A sober look at life under Lambert so far in the 2013/14 season
Let me start by saying that I am generally happy and content with the start Aston Villa have made to the season.
The points tally against Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool is more than most fans would have expected. Especially when you consider that since Arsenal moved to the Emirates Stadium in 2006, Manchester City have made a deficit in transfer fees of £640m, whilst Chelsea’s transfer fee deficit is a whopping £880m.
Competing with clubs who have made the sort of expenditure of Manchester City and Chelsea is tough, very tough. Whilst the last team to beat Arsenal before Villa did in August was European Cup holders, Bayern Munich.
Following the excitement of Villa’s opening fixtures, the tranquility of an international break has provided fans with time to reflect on the positive start to the season, and yesterday, an email was sent to season ticket holders by Paul Lambert. In the email Lambert was right to say that some of Aston Villa’s results have been unexpected and were a reason for fans to feel real pride in the team. Paul Lambert was also correct to refer to the positive team spirit in the dressing room, which was evident when Bacuna scored a peach of a free kick against Manchester City and celebrated wildly with the bench.
Further evidence of Lambert’s suggested, ‘big coming together’ can be seen through the lack of sulking, or simmering on the bench as some of the more ‘high maintenance’ and disruptive players have been moved on during the summer. In addition, the average age of the squad has been reduced and academy players such as Ciaran Clark are showing good form in the early stages of the season. Villa are in a much better position than Fulham, for example, as Fulham have an aging team of players whose average age is 30, in contrast to Villa’s 24.
In many respects there are lots of things to be positive and happy about as Villa fans look forward to the next round of Premier League fixtures. However, what it appears often taboo to mention, or ‘negative‘ to contemplate (according to some), is the issue of the team’s playing style, philosophy and the simple question; where does Lambert envisage taking us?
Some perceive these questions as a direct criticism of the manager, rather than merely a polite inquiry for information.
Looking back to when Alex McLeish was hired as manager, a select group of fans attended a fan’s forum with the new manager and were informed by McLeish that he wanted to play ‘attacking‘ football with raiding full backs. McLeish’s message proved to be as contradictory as Margaret Thatcher’s citation of St. Francis of Assisi on the steps of Downing Street where she said, “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony….” McLeish’s St. Francis of Assisi moment was perhaps, “Where there are raiding full-backs, may I bring…….Alan Hutton and Stephen Warnock”.
In fact, trying to discover what a manager’s ‘idea‘ is can often be a tricky business. Some manager’s are happy to endlessly talk about their ‘philosophy‘ such as Brendan Rogers, whilst other managers are far more reticent to discuss their ideas. Paul Lambert, in my view, falls into the latter category.
The current Villa boss has now purchased over a dozen new players, and his spell as manager has had its ups and downs as Lambert himself admitted yesterday when he referred to ‘growing pains’. Lambert’s rabble-rousing address to the fans lifted many as he used positive expressions such as, ‘coming together‘, ‘exciting’, ‘attack’, ‘desire’, ‘effort’. Yet, despite the positivity, Lambert didn’t elaborate much on many of the questions that it would be interesting to know the answer to, such as: does the manager want the team to play in a specific way? Are we going to be a team who imposes its own style, or will we be a team who looks to concede possession and ‘park the bus‘ against teams like Manchester City? Are we a high pressing team? A counter attacking team? A possession based team? Or are we happy to be a team with no real identity who changes tactics from match to match?
Having watched Villa’s opening fixtures this season, the most interesting observation is the radical change of tactics from game to game. Against Arsenal, for example, Villa were successful by aggressively hunting in packs and pressurising Arsenal players with the ball. Arsenal were permitted to have possession in their own half, but as soon as they entered Villa’s half of the pitch several Villa players hunted for the ball and sought to exploit quick transitions in attack. Following the successful start against Arsenal, similar tactics were used against Chelsea where the team played in a feisty, spunky way and made Chelsea’s midfield look pretty ordinary at times. The passion Villa showed could also be seen on the sidelines as a pumped-up Lambert prowled, shouted, gestured at his troops whilst having a spat with Jose Mourinho.
The first home game of the season against Liverpool, however, was a different matter. The team started slowly, they were second to most balls and appeared to have lost much of the aggression they had shown against Chelsea and Arsenal. In the second half, Villa made a much improved fist of it, but Liverpool’s defensive midfield axis and solid defence proved too strong to break down despite Benteke’s best efforts. Click for Part 2