Is it now finally time for the promised ‘Bright Future’?
By Antony McSweeney
Following the sense of relief that blew through Villa Park at the end of last season, it’s hard to deny, that it’s now been swiftly replaced by a feeling that has been alien to Villa supporters in recent years – the feel good factor. Ever since Martin O’Neil walked out of the club days before the start of the season in 2010, it is fair to say that the club has been treading water. Paul Lambert will be the first manager in four years to end one season and start the next. With this comes stability, continuity and a genuine transition for the club at the hands of a manager who clearly knows what he wants to do to take the club forward. With Lambert’s authoritative stamp and principled restructuring of the squad, Villa are finally moving forward again.
At points last season there were moments of ecstasy coupled with moments of sheer disbelief and desperation, but an unshakable Lambert and his young chargers came through it; kept their place in the Premier League and will now be one season wiser bit wiser. With the hardest battle navigated, they will be undaunted by the new season ahead.
It was well-documented that last season Villa fielded the youngest team in the Premier League, with an average age of 22.91 (to be exact!) and throughout the season the average age of the team fielded was 24.18. From data compiled by the Football Observatory, it’s notable that only one team in the Top 5 European leagues (England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain) fielded a younger squad and that was Toulouse with an average of 24.15 years of age, which again puts into perspective just what Lambert is trying to achieve.
Many of Lambert’s signings didn’t have Premiership experience, as they were thrown into the team in a somewhat ‘sink or swim’ style. Some eventually blossomed, such as Benteke and Westwood, while some were found wanting, as in the case of Joe Bennett. It would be unfair to judge the Villa left back just yet though.
Lambert has made wholesale changes in overhauling the Aston Villa squad and is continuing his ethos in terms of the players he’s bought so far, as he prepares for the new season. During last season, there were games where the only one player in the Villa team that played in the corresponding fixture the previous year was Gabby Agbonlahor. Lambert’s approach though has been more single-minded and brutal than drastic.
The manager has a mantra for young, hungry and talented footballers, that won’t necessarily break the bank and he has shown that he isn’t afraid to drop established players if their desire doesn’t match his. Lambert has looked to push on with his recruitment by looking to the continental market. Under past regimes Villa fans could have been forgiven for thinking there wasn’t a market outside the tried and tested journeymen of the British Isles. He has also not been afraid to genuinely promote from within, with Andi Weimann having a breakout season along with Nathan Baker.
The upcoming season will very much be Paul Lambert’s team. The Villa manager has shown he’s not afraid to take the hard-line. Several players have been told if they fail to find new clubs, there is no way back into his plans, so without finding new employers they risk a season in the wilderness training with the youth team.
With the departure of Holman, and with Enda Stevens and Shay Given expected to move on, only N’Zogbia will remain from McLeish’s reign, if his latest injury complicates any move out of Villa Park.
Meanwhile, Fabian Delph is the only remaining memory of the O’Neil’s signings, that have jolted the club financially in recent years. Delph, despite early setbacks due to injury and poor form, has seen his positive attitude and desire pull him through and has recently equipped himself well as a combative midfielder, and if he can add goals to his game, he may finally turn out to be the player that shone brightly at Leeds.
With Aston Villa boasting the champions of the NextGen series there is obvious talent coming through the ranks. With players such as Jack Grealish, Graham Burke and Samir Carruthers to name a few, there is clearly young and hungry talent available to supplement the young players coming in.
It has been a busy few weeks at Villa Park already, with five players coming in despite the transfer window yet to officially open. This shows that Lambert knows what type of player he wants pulling on the Villa shirt, and has a clear picture of how he wants the squad to look. This is something that the players are fully on board with, as new signing Leandro Bacuna stated.
“The manager is trying to create a new generation,” said Bacuna. “For every player who’s coming in, it’s good to find themselves in a team and an environment such as this. We will get the opportunity to show that we want to play and what we can do. It’s always good to try to better yourself.”
Of Villa’s other signings – Aleksander Tonev, Jores Okore, Niklas Helenius and Antonio Luna – of all of them, perhaps Jores Okore particularly stands out. The 20-year-old Dane has already been recognised internationally as well as having Champions League experience and represents something of a coup for Villa. He has stated previously that he was offered an opportunity to move to Chelsea, with Manchester United also interested, however he didn’t want to spend time on the bench at the stage of his career while he is still learning. This level of ability and perhaps more significantly, a type of player who well and truly seems to have his head screwed on is certainly refreshing for all those connected with the club.
“Jores has played in big games but he’s a very humble lad and he will be a really good addition to our team and to our squad,” said Paul Lambert of Okore. “I’m pleased that we’ve signed a player of his stature, for he is someone who can come in and make a huge impact.’
With so many new faces coming in a short period of time as Lambert builds his own team, he has taken measures to ensure that the squad is well-integrated with the new players settling in and being ready for the new season. Players coming from the continent can take time to settle into a new club. Factors such as the differences of culture leading to homesickness and language figure prominently. The club has addressed this by ensuring that the new signings can at least speak the same language as another person at the club. Lambert has signed two Danes in Okore and Helenius, whilst Tonev has former captain Stiliyan Petrov at the club to chat Bulgarian with. Bacuna also stated to the media that he is relishing the opportunity to work alongside fellow Dutchman and a player he finds inspirational in Vlaar. This is also true of when Sylla joined the club with French-speaking Benteke already there, and it is noted that this pair have gone on to forge a close friendship around the club. Wherever by design or coincidence, this dynamic will both help the players settle quicker and improve team spirit.
With Paul Lambert, Aston Villa finally have a manager with a clearly defined and sustainable vision for the club. With further arrivals expected once a number of McLeish and O’Neil former signings have departed, the club will be well set for its trajectory up the Premier League table. It’s fair to say that for all those connected with Aston Villa, the future is bright, the future is claret and blue.