In the first part of ‘Paul Lambert’s Evolution of Aston Villa’, we saw the context of what Lambert and the club are now trying to achieve on the field and how the squad in general is being molded. Having analysed the defensive positions, it’s now time for an in-depth look at the midfield and forward positions.
Central midfield has been the problem area of the pitch for Aston Villa for many seasons. No player has adequately replaced Ian Taylor, and it has been difficult to replace talented central midfielders such as Barry and Milner following the budget restraints.
Lambert has certainly found one central midfielder who looks at ease in the Premier League – Ashley Westwood. The ex-Crewe youngster has had an impressive season (Chelsea and Southampton aside). He keeps the team ticking along, helps keep possession and creates chances with his range of passing.
The most improved Villa player from within the ranks is arguably Fabian Delph. There was a time when Delph’s crunching tackles were usually followed by six months on the sidelines. However, Delph has recently gained discipline and confidence alongside Westwood and has shown flashes of the impressive Leeds box-to-box midfielder Villa bought as a youngster.
Another traditional English box-to-box midfielder with injury problems, Gary Gardner, is returning from another long injury. Having missed so much football it is uncertain whether Gary will return to the first team squad next season or whether he will be sent on loan to gain valuable experience lower down the divisions. Gary is still young, and one of the best prospects the club have. A year on loan in my opinion would be very good for his development, but as we’ve seen, Lambert isn’t shy giving young players a chance.
It’s worth mentioning two ex-Villa academy players who have played important roles for their clubs, Steven Davis and Craig Gardner. The success of Davis and Gardner proves that Bodymoor Heath can produce players comfortable at Premier League level, and Gardner is widely deemed as the best prospect of the lot.
Another hot youth prospect has gone. Interestingly enough, despite Lerner’s admitted joy in the academy system (see part one), the news that young academy under-17 player Dan Crowley, who has been labeled the new ‘Jack Wiltshere’, seems to be bound for Arsenal is disheartening news. Blessed with technique and fearless endeavor, Crowley’s played beyond his age group for the past couple of seasons and was expected to be on the fringes of the Villa first team, when he got to the age of 16 or 17, similarly to Jack Wiltshere or Cesc Fabregas. Oh well…still, he was always one for two or three seasons time.
Another disappointment perhaps for academy watchers has been Daniel Johnson, who has not featured for the first team, when it was expected he might following his inclusion in pre season last summer. It’ll be interesting to note what this summer brings him.
Less assured of a future in central midfield are the more experienced Ireland, Holman, Bannan and El Ahmadi.
Stephen Ireland has a contract which expires in the summer of 2014. Finding another club to pay equivalent wages could well be a stumbling block. Villa may end up paying a percentage of his wages on a season’s loan agreement. Any move will depend on whether Ireland wishes to play regular football or if he would prefer to stay at home with his girlfriend and smoke Shisha pipes.
Barry Bannan stated at the beginning of the 2012 / 2013 campaign that this was a make or break campaign for him. Bannan was loved and appreciated by Houllier, but has not developed this season as much as expected. Spells of flowing passing moves interspersed with rushed, over-ambitious football have characterised his performances. The more impatient the crowd, the more rushed he has become.
The cultural difference between the direct, counter attacks of the Martin O’Neill era and the more possession based football of Houllier has contributed to the fans impatience with a player who thrives on slow build up play. Whether Bannan has a future at Aston Villa depends ultimately on whether the Villa fans learn to appreciate possession based football rather than become impatient with it. Used properly, Bannan is potentially a quality player who I hope we keep next season, although it seems his strained relationship with Lambert will see him exit this summer.
Charles N’Zogbia has occasionally played in the attacking midfielder role and has provided some vital assists and goals this season. Unfortunately, the player is equally likely to fade out of games similarly to Stephen Ireland, or playing with his head down, hold onto the ball longer than necessary. It would suit the club to sell N’Zogbia in the summer from a wage, age and consistency point of view. Whether the player agrees to a move is another matter?
Lambert has heavily scouted Luke Murphy, Ashley Westwood’s old central midfield partner at Crewe and attacking midfield is certainly a position that can be improved upon, if Ireland and N’Zogbia are persuaded to leave.
Brett Holman is, unfortunately for him, something of a spare part in the squad. His future will also depend on whether he wishes to play regular football similarly to Stephen Ireland. Players not signed by the manager always have to play better than the manager’s signings to survive. What Holman provides in sheer effort, he appears to lack in football intelligence. Brett provided valuable contributions early in the season but has not regained his place in the team this year.
Karim El Ahmadi, a Lambert signing, has also not overly impressed either his manager or the fans. ‘KEA’ is a competent player in most respects, but he is neither strong enough to be a defensive midfielder, or creative enough in the deep lying playmaker role occupied mainly by Bannan and Westwood this season.
Yacouba Sylla was brought in during the January transfer window to supplement the failed signing of El Ahmadi. He has impressed during the few games he has played, and has featured in vital wins against Reading, Sunderland and Norwich. It is worth remembering that Sylla is only 22-years-old, and he has had limited time to adapt to a new country, league and club. A shade cautious in his play at the moment, Sylla has not enjoyed a pre season with the team and it is expected therefore that there is much more to come from the young French defensive midfielder.
It is considered by many Villa fans, however, that another imposing defensive midfielder is needed in the summer. After Makoun was sold on to Rennes in January, Sylla remains the only credible defensive option.
Lambert has previously shown great interest in Dale Stephens. However, Stephens is more of a deep-lying play maker and has had a disappointing season with Charlton following his failed summer move to Aston Villa. It remains to be seen whether Lambert wishes to try and sign him again this summer.
Raoul Cedric Loe is a player who Villa have allegedly scouted last season. Loe is a 6ft 4, young, French defensive midfielder currently playing for Osasuna. Osasuna have produced many talented graduates including the sublime Javi Martinez who is currently playing with Bayern Munich. Loe certainly has the physique and skill to fit the Ian Taylor mould, and Osasuna are a club who are struggling financially. Loe would be a smart and value for money addition to the squad in defensive midfield.
Paul Lambert did not sign a winger when one was required last summer and he has preferred to play two strikers in the wing forward positions, Agbonlahor and Weimann. It’s worth remembering that Gabby Agbonlahor had a poor season under Alex McLeish last season and was linked with a move to Sunderland to join Martin O’Neill in the summer. Gabby recently stated however that he had no intention of ever leaving the club and that Villa was his home.
Gabby has picked up form during the season and has again provided vital goals and performances when the club most need him to. Gabby seems certain to stay in the squad for another season next year and is now at the peak age of 26.
The use of Benteke, Weimann and Agbonlahor has been extremely effective in counter attacks this year, but has been less effective at Villa Park when Villa are expected to take the game to the opposition.
Simon Dawkins has not featured at all and looks set to be released this summer, whilst Marc Albrighton’s season has been blighted by injury and poor performances. Albrighton and also Nathan Delfouneso will struggle to rejoin Lambert’s squad on current form and are more likely to be released or sold in my opinion.
Andreas Weimann has been an unexpected success who has made a big contribution to the team throughout the season. Weimann, unlike Delfouneso, has taken his chances when they have been given to him in the first team and has worked hard to make it extremely difficult for Paul Lambert to keep him out of the side.
The wide positions can certainly be strengthened in the summer. Young winger Samir Carruthers has also not featured (aside from being fined and flashing his wad of money on twitter), but in his favour, he showed growing maturity in captaining the Aston Villa Next Gen Series team to victory in Italy.
Carruthers, Graham and Grealish are tipped to make the first team in the next few seasons, but Lambert has also looked at Matt Phillips, Wilfried Zaha and Tom Ince last summer. The Villa manager may have other options in mind this summer such as Adomah at Bristol City or some other international targets.
Villa now have Benteke and Bowery as target men, with Agbonlahor and Weimann as pacey second strikers. Darren Bent is seemingly on his way out of the club having played rarely all season.
Darren Bent does not fit into Lambert’s system and was linked during the season to Galatasaray who look set to lose Yilmaz to Atletico Madrid in the summer. A move might be possible as Galatasaray would pay the wages suitable to Bent and they offer Champions League football.
Paul Lambert has also shown interest in strikers such as Crystal Palace striker Glen Murray and Celtic’s Gary Hooper. The striker position does not seem to be a priority however, as Villa also have the Irish pair of NextGen hotshots Graham Burke and Mikey Drennan pushing the first team for a start.
The amount of arrivals obviously depends on how many players can be moved on and found new clubs. If you’ve done your maths while reading the two parts of this article, Lambert will hopefully have shaved a quarter-of-a-million a week off the wage bill this summer. Add that to the improved television deal, and there should be room to give Lambert the leeway to really fashion the Villa squad he wants.
For Villa supporters, with a team no longer held back by high-wage mercenaries, there is every reason to look forward to the summer with genuine optimism and excitement. Maybe finally, the ‘bright future’ can begin. UTV.
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