Does Aston Villa short-term ambition have to be compromised by Paul Lambert’s long-term plans?
Aston Villa supporters discontent with Paul Lambert has started to grow over some of the limited performances they have been witnessing from the team in recent months. While the team is six points up on corresponding fixtures from last season, recent performances suggest that won’t last for long. The Villa bosses’ stubbornness in interviews increasingly riles them too.
While the lack of patience shown with Lambert by some fans is rash (his was always a long-term project) the question that does beg itself is what is Villa’s ambition in the short-term?
If Paul Lambert was the manager of a newly promoted team his reputation would be undisputedly glowing. What he’s done at Villa, namely purchase younger players from lower leagues and overseas on low-end price tags and wages, would have served well the likes of Crystal Palace, Hull and Cardiff. If a club’s aim was to stay in the Premiership and slowly build a team that could be competitive and establish itself in the league, without taking the risk on paying out huge wages on journey men pros, then Lambert’s approach is spot on.
Such club’s supporters would afford him patience and in turn, rally behind the underdog make-up of his young team. At Aston Villa though, supporter expectation and ambition are invariably pitched a little higher.
The problem is the club’s ambition has in recent decades has always been questionable. Remember when Gareth Southgate and Ugo Ehiogu left Villa for Middlesborough citing the club’s lack of ambition as their prime motivation?
One of the best recent examples of Villa failing to grasp the benefits of acting in the short-term was when John Gregory had Villa top of the league in the 1998/99 season and in the form, that when you include the last 11 games of the previous season, would have seen them as league title contenders (if all those games came within one season). The story goes, when Gregory requested the one or two players to give the squad the necessary strength to mount a title challenge after Christmas, Doug Ellis said no. The midfielder Muzzy Izzet was one of the players ear marked by the Villa boss. Surely a manager who had got Villa to the summit, should have been granted such a purchase?
Such a scenario is typical of the restraint to Villa ambition in recent decades, that has constantly left Villa supporters frustrated.
If you don’t stay on the top of the mountain, then the only way is down it, as Villa have found in subsequent lean times.
Hope came in the form of Lerner’s cheque book, but unfortunately that time they got the short-term all wrong, with alarming wages shelled out on some decidedly average players.
Villa made headway up the mountain, but unfortunately, it seemed their guide in Martin O’Neill had taken them up the wrong route to reach the upper plateau. When the club reached a dead-end, off the Villa manager ran into the wilderness leaving the club to slide back down.
As I wrote at the very start of Lambert’s tenure, in the current climate of splash the cash football management, which Villa were unable/unwilling to do now, he had a plan to make progress back up the proverbial mountain. It was a long and dangerous way round, using a route that not many clubs would dare take.
Considering his zero tolerance cull and the introduction of several Premier League novices, the first season of Lambert’s reign was always going to be about Premiership survival. It was at times a white knuckle ride, but ultimately a success.
As previously mentioned, while his drastic model would have served a newly-promoted team well in terms of expectations (there was also a cup semi-final), after such a season of consolidation, Villa fans wanted more this season. But how much more, can we realistically expect?
Keeping Christian Benteke for the season ahead raised Villa fan’s expectations. It also provided Villa with a chance of making some kind of short-term impact while the overall rebuilding took place. If an attacking midfielder or a bigger midfield presence was brought in (even on a season’s loan), it would have surely benefited the effectiveness of having Benteke in the ranks.
Instead, the biggest purchase in the summer was made in Libor Kozák. It could be argued that it was good to start to bed in Benteke’s replacement, but what about the now? If you keep your best asset, why not maximize his potential, rather than investing in covering his departure?
With a season’s experience in the bag, one benefit seemed to be the improvement of the much maligned Villa defence. That problem seemed to be solved, with an improvement in results even when faced with a tough bunch of fixtures to start the season off with, but suddenly Villa got unlucky with injuries.
Jores Okores was the new signing expected to make the biggest impression in improving the team, his injury was a massive blow. Yet, Ron Vlaar responded and stepped up to improve on his less than convincing first season. There’s no doubt his absence in the last two games against Fulham and Manchester United was pivotal to the two loses.
Of the other new recruits, it would be difficult to argue that any of them have improved the first eleven this season.
Antonio Luna is still an average left-back at best at the moment; like Joe Bennett, more experience can only help his cause. Is Bacuna better than Lowton at right-back? Nope. Does Tonev add anything to the midfield? Not yet, he doesn’t.
Up front, Helenius hasn’t had a sniff, and while Kozák has added a functional presence when called upon, he seems to be a squad player at the moment.
Increasingly this season Villa have been found out and especially struggle against any team with a disciplined, capable and experienced midfield. Counter-attack successes have only came against decent midfields, if the opposition breaks rank and gets into fire-fight with Villa, by over committing players forward (see Arsenal, Manchester City and Southampton).
With the alarmingly OBVIOUS lack of dimension in the Villa midfield and lack of ability to dictate a game, Benteke has been rendered increasingly a frustrated figure.
If Lambert’s plan is to evolve the current squad with minimal additional investment (i.e. supplementing the squad with the type of young inexperienced players he’s brought in so far), then while it may bare fruits in two or three seasons time, it underlines Villa distinct lack of short term ambition.
Lambert’s policy of ‘young and hungry’ to gel the foundations of a tight-knit team is a sound one, only when players with proven pedigree and quality are added to up the level of the team’s capability as they go along.
You only have to look at the astute loan signings Roberto Martinez made at Everton in both Gareth Barry and Romelu Lukaku.
Yes, their wages cost a bomb, but it’s only a short-term spend. No five-year drainage like Shay Given’s £55,000-a-week.
Lambert might argue that having such players on those wages would demotivate his close-knit younger players on considerable less wages. Maybe, but surely it would inspire them too and give them increased confidence in the team’s potential. There is no substitute for ability and experience, if the player’s attitude is good. Certainly Villa have been crying out for such a player in the middle of the park.
While I agree with Lambert’s overall ethos, with the January window approaching, he needs to address the short-term, because tomorrow may never come.