A swivel of the hips to evade danger in the midst of a congested midfield, an explosive and unexpected surge forwards, a 30 yard cross-field run to offer a teammate an option: Yes, all the signs are there.
Fabian Delph is becoming the kind of midfielder he once threatened to be.
Some would argue that it’s not before time. Before completing his £8 million move to Aston Villa in August 2009, Delph had become a regular in Simon Grayson’s Leeds United side despite his tender years, and the 19-year-old had broken through into Stuart Pearce’s England under-21 squad, where he won four caps.
Delph’s performances that season for Grayson’s promotion chasing Leeds United side saw the burgeoning midfielder nominated for League One Player of the Year award, as well as claiming the Young Player of the Year award at the Football League Awards. Within the club, Delph’s achievements were recognised with three prizes at the club’s own annual ceremony, where he was awarded the titles of Fan’s Player of the Year and Players’ Player of the Year, as well as collecting the trophy for Leeds United’s goal of the season for a long range curling effort against Brighton and Hove Albion.
Such was the quality of Delph’s performances that then Leeds United chairman Ken Bates was forced to reject a series of bids from Premiership clubs, including Arsenal, during the January transfer window for his newest talent, dismissing the approaches as simply being “petty cash.”
Failure to gain automatic promotion at the first attempt following their relegation from the Championship however left Leeds United facing Millwall in the playoff semi-final, where a late Jimmy Abdou goal at Elland Road was enough to hand the visitors at 2-1 aggregate victory that left Leeds United languishing in the third tier, and forced Bates to consider offers for his prized asset.
Aston Villa, meanwhile, were coming to terms with the loss of Gareth Barry, the midfield stalwart and fans favourite of eleven years who had been lured by newly cash-happy Manchester City. Martin O’Neill had targeted Delph as a possible replacement, and lodged an early offer which threatened to start a bidding war, until Bates assured O’Neill that no other offers were being considered. Leeds United even took the unusual step of issuing a statement praising Aston Villa’s conduct in their pursuit of Delph. “We can confirm a fee has been agreed with Aston Villa for Fabian Delph and wish to place on record our appreciation for the honourable manner in which they have conducted their interest in the player,” the statement read.
With the deal done, Delph looked set to make a strong start at Villa Park, making his Premier League debut in the 2009/10 season opener at home against Wigan Athletic. However as the season rolled on he found his playing time limited, his best position not immediately obvious to O’Neill who was also often unwilling to rotate, before a serious cruciate ligament injury suffered in April 2010 derailed his progress further.
In the seasons that followed Delph became something of a forgotten man, plagued by injury and dismissed by some as a relic of the O’Neill years, not obviously compatible with the club’s transition from chasing Champions League football to battling for Premier League survival. Loaned back to Leeds United in January 2012 in an effort to jump start his now stifled development, Delph again suffered injury, this time an ankle problem that kept him out for the rest of the season.
Though the flirtation with relegation was no less worrying under his guidance, the arrival of Paul Lambert last summer rejuvenated a Villa Park faithful that had grown tired and weary since O’Neill’s departure. His effect on Delph has been no less invigorating.
Fully fit for the first time since his arrival in the second city, Delph enjoyed a successful campaign in Lambert’s first season, starting tentatively but growing in stature and going on to make 24 appearances in a young, but promising midfield.
But it wasn’t until Arsenal away on the opening day of this season that Delph, now 23, began to show just how bright the spark that once illuminated Elland Road could become. His rakish frame buzzed about the Emirates, a whirling dervish of energy, zapping into tackles with a pomp and swagger that caught the Gunners midfield by surprise.
The opening 45 minutes against Liverpool aside, when, in all honesty, the entire starting 11 looked sluggish, there has been no let-up in Delph’s performances since, with some pundits even demanding an England call up as reward for his inspired start to the season.
Delph may not yet be the finished article; his propensity for collecting bookings is a side effect of his exuberance that he must learn to control. With Aston Villa arguably over-reliant on Christian Benteke for goals, he is also the obvious choice from the midfield to step up with a regular contribution that has been missing since James Milner’s departure, yet his 24 Premier League appearances last season failed to yield a single goal.
It’s an area of his game that Delph seems eager to address however. Against Arsenal he unleashed a barrage of shots on Wojciech Szczesny’s goal, with one rasping 20-yard effort catching the outside of an upright, prompting Delph to drop to the floor and punch the pitch in frustration, revealing another facet of that exuberant personality: he genuinely seems to care.
Lambert has shown remarkable faith in Delph, and has the conviction that, with the right development, he could be a future England international. “I’m pretty sure there’s more to come from him. The way he has started the season is great. If we keep him fit and healthy, the way he is playing, it’s up to himself how far he goes,” Lambert told the The Birmingham Mail last week. “He’s got a big, big future.”
This combination of passion, potential and performance, as well as his survival against the odds at Villa Park, has clearly endeared him to the club’s supporters. And there is another combination that has sparked his revival: Delph’s blossoming partnership with Ashley Westwood.
It’s been some time since two Aston Villa midfielders complemented each other so perfectly. Westwood’s composure and assurance at the base of the midfield offers Delph the freedom to skip forwards, foraging for chances, supplying the front three. Westwood’s own incredible rise has released the potential in his midfield partner; he appears to be the mind to Delph’s matter.
Both Delph and Westwood have age on their side, and given the working relationship the two have developed in such a short space of time, it’s perhaps not even too fanciful to suggest that the former Crewe Alexandra man will soon play his way into the England set up too. Given England’s convoluted problems in forming a cohesive midfield unit in recent years, it may not be impossible to imagine the two youngsters being given their chance together.
It is, of course, unlikely to happen. It is more important that Delph and Westwood form the backbone of an Aston Villa side that continues to develop, and the two seize the opportunity they have to make their midfield spots their own, hopefully for seasons to come.
For now the third and final spot in the Villa midfield is trickier to fill, with Yacouba Sylla, Karim El Ahmadi, Leandro Bacuna, Aleksander Tonev and Gary Gardner all offering Lambert something different. The stability offered by Delph and Westwood however is the perfect building block for Aston Villa, and will be crucial to any success the club has this season, and beyond.
After four years of false starts, Delph appears ready to make this season count.