As the new signings stake a claim for their lockers in the Bodymoor Heath changing rooms, we are left to wonder what Lambert’s plan for improving the attacking play of Aston Villa is.
Lambert stumbled upon a successful and explosive front three last season of Benteke, Agbonlahor and Weimann and this youthful front-line combination managed to notch up 35 goals between them. The task for Aston Villa’s manager now is to build on the raw, explosive front three and to add guile, variation and attacking options to the team.
Alterations are always needed because opposition managers will have assessed the manner in which the young Villa forwards scored their goals last season, and they will be devising plans concerning how to deal with the attacking trio.
In fact, we already saw some adjustments from opposition teams towards the back end of last season. Teams like Norwich and Chelsea got close to Benteke and prevented him dropping deep, picking the ball up in the number ten position and developing attacking plays. In addition, teams harassed the young Belgian and sought to provoke a reaction from him by tackling him late, which resulted in the 19-goal Villa striker being sent off against Chelsea.
If we are to believe the club, then Aston Villa are relaxed about Benteke’s contract situation and he will remain leading the attack next season. Ex-Liverpool player Dietmar Hamann considered that Christian Benteke is, “as complete a forward as I’ve seen in a long time..” and it is not hard to see why.
Benteke was labeled as a ‘target man‘ when he arrived on the deadline day last summer. He was slowly introduced to the team and scored his first goal against Swansea, nipping in ahead of the keeper and flicking the ball over the top. Benteke finishing was somewhat wildly off target in his first few games and it must be remembered that some fans even unfairly compared him to the departing Emile Heskey. They are certainly not making those comparisons now.
Benteke is a target man who is well suited to the demands of the game in the English Premier league, although he also has a good first touch, or as the cliché goes ‘he has a good touch for a big man‘. Added to this, Benteke has the ability to pick up the ball in deep areas and run at an opposition defence by breaking through the lines in a similar manner to Khedira or Yaya Toure, and Benteke can bully defenders off the ball with his superior physical power. The Villa striker’s light touch enables him to dribble past players, and he has an admirable football brain for a 22-year-old.
The Belgian’s vision could be shown through the back heel assist he made against Liverpool following a beautiful team move. Furthermore, Benteke’s work around the box with his back to goal is up there with any striker in the world. His flicks around the corner, playing players through on goal, is super instinctive and composed. Benteke can score with either foot and his 19 Premier League goals display a wide variety of finishes. Not forgetting of course that the player is also good in the air, such as against Sunderland, where he leapt high above Carlos Cuellar to power home.
If you add up all the attributes that Benteke possesses, you may well find the anatomy of a complete striker. Even the celebrated Falcao was denied a move to Stamford Bridge this summer by Jose Mourinho, who felt that the club needed a forward who could lead the line as well as score goals. Benteke can do both.
Out wide Villa have counted on Villa academy strikers Andreas Weimann and Gabriel Agbonlahor this season.
Gabby developed a healthy work ethic from his time playing under Martin O’Neill as O’Neill employed a high-intensity pressing game with the wing forwards working hard in defence. Gabby has flirted with the striker position and he had an encouraging spell playing the ‘false 9‘ position when Carew suffered one of his many crippling knee injuries. In recent seasons, Gabby has more regularly been used on the wing. Finding the best position for the player has been a conundrum for successive managers and perhaps finding his most effective role is still a work in process.
Fast on the counter attack, instinctive when he has a lot of space to run into, Gabby is a vital player for the Aston Villa squad as he can be a match winner with his pace and ability to score important goals. On the negative side, his touch, vision and creativity, do not always match up to his speed and Gabby is not always the clinical finisher he was when he was with the Villa academy. The Birmingham-born striker is still developing though and he can possibly continue to improve these aspects of his game. Gabby is certainly a better footballer now than when he first broke into the Villa team, and his experience has helped him learn when to hold the ball up, how to use his body, and when to pass the ball.
Gabby’s fellow wing man, Andi Weimann, burst onto the scene this season and he has been been Lambert’s first real academy graduate in the team. Weimann has the positional cleverness of Darren Bent combined with the precocious work rate of a youngster looking to make a name for himself. The young Austrian has surprised many with his grit and determination to succeed and Weimann’s sheer bloody-mindedness and commitment to the cause has earned him the respect of fans.
Not a natural wide player, Weimann has attempted to make a role for himself out wide during the season. Counter attacking has benefited Weimann, as when Villa attacked through Gabby down the left flank, Weimann found himself drifting inside to attack the far post, or dove-tailing behind Benteke. As the season progressed, instructed by an increasingly dominant Lowton, Weimann involved himself more in the attacking play down the right, or allowed Lowton to take the wing whilst his dropped inside to an inside right position.
Most impressive in Weimann’s game is his positional awareness and finishing. The 22-year-old has an innate ability to find a space for himself in the box in order to gain an opportunity for a shot. Weimann’s weakness lies in his passing, control and link-up play, although the Austrian youngster has improved technically during the season, such as the perfect first touch and finish against Sunderland.
Against better teams, such as Manchester United at Old Trafford, or teams like Stoke who defended with compact blocks of four, Gabby and Weimann have found it difficult to break teams down and create opportunities. In addition, they are not known to make a space for themselves outside the area and shoot on goal (aside from Gabby’s goal at Norwich).
Paul Lambert has therefore sought to bring in players who will offer different solutions.
Most fans will know little about the likes of Tonev, Bacuna and Helenius, and an assessment based of you tube videos or a handful of games is never satisfactory. In any event, Tonev and Bacuna have shown that they are equally capable of shooting with both feet, and the little we have seen of them demonstrates that they enjoy making a space for themselves outside the box and having a pop at goal. Offering a goal threat from a wide variety of positions is important for the team going forward.
In addition, Tonev has shown that he has a reasonable cross which will be of benefit to Benteke. While his dribbling style, although based on speed and changes of direction similarly to Gabby and Weimann, offers a little more variety.
Bacuna, described by Lambert as a utility player, also has a direct approach to his game and he may well be utilised further back as a box-to-box midfielder. It will be interesting to see how Lambert employs Bacuna as he does not appear to have either the raw pace or creativity, in absence of pace, to play on the wing. He may be more suited to a midfield runner therefore like James Milner.
The forward who most represents a variation in attack for Aston Villa appears to be Nicklas Helenius. Little is known about the 6ft 5inch Dane in England, and he is therefore a surprise package for next season. What has most encouraged fans about Helenius is his technical ability. The young striker has a good first touch, quick feet, creativity and the potential to add much needed guile to the wide positions. The quality of touch which Helenius possesses will create quicker, more intelligent movement, if used properly alongside Benteke and you would imagine that Helenius’s specific skills would improve the associative play of the front -ine with the likes of Weimann, Gabby, Tonev and Bacuna.
In all likelihood, Helenius may start his career for Villa in the wing-forward position with a pacey alternative on the opposite flank. Alternatively, the young Dane could play in a number ten role behind Benteke, but either way, Helenius’s development will probably be treated in the same manner that Arsene Wenger developed Robin Van Persie, in that he will not initially be employed as a lone striker.
It remains to be seen whether Lambert will add another winger or a creative midfielder to further improve the attacking options, but with the transfer window not yet officially open, it is, so far, so good, for the Villa manager.
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