by Jamie Whitehead
To coin a cliche, football is a funny old game. Not three weeks ago Villa’s famous Holte End was singing the praises of manager Paul Lambert and his young side following back to back defeats of Norwich City and Liverpool. It was a rare position for Villa fans to find themselves in, not only had they won two away games on the spin, they had scored seven goals in the process.
Three games down the line have seen Villa ship fifteen goals in three outings. The first, an eight-nil demolition at Stamford Bridge set three separate records. It was Villa’s highest ever top flight defeat, it was the first time seven different players scored in one Premier League match, and it marked Frank Lampard’s 500th appearance for Chelsea.
Following that saw a 4-0 reverse at home to Spurs coupled with the embarrassment of losing to Wigan 3-0 at home. As festive periods go, it wasn’t the best. The Wigan defeat also bought out the shocking statistic that Aston Villa only won six league games in the whole of 2012. This was a side that in 2010 reached Wembley twice and finished sixth for a third successive campaign. The casm is massive and only getting deeper.
The ironic thing is the club are actually in a worse position than they were this time last season. The appointment of Alex Mcleish was never going to go down well in the B6 area of Birmingham, but contrary to what the media told us, the majority of the support were behind him and wished him well upon his departure.
This campaign saw Villa make their worst start to a season in forty three years. The fanfare of Lambert’s arrival was reminiscent of the Last Days of Deadly and Martin O’Neill pulled up outside a crumbling North Stand. This was a manager who was young, vibrant. A manager who had two successive promotions under his belt.
The comparisons to O’Neill are so many it’s almost ridiculous. Both Europena Cup winners, both cut their teeth in the lower leagues, both managed Wycombe and Norwich and both generally are liked and respected amongst their peers and opposing supporters.
Lambert had a huge job to do. The general feeling amongst Villa support at the moment is of “Why did our billionaire get bored of us when no one else’s did?” This isn’t strictly true. Lerner has always had the good of the club at heart, and has always looked at ways of securing its long term future. As it stands, Villa are in a better position than most when UEFA FFP takes hold. The cruel twist being to only applies to clubs competing in Europe, which unless barring a Wembley miracle in February, is a very, very long way away.
If Lerner was a rabbit in the headlights back in 2006, he’s now a huge bull staring the grill of the Cherokee right in the face, and challenging it to come toward him. Off the field, money has been given to Lambert and he has used it wisely. Christian Benteke could well turn out to be the buy of the season and it can’t be too long before he is warming a bench in Manchester if his form continues in the way it has.
The additions of Holman, El-Amadhi and Vlaar are encouraging, and the likes of Weimann, Westwood and Lichaj certainly show promise. As I’ve said many times, this is a great Premier League squad in two years time if they, and the manager, can be kept together.
Lambert’s biggest fault is one O’Neill is widely known for. His stubbornness. O’Neill was, at times, like a player of Football Manager who wasn’t very good at it but found a formation and a group of players that worked for him. Every game, without fail. Lambert obviously has a preferred group of players but isn’t afraid to mix it up tactically, as demonstrated so well in the Norwich and Liverpool games.
But one thing that Lambert does have that Aston Villa haven’t been afforded so much of in recent years is quality and experience on the bench.
It’s highly admirable that Lambert wants to blood the youth and create what appears to be his own legacy at the club. If he gets it right, he’s up there amongst the Villa faithful with Ron Saunders and Brian Little. Get it wrong and he’s down with Billy McNeil.
Manchester United blended youth and experience so well in the mid to late 90s and continue to do so to this day. Lambert has the option of this with the likes of Shay Given and Darren Bent waiting in the wings, not forgetting Richard Dunne, Charles N’Zogbia and the temperamental Steven Ireland. These are perhaps not players to the standard and quality of Giggs and Beckham in their heydays, but certainly incredible reinforcements to have.
It might be time for Lambert to start looking at this. Put Given back in goal for a few games to calm the defence. Brad Guzan has been fantastic this year a d fully deserves the extended run in the side he is enjoying, but fifteen goals in three games will knock any goalkeeper’s confidence.
When he signed two years ago, the only players in England who had more goals than Bent at the time were Wayne Rooney and Didier Drogba, and as proven in the West Bromwich Albion game, Bent can still do a job from the bench.
Bent will go, but an extended run in the side alongside Benteke could yield the goals and also increase his asking price should he leave the club in the summer.
A bit of experience is all that is needed in this Villa side. And the club has more than enough armoury to beat the drop.
Lambert has the right idea. He’s just utilising his arsenal wrong. There’s still time to turn it around. But not much.
Jamie Whitehead is a producer for the BBC World Service and a lifelong suffering Villain. Follow him on Twitter @jamiewh_