By Adam Keeble
Aston Villa are in the relegation zone after a brutal week… And Paul Lambert has finally paid the price. What can be learned from the cruel lessons against Chelsea and Hull City not to mention what Paul Lambert had been doing and saying over the past few days?
WE SCORED… AND LOST
As the footballing nation continued to mock Aston Villa for their lack of goals (and our former manager decided the way to fix this was to bench Benteke – one of the few players who can actually put the ball in the net) a win was never looking likely against title-chasing Chelsea. The Londoners played with no urgency and were leading inside 10 minutes. If they had gone for the jugular, the damage would have been worse. Villa were harmless: no shots on target in the first half and only panicked half-chances to show for all their dull football.
The second half was better and of course Okore broke the goal drought of 659 minutes, in front of the Holte. The eventual Chelsea winner had some good fortune (and some terrible defending) going for it and it was against the run of play, but with Villa’s substitutes still yet to contribute a goal (Benteke eventually did come on and mainly watched the game go on around him) and with the team still waiting for the first goal in the last 15 minutes of a game, the writing was on the wall and Villa lost again.
GIL UP, CLEVERLEY DOWN
Carles Gil looked increasing like he will only get better and better and he was at the heart of anything good about Villa going forward including the goal. Unlike Cleverley, who looks more and more like the kid on your school team who you really want to do well and everyone cheers when he does something brave or skillful only for him to fall on his arse and give the ball away a few minutes later.
When fans cheered Cleverley leaving the field against Chelsea, Twitter and some members of the press deduced maybe Lambert was being forced to play Cleverley due to a clause in his contract that he must start. “No way,” he said. “I try to pick the team that I think will win the game. That’s all I ever do… Maybe he’s trying too hard. Tom is one of the guys who never hides from the ball. He wants to do well here.”
And then in the next game, against a far weaker on paper Hull City team, Benteke remained on the bench (because that worked great against Chelsea) and Cleverly is dropped because… well, maybe he tried to hard against Chelsea or decided he didn’t want the ball anymore and doesn’t want to do well here. Or maybe because since he arrived at Villa he has hardly sparked the creativity in the midfield, has provided no goals, not assists and very few shots on or off target, has lost the goodwill of the fans and is proving to be no better than the players we already had here before he arrived.
The Hull City game was desperate. Cleverley and Benteke on the bench is one thing. But there was significant confusion among fans over the line-up and tactics. Did naming Sinclair and Gil with Weimann and Agbonlahor mean a standard 442? If so, with two wingers why was Benteke on the bench? If there was supposed to be an attacking diamond, why was Gil so often helping out Hutton at the back? And then when Benteke came on, was he really playing behind Agbonlahor leading the line (until the roles were reversed in one of very few penetrating moments of the game for Villa)?
AND FINALLY, LAMBERT GETS UGLY…
“You have to make sure you’re out of that bottom three” said Lambert, shortly after leading his team into the bottom three.
Thirteen cup finals. What a terrible, cliched throwaway line. If you aren’t treating every game as seriously as a cup final, you’re going to lose (and if you don’t take early-round cup games seriously, you aren’t going to reach a cup final, right Paul?).
That’s what got Villa into the bottom three. Experimenting with tactics but not formations, not having a back-up plan, changing the playing style mid-season – and still not changing the results.
The pièce de résistance of Lambert’s last post-match interview was his suggestion that: “We have got to win ugly now”. Hadn’t he already tried the whole playing ugly thing? In fact we’ve even tried ugly and boring!
“No matter how you do it, you have to win,” continued Lambert. “We try to play the game the right way. Now you have to win ugly to get points.”
That was the scariest suggestion of them all. It meant, if he was right, that Villa should always win games. The power was always inside them. All they have to do is click their claret boots and say “There’s no better place to win points than at home!” and we’ll fly up the table and into the European spots.
If that was true, why had it taken him setting new records in failure to finally put it into place? Did he really think if Villa were winning games this season, be it good, bad or ugly, the fans would be calling for his head after two years of being in this same position? Did he think if Villa were pushing for 7th rather than 17th he still would have struggled to find new recruits in the January window?
After the unbeaten start to this season, and his new contract extension, Lambert said: “We can look to the future with real optimism and determination to this season successful, and the seasons that follow. “In the immediate wake of those comments, Villa lost 3-0 to Arsenal, 3-0 to Chelsea, 2-0 to Manchester City, 3-0 to Everton, 2-0 to QPR, and 2-1 to Spurs. Now passed the midway point of the season, we are in the bottom three.
The lesson is clear: The club was very quick to react to the first signs of a bright start to the season. But was very slow to react to a slow, certain slide towards relegation. Time will tell if the new man has enough time to turn the team’s fortunes around.
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