A Closer Look at the Missing Link in the Aston Villa Midfield
A Champions League winner as a player with Borussia Dortmund, Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert appeared relaxed before the media last week, happy to talk about his experiences with his former team, as they came to London for the final of this year’s Champion’s League at Wembley stadium.
Lambert enthused to Guardian journalist David Hytner that he had joined Dortmund with a mix of self-doubt, introspection and genuine excitement to be amongst so many Euro 1996 winners such as Tottenham’s live wire assistant coach, Steffen Freund. The Villa manager would have experienced similar trepidation to those youngsters who made the jump from lower league football to the Villa Park last season. Stepping up to a new level is a daunting yet exhilarating moment in a player’s career, as could be shown by the elation on the faces of Ashley Westwood and Christian Benteke on deadline day last summer.
With the spotlight of success shining on Dortmund once again, Paul Lambert will be seeking to find his own winning midfield formula.
One of the criticisms of Martin O’Neill was that he often played players out of position. Alex McLeish was also known to shuffle his pack of cards and emerge with surprising results. McLeish once memorably explained, “We now know what Emile can do. He can play in any position. I could even play him at the back without any fears…..” Villa fans were suspiciously unpersuaded by the thought of Emile Heskey as a Libero centre back likened to Franz Beckenbauer. Heskey was, in actual fact, utilised generally by McLeish in the trequartista position which resulted in more raised eyebrows from Villa fans.
Paul Lambert himself will have studied the composition of various central midfield partnerships during the season. Some materials have bonded together, whilst other compounds have fizzled out with disappointing results. Many fans will remember the insipid team display in the 1-1 home draw against Norwich, where Norwich controlled the midfield, in contrast to Villa’s impressive late season 6-1 drubbing of Sunderland at home.
Lambert’s former side Dortmund lined up against Real Madrid in a 4-2-3-1 formation in the Champions League this season. The central midfield consisted of Sven Bender (defensive midfield), Gundogan (deep-lying play maker) and Mario Gotze (creative midfield). Out wide were two hard working and rapid wing forwards Kuba (Poland’s Captain) and the intelligent Marco Reus.
Paul Lambert has employed the 4-2-3-1 formation on various occasions this season, firstly with two deep-lying playmakers in Westwood and Bannan, which lacked physical presence but excelled at times with possession football. Another partnership in the 4-2-3-1 formation was Westwood and Delph (a box-to-box midfielder), with N’Zogbia in the free attacking central midfield role. Again, this combination were sometimes outnumbered and out-muscled with N’Zogbia failing in his duty to pick up the deep-lying opposition midfielder; most notably Rooney in the first half at Old Trafford which resulted in N’Zogbia being subbed. Most recently, Sylla has joined Westwood and Delph in a more secure central midfield with three orthodox central midfielders.
Sylla (whether to free him of responsibility on arrival or not) initially played in front of Delph and Westwood and defended from the front, such as the match against Liverpool. Sylla has recently dropped further back on the pitch, allowing Ashley Westwood to roam further forward on the pitch and notch up four assists against Sunderland and Norwich in back to back games. The defensive block, helped by the changes to central midfield, seem a little more secure. Although goals are still conceded in transition and somewhat frustratingly from set pieces.
In the year of 2002, Villa had two powerful players in the form of Ian Taylor and George Boateng, by 2003 both players had left the club and a procession of failed defensive midfielders have since shuffled through Villa Park, including Gavin McCann, Steve Sidwell and Nigel Reo-Coker. There is hope at this early stage to suggest Sylla may develop into a useful defensive player. Can Sylla be the new Sven Bender? Villa fans would be hoping for a surprise or two next season from the young French midfielder, who is similar in stature to Lass Diarra. In addition, as the only defensive midfielder in the Villa squad, Lambert may be scouring the market for a player to add competition in Sylla’s position.
Klopp’s Dortmund also have a quality deep-lying play maker called Ilkay Gundogan who has been linked with Barcelona and Madrid to eventually replace Xavi or Alonso respectively. His progression since joining Dortmund from FC Nuremberg has been a delight for exuberant manager Jurgen Klopp, who appears to have unearthed a star and an increasingly valuable asset in Gundogen. Gundogan is of similar age to Ashley Westwood, 22-years-old, and possesses many of the same skills. Technically strong, mature, excellent passing range with an impressive speed of thought. If you want to look for speed of thought in Ashley Westwood’s play, look no further than his delicate cushion of the ball against Norwich, a quick spin to face the opposition goal, followed by a lightening, perfectly weighted pass for Gabby to slot home.
The missing element from Aston Villa’s midfield, however, is a player similar to Dortmund’s brilliant, Mario Gotze (a Bayern player next season). Lambert employed a creative midfield schemer in the 5ft 6 frame of Wes Hoolahan when he was at Norwich with great success. Lambert utilised Hoolahan behind the strikers in a midfield diamond and the player impressively scored 13 times in the 2009 / 2010 season. Villa have long since failed to find a player who scores regularly from central midfield and a trequartista who would create and score goals would vastly improve the Villa central midfield in my opinion.
When he arrived at Aston Villa, Paul Lambert challenged Stephen Ireland and Charles N’Zogbia to deliver for the team following their previously disappointing seasons. Lambert conceded that they had “lost their way“. Both players have failed to take on their manager’s challenge and they remain ‘lost‘ to varying extents. The creative midfield role has often been vacated this season altogether on the pitch or occasionally occupied in fits and starts by Weimann (without success) N’Zogbia (with inconsistency), Holman (hard work but reduced creativity), or Ireland (without much work rate or end product).
Daily Mirror journalist James Nursey intimated that Villa will look to offload Bannan and Ireland (backed by rumours coming from the end of year Villa awards dinner), if suitable offers arrive this summer. Leeds may be interested in Bannan, whilst Ireland may look stateside for a new challenge (he seems to have got a new agent stateside too).
In addition, Charles N’Zogbia has been linked with a move to money bags Monaco and Chris Herd has been earmarked to cover Matt Lowton next season, after the club released Eric Lichaj. This suggests that Herd won’t be counted as a central midfielder, and certainly not one who can play the creative role. It is a shame that Bannan was never given the opportunity to play beyond a defensive midfielder and playmaker, as his skill set is perfectly suited to the skills Lambert employed in Hoolahan. Bannan has spent much of the season in a double pivot with Westwood, and faced a difficult challenge as a slight, young partnership outnumbered by more physically strong three man midfields.
However, with old faces looking to pastures new and Bannan, Ireland and N’Zogbia possibly no longer in the manager’s plans, Lambert will have the summer to find his own Super Mario.
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