Paul Lambert is Unquestionably the Right Man for Aston Villa
It’s been a torrid 2012-13 so far for Aston Villa and from the moment Robbie Savage pronounced that the club would most definitely be relegated last August, media pundits and fans of other clubs have been forming an orderly queue to have a bash.
Meanwhile, Villa fans themselves have been lying low, largely defending manager Paul Lambert, but with their patience stretched to levels of high tautness and doubt creeping in by the week. Only the travails of neighbours Birmingham City have provided light relief.
In recent weeks, however, an impression of a dosage of tough medicine has begun to emerge in any closer analysis of events at Villa Park.
Despite claims from the more unthinking elements of the fan base that spending could have been greater, Villa’s financial situation coming into 2012-13 was far from healthy and Paul Lambert’s brief on ascending the hot seat was a vastly different one from his three predecessors.
Martin O’Neill in particular was doted upon like a child in a cot – to such an extent that £119 million was lavished upon him to sign new personnel. In addition, as former non-executive director Charles Krulak said, ‘the reality is that the wage-to-revenue issue was not addressed and Martin was apparently unwilling to address it’.
Why should he have done I guess? In a world where Harry Redknapp is widely considered a miracle worker despite the growing resemblance between Queen’s Park Rangers’ finances and the economy of Ireland, little blame will ever be extended while these fools are allowed to continue spending money like Nebuchadnezzar.
But the figures nonetheless made grim reading. The fourth highest net transfer spend in the league after Manchester City, Stoke and Chelsea; losses totalling £148 million between the takeover of Randy Lerner and the end of 2011-12; £200 million of the owner’s money ploughed in, including £25 million from his personal current account between 2010 and 2012; a wage bill during the O’Neill era amounting to £83 million – a full £25 million more than that disbursed by similar sized Everton.
It’s clear that something had to happen and after the catastrophic appointments of Gérard Houllier and Alex McLeish, Lambert’s ability to spin straw into the gold stuff, evidenced handsomely by his successful spell at Norwich, was the only answer.
…and – believe it or not – and despite all the wailing and grinding of teeth, the corner may just have been turned.
On Saturday, Villa took full advantage of an unstintingly woeful performance from Reading to leap out of the bottom three places – but it was the numerous mini tactical battles won and waged by Lambert that really impressed.
First, all of Reading’s key attacking threats were skilfully negated. Jobi McAnuff has received ample stick from the home support this year but in a season of fleeting successes, it’s often been the captain’s dangerous runs from deep that have provided the most telling opportunities.
Not here though. Villa’s three man midfield of Ashley Westwood, Barry Bannan and Yacouba Sylla may have appeared narrow and thus ripe for exploitation by McAnuff and his opposite wing man, Hal Robson-Kanu, but Sylla’s detail was to pull wide to track McAnuff, a task he carried out with ease while not neglecting his duties when the away side were in possession.
Secondly, and throughout last season in particular, the Royals scored many a goal from a ploy that saw Alex Pearce peel off the back of the penalty area crowd scene to nod back across goal one of Ian Harte’s delicious crosses.
Again, the height of Nathan Baker, captain Ciaran Clark and the marauding goalkeeping of Brad Guzan seemed specifically designed to negate this. Baker may have written himself into A Question of Sport’s ‘What happened next?’ feature with an own goal of high farce but his reaction to such a setback was to bounce back stronger, fully vindicating his manager’s decision to swap him in for Joe Bennett; a man who has struggled to cope defensively this year.
Meanwhile, Guzan was a true revelation – his maniacal boldness a surprise to this observer at least – I had previously considered him to be something of a shot stopper. One suspects that Villa’s earlier well documented travails in defending set pieces were down to uncertainty as to whose job was which to do – the American’s proactive approach left no doubt on this point.
Thirdly, Christian Benteke, utterly unplayable on the day, displayed tactical flexibility in generally lurking behind his two strike partners, Andreas Weimann and a rejuvenated Gabriel Agbonlahor. Thus, his complete dominance of Pearce and Adrian Mariappa in the air and on the ground allowed him to act as a true attacking fulcrum.
Such reliance on relative cut price acquisitions and youngsters was the only way to go for the second city side and an appealing blend is beginning to develop. Ashley Westwood enjoyed the freedom of the Madejski Stadium in his scurrying water carrier role but nonetheless looks neat in possession and ever willing to battle for the cause, while Clark, oft criticized since August, is beginning to display the elegance and aerial power that mark out a good central defender – that the grizzled Ron Vlaar has returned to partner him is crucial in this of course.
It’s all certainly a work in progress and better teams will continue to take advantage – I’m not sure, for instance, that Bannan or his absent former fellow wunderkind Mark Albrighton are going to make it now – players who show up on Match of the Day with the odd spectacular piece of skill tend to catch the eye unfairly while the meat and potatoes men like Westwood are usually more effective – but to do such a thorough number on an opposing team illustrates the tactical nous that Lambert developed while studying for his coaching badges in Germany.
So there is a profound logic to Villa’s path this season even if humiliating defeats to the likes of Bradford and Chelsea might suggest otherwise. Put simply, the financial situation, as outlined by blogger Swiss Ramble back in May, could not continue and if Brian McDermott rightly pointed out that Benteke cost more than his entre starting eleven, £7 million would still appear to constitute a bargain for the big Belgian.
So where from here? I’d expect survival to be maintained and Lambert to remain in the job but – whisper it – selling Benteke at some stage might net sufficient funds to improve the line-up across the board as the likes of Clark and Weimann develop. Moving on the overpaid so and so’s such as Darren Bent and Charles N’Zogbia will also be necessary and the fans should remain patient – for Aston Villa’s revival should be a slow, sustainable one.