With the beginning of the season days away, it’s probably a fitting time to reflect on Villa’s build-up thus far with the first ‘What We Learnt’ of the season. It hasn’t gone unnoticed that the Birmingham Mail seems to have been running with the same column title recently. We’d like to remind them, that it’s been one of My Old Man Said original column titles dating back to the start of MOMS (we have the English spelling ”Learnt’, while they’re using ‘Learned’).
MOMS has been lucky to have called on some talented and insightful Villa fans for the column over the years, and taking over the reigns from the ace Shelley Osbourne and before her, the excellent Stevie Green, this season we’ll be privy to the wisdom of Isa Sulayman. A warm welcome to him and a big welcome to you. UTV
It has been anything but a normal preseason with the club in an effective state of limbo after Villa’s owner decided it was time to get out. It depressingly looks like the club might be paralysed in such a state for a good while, with there seemingly being no sale on the horizon. A reality that has swept away the brief period of optimism following Lerner’s initial statement and marked a return to the apathy cultivated during our horrendously insipid campaign last time around. An apathy that has perhaps deepened further due to the effects of the said limbo with the suspension of a normal summer transfer budget and a reluctance to address contract renewals.
So, apart from the gloom, what have we learnt?
1. RIP the ‘Young and Hungry’ Approach?
Remember when Lambert boasted that he had been vindicated in ostracising many of the experienced players after securing survival in his first season? Well fast-forward a year and the most extraordinary U-turn has taken place.
Despite previously holding so steadfastly to the ‘young and hungry’ policy, Lambert’s new-found transfer strategy, in addition to the reintegration of the ‘bomb-squad’, is testament to its abandonment. If you check through his comments upon the signings of Philippe Senderos, Joe Cole and Kieran Richardson, one word is constantly invoked: ‘experience’. Unfortunately, as Senderos shows, it does seem like experience is being confused with, or prioritised ahead of, actual ability (please prove me wrong Philippe!)
Regarding the experience debate, I personally concur with what Lambert said in January 2013, when the team were mired deep in the abyss.
“People say the current position is because the players are young – it’s nothing to do with it. This club has been in the same situation for three years with really top (read ‘experienced’) players.”
The change in policy has also been reflected in recent outgoings. The Villa boss hasn’t hesitated to try and offload his previous signings who have either failed to make an impact or have just proven not to be good enough at this level. Helenius, Sylla, Luna and Bowery have gone, while Tonev and Lowton are reportedly next. I rather suspect that it was the abject failure of last summers’ window that caused the manager to lose faith in himself and therefore the ‘project’. He now just seems to be making it up as he goes along.
2. This Season’s Default Formation
Ever since Senderos was signed despite no other centre-back being offset for him, it has been widely suspected that Lambert might be looking to predominantly go with a back-three this season. At one point in his first season, it was his first-choice for a significant run of games. He may also have been inspired by the many teams (Holland, Chile, Costa Rica etc.) that successfully deployed it during the World Cup.
Lambert has chopped and changed between formations in Villa’s friendlies so far so it isn’t clear how exactly Villa will line-up come Stoke. Though an indicator in favour of 3-5-2 was given against Walsall, when arguably our strongest side was picked. Also, if Richardson was our left-back signing, then this would support the theory, as he is natural winger even if he has often been played as a full-back in recent years.
Keeping with tactics, unfortunately it doesn’t appear that Lambert’s backtracking has been extended to playing certain players in positions that simply don’t suit them at all. Andreas Weimann is still being played wide and as a No. 10; two roles he has limited attributes to play well. Against FC Dallas he was actually played as a winger in what was basically a flat midfield-five. Ashley Westwood still gets played as a defensive-midfielder, a player who is too light-weight to be a ‘presence’. Chris Herd as a central-defender? *shudders*.
3. The Curious Case of Enda Stevens
Stevens has enjoyed a surprising level of involvement this preseason. Unlike the others in the ‘bomb-squad’, he was never an established first-team player at Villa nor a higher-earner. So in some ways his inclusion is even more of a shock.
It does now seem like he may well have a future here though, featuring regularly in the friendlies so far, including involvement in the US tour in which he showed some promise. He’s looked quite assured going forward, even displaying a good understanding with Irish compatriot Jack Grealish against FC Dallas. All of which will no doubt impress a manager who likes attacking full-backs. It’s not far-fetched to believe that he could move ahead of Joe Bennett in the pecking order.
4. Our Latest Golden Boy
That’s right, it may finally be happening! This could actually be the season that Paul Lambert bloods an academy player. Jack Grealish is the latest in a long line of lauded ‘golden boys’ to emerge from our academy. Can he really give the fans someone to believe in though?
The failure of his predecessors should obviously serve as a stark reminder not to assume he’ll succeed, but there is one thing that may help Grealish prove to be an exception.
Grealish has started his path into senior football at a younger age. Still only eighteen, he boasts an invaluable loan-spell at Notts. County in which he played a key role in helping them to clinch survival. Perhaps ominously, the last graduate to be given a genuine chance (i.e. a proper run) in the senior team while still a teenager was Gabby Agbonlahor. Nothing special but still a very rare case of one of our youth products who has gone on to have a respectable Premier League career.
Obviously we don’t know that Grealish will be given a fair run yet but the signs are encouraging. His inclusion in the US tour was a sign that the manager views him as a full member of the first-team now and this was backed up by comments to the press:
“You’re looking for him to give me a problem, that he can do something…He’s done really well on the tour. He didn’t disgrace himself and more than held his own…He looks like he can handle a football but he’s a young kid who’s still learning the ropes – but he’s done his chances no harm.”
As Lambert concedes, Grealish more than justified his place on the tour and has continued to impress since, including nabbing a consolation goal from the bench in the defeat to Chesterfield. He has looked to offer things which our team has been in dire need of for ages. Somebody that constantly makes space and looks to receive the ball. A ‘flair player’ of great technical ability who can both provide a creative outlet and has the capacity to conjure moments of individual brilliance. In a season that increasingly looks like it could pan out to be another tediously drab one, a lot of hope will be vested in Grealish to provide a rare source of excitement.
5. The Quest for that Mythical Midfielder
The incredible ineptitude in strengthening [central] midfield has easily been one of Lambert’s biggest failures whilst at the club. None of his major transfers have been midfielders. Last summer he only spent a meagre £800k on that department (yet spent £6-7m on a back-up striker) despite its weakness being clearly highlighted during his first season. Even that was just for Leandro Bacuna, who was signed more to be a utility player.
Lambert’s other midfield signings have been Karim El-Ahmadi, Ashley Westwood and Yacouba Sylla. None of whom frequently rise above average or have improved the midfield in any real tangible way.
Thankfully, it sounds like Lambert may finally be prioritising the midfield with many journalists agreeing that his main summer target is a holding-midfielder and the pursuit of Ki confirming this. It appears like the deal for Ki is dead in the water but it is still heartening to know that this is the type of player Lambert intends as his ‘big’ signing this window. Let us hope that his search bears fruit this time after previous failures in capturing a legit midfield talent. The right man could make a substantial difference to the dynamic of the team. Never mind a game changer, he could be a season changer. UTV
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