switching him from the left to the right wing when he took over in 2009, Charles’ natural dribbling flair and goal scoring ability was really emphasised. After scoring spectacular goals against Liverpool, Arsenal and of course, that unbelievable brace against West Ham, many potential suitors were being mooted. Would it be Liverpool? Juventus Maybe? What about a surprise contender such as Everton or Tottenham? Many eyebrows were raised when the news came through that Charles had moved to Aston Villa, who had only finished seven points ahead of ‘minnows’ Wigan and had suffered at the hands of Gerard Houllier’s questionable management skills. The appointment of Alex McLeish, who had relegated neighbours Birmingham City, did little to improve the mood at Villa Park.
Don’t get me wrong, Aston Villa are undoubtedly a bigger club than Wigan with a greater history and of course, attendances. However, after Charles’ performances for us the previous year, I would still argue a top 8 club should have taken a gamble on him, and an arguable ‘gamble’ at that. Clearly he had the ability, maybe his attitude put off potential buyers. Although Villa were a top 6 club under Martin O’Neill, they’ve nose dived in recent seasons and are now a genuine relegation rival to Wigan. I can’t help but think that losing N’Zogbia to them has given them a great advantage for the run in.
Charles may not have yet reproduced his imperial Latics form in a Villa shirt, with a difficult first season followed by injuries and a reluctance of Paul Lambert to play anyone under the age of 21 hampering him this term. Now though, he is finally getting his chance, and in a dangerous position too, just behind the beast that is Christian Benteke in a classic ‘number 10’ role.
I always thought that Charles’ quiet Villa career would be too good to be true and now maybe that’ll turn out to be the case. He tormented West Ham’s defence on Sunday to earn Villa a vital 2-1 victory. He was a clear man of the match after earning a penalty and scoring a superb free kick which wasn’t dissimilar from the one he scored for Latics against West Ham in May 2011.
The aforementioned attacking threat Villa posses does worry me slightly. Although I don’t rate them highly as a collective team due to their inexperience defensively but going forward, a team with Benteke, N’Zogbia, Weimann and Agbonlahor, plus a temperamental Darren Bent has the potential to cause real problems. In a relegation fight, scoring goals is crucial, as we’ve experienced in the past, if those five players can start finding the net for Villa then they could really start causing headaches for the other clubs down there.
So I guess my question now is: who is our new N’Zogbia? Do we have a player capable of playing the role he did in 2011 and digging us out of trouble?
The obvious candidate is Shaun Maloney, ironically a former Villa player. For me, he’s our most technically gifted player and is one of the few with an innate ability to unlock defences. Whether it’s with a swift stepover or with a defence splitting pass, Maloney can create a goal from very little. He is indeed one of our few players in good form, with two goals in his last two matches. If there’s one player whose individual ability can make a difference, then it has to be Shaun. Indeed, Aiden McGeady would have been another candidate for this role had his move been completed on deadline day.
A possible wildcard for the role is Arouna Kone. The African Cup Of Nations may have been a frustrating experience for all parties as Wigan lost a key player whilst he sat on the bench for his country as they lost in the semi-finals. It may however act as a blessing in disguise if Kone returns revitalised from his rest and as the unknown quantity that served him so well early in the season. Arouna certainly has the pace to trouble defences and his unpredictability may just work in our favour. Although he has only scored a modest five goals so far, including two consolation goals against Fulham and West Brom, N’Zogbia had only scored three league goals by February 2011.
I’m not prepared to throw the towel in just yet and accept the fate the media has tried to impose on us for years now. I am concerned by our performances, but no more so than I was at this stage last season. Although another miraculous escape would be a big ask, the run in this season does look slightly more favourable, but would still require a dramatic improvement in form to beat the drop. As a club though, we’ve shown that high pressure brings out the best performances and I hope that’s the case again when the real run in starts in a few weeks time.
To conclude, maybe N’Zogbia will have a big say in this season’s relegation battle, especially when Villa face Wigan on the final day of the season. Indeed, Charles may get injured for the rest of the season in his next game, such is the unpredictability of the relegation battle. What is evident though, is that Charles seems to play best when he’s the main attacking threat; put simply: a big fish in a small pond, which makes you wonder why he left the DW in the first place…
The potential scenario of N’Zogbia sending us down is too painful to warrant a second thought, but wouldn’t it be typical if the club’s tendency to ‘not stand in the way of players leaving’ came back to haunt us?