Has Villa’s Starting XI Improved? Lambert’s Summer Signings Appraised
The players are in, Randy’s cheque book is closed, and Paul Lambert has gathered together his players ready for battle. The 2013 / 2014 Aston Villa squad is quintessentially now Lambert’s squad. The players are his players, the signings are his signings.
In Lambert’s second season he must deliver, and the Villa boss is well aware that fans will expect more from the team this season than simply surviving. There must be progression, both defensively and offensively.
Paul Lambert has secured seven new players during the summer transfer window with the additions of, Libor Kozak (Lazio, £5-7m), Jores Okore (Nordsjaelland, £4m), Leandro Bacuna (Groningen £1.5m), Aleksander Tonev (Lech Poznan, £2.5m), Antonio Luna (Seville, £2m), Nicklas Helenius (Aalborg, £1.2m), and Jed Steer (Norwich, £250k compensation).
Villa’s net spend is roughly £18.5m, which was less than the estimated £23m Lambert spent last summer.
However, will the new additions improve the starting XI? Is the squad better balanced than last season? And did Lambert cover the gaps which needed to be covered?
Below we assess the new arrivals and evaluate the impact they may have.
If you asked any Villa fan what their number one priority would be this summer, a new central defender would probably rank first or second on their wish list. The yearning for a new centre-back stretched back to January, with Villa conceding a stack full of goals, and the desire for a new centre back had become almost palpable by the time Okore arrived at the club.
The fact that Chelsea had made an unsuccessful attempt to sign Okore in January added to his allure, but more substantially than that, the player is just a great young prospect. Calm, composed, competitive, pacy, ambitious and confident with the ball at his feet, Okore appears to have a big future in the game.
Lambert himself deserves high praise for acting so quickly to bring the Danish defender to the club as once Villa’s bid became known, other clubs sought to make late bids. As a young defender Okore will be forgiven for making mistakes, but he is exactly the sort of smart signing the club should be making.
The 23-year-old winger was a player in demand when Villa sought to sign him this summer. Offers were on the table from Scottish giants Celtic and other clubs in the Bundesliga, but Alex Tonev chose to play in the Premier League with the Villans instead.
Villa fans had hoped that Paul Lambert would make the attacking midfield position a priority, and the young Bulgarian was perhaps not quite the sort of player many fans were expecting. Personally, I had imagined that Lambert would sign a player who could play in between the lines and who could unlock defences with precise and incisive passes.
Tonev is more a player who makes space for himself to shoot, or prefers to attack down the wings with pace and changes of direction (like Marc Albrighton). It may be a little early to judge Tonev, but I was surprised that Lambert bought a player principally on the recommendation of Stiliyan Petrov.
To play in the attacking midfield role, a player needs to have instinctive awareness of the players around him. In addition, an attacking midfielder requires swivel-eyed appreciation of the team’s opportunities for a pass or a shot. At the moment, the young Bulgarian has been a little greedy with the ball and unaware of his team mates. On a positive note, Villa players training with Tonev seem impressed by his array of skills, but will he be intelligent enough?
The Sevilla left-back arrived at Aston Villa bursting with energy and positivity and it has been a joy to see a player with so much passion and commitment. Luna has already established himself as a fan favourite, and he seems determined to make an impact in the Premier League.
There are technically better left backs in La Liga who Paul Lambert could have signed, such as Luna’s Sevilla team mate Alberto Moreno, but Luna’s personality is a real bonus for Paul Lambert as Lambert is seeking to assemble a squad of hungry players. In any event, it is not always the best footballers who succeed, rather the players who work hard to improve their game.
Luna has some difficulties defensively, highlighted again against Newcastle, but the youngster is positive in an attacking sense and for a price of £2m he is a relatively safe signing.
The gangly young Danish striker joined Aston Villa in the knowledge that he would fight for his place and be a bit-part player this season. However, the Dane has shown glimpses of real quality in the appearances he made in pre season.
As a work-in-progress Helenius is promising as he is effective in the final third of the pitch, contributes positively to the associative play of the team, has a good first touch, passes the ball cleanly and he knows where the back of the net is. Physically, in order to adapt to the demands of the Premier League, Helenius will need a season to adjust.
Paul Lambert has made a shrewd decision by cutting out the middle man. Helenius’s natural development might have seen him move to the Eredivisie, play for a few seasons there, score some goals and move to the Premier League for £7m or so in a few years time. Lambert has taken a gamble on buying the player now and developing him in the rough and tumble of the Premier League. For the cost of £1.2m the Villa boss cannot go wrong.
On signing Bacuna, Lambert praised the Dutch midfielder’s useful versatility. Lambert’s words might not have been of the kind that Bacuna wished to hear, as the player was hoping to become the next Frank Lampard.
Mixed reports have been received from Dutch football fans, from Bacuna being plagued by bad management decisions, to him being a pretty average Eredivisie player. The truth is probably somewhere in between but the player is still a young man with a lot of first team experience in a respectable league.
Paul Lambert has named the Dutch midfielder, “Mr. Fix it” and Villa fans will be hoping that Bacuna is “Mr. Fix it” rather than “Mr. F%$ it up”.
Bacuna can play in central midfield, right back, and on the wing. Does he excel in any of these positions? No. Is he an improvement on any of the players we have in those positions? No. Is he a good footballer? Not noticeably. I was puzzled with this signing and for the price Lambert paid for the player I would have preferred Villa to sign Crewe’s Luke Murphy. He’s utility cover from the bench at best.
The signing of Jed Steer was not a priority, but it was not considered to be a gamble as Paul Lambert acquired the player for a bargain price of £250k.
Steer has received many plaudits as a young goal-keeper and Lambert knows the player very well. You would think that there isn’t much that could go wrong with this deal, but Brad Guzan is still the club’s number one and looks likely to remain between the sticks for a few years yet.
Libor Kozak’s signing was disappointing for many reasons.
The club had briefed members of the press that Lambert was looking for an attacking midfielder throughout the summer. Fans were teased with the hint that Lambert had signed six players early in the summer as he was hoping to pick up a real quality bargain later on. In fact, right up until the last minute fans were tantalized by the news that Lambert would add an attacking midfielder to the squad ‘if the numbers were right’.
No attacking midfielder then arrived and Lambert alternatively spent up to a reported £7m on a striker when Villa already had Gabby, Benteke, Weimann, Bowery and Helenius in the ranks. Some clubs only have two strikers, others only have three. Villa now have six strikers!
Following Kozak’s arrival at the club various articles appeared in Lambert’s defence claiming that Kozak isn’t an out and out striker (he is), and that Kozak would take the pressure off Benteke. Maybe so, but why can’t Helenius and Bowery help with Benteke’s work-load? Teams don’t always have to play with a big striker up front, especially in away games.
If the fee -as some press have reported – was £7 million – (we’re thinking more £5 million), I cannot see the logic in Kozak being Lambert’s most expensive signing so far as Aston Villa manager. Lambert could have acquired a quality midfielder for £7m and quite frankly there is no manager in the Premier League who would ever prefer to play Kozak rather than Benteke up front.
After Tony Pulis was sacked last season as Stoke manager, I also cannot think of a manager who opts to play with a 4-4-2 formation either. Villa have a world class centre-forward with four other striking options, did Lambert really need another striker….?
It maybe future-proofing for any Benteke departure, but what about the here and now?
Villa desperately lacked creativity last season and Kozak is not the sort of player to create chances for other players. Benteke works fabulously in Lambert’s system as he has a quality first touch and can keep the ball close to him when Villa counter attack. Kozak’s first touch is not comparable to Benteke and I am not sure that Kozak is the sort of player Villa should be investing in for the future.
This signing reminds me of when Martin O’Neil made the mistake of signing Heskey in the January transfer window (or even Taylor signing Tony Cascarino). O’Neill had accumulated an impressive unbeaten run in away games playing Gabby in the false nine position, but he then brought in Heskey in January and Villa were reduced to lumping balls into the box and hoping that Carew or Heskey would get on the end of a cross.
I really hope we don’t go back to that.