With no wins from their last eight league games and cup humblings inflicted by Millwall and Bradford, Aston Villa’s season is in something of a tailspin. Second from bottom, and with the division’s worst goal difference, there is a very real possibility of their 25-season stay in the top flight coming to an embarrassing conclusion.
This wasn’t the scenario that many envisaged back in May. Having barely scraped survival under Alex McLeish, setting a record for fewest home wins along the way, the Villa hierarchy had identified the more attack-minded Paul Lambert as the man to take them forward.
In Lambert’s final game as Norwich manager, they cantered to a 2-0 win over his future employers, who immediately set the wheels in motion for his appointment.
Fresh from back-to-back promotions and an impressive 12th-place finish in the Premier League, Lambert’s managerial stock was at an all-time high. A motivational leader and wily transfer market operator, he’d got a ragtag bunch of lower league journeymen and promising youngsters performing spectacularly above themselves. But, fearful that this upward momentum couldn’t last forever, the lure of taking the reins at Aston Villa proved too great.
Following the optimism that greeted his arrival, Villa fans are now in a rather more acrimonious mood. The midseason slump shows little sign of abating and their January transfer dealings were a sign that Randy Lerner is no longer prepared to throw good money after bad.
The early aim of becoming European regulars is but a distant dream and, having sunk more than £200 million into the ailing Midlands giant, Villa’s American owner has been forced to cut his cloth accordingly.
Gone are the days when Darren Bent was bought for a club record fee to protect his investment from relegation worries. This time around the rather less illustrious Yacouba Sylla and Simon Dawkins were the token attempts to arrest Villa’s decline. For such low-budget deals Lerner has bore the brunt of Villa fans’ frustrations, Lambert ploughing on relatively unscathed.
There are murmurs of discontent with the manager but nothing more. Most acknowledge that he inherited a club low on confidence and was given the difficult task of scaling back the wage bill while remaining competitive.
Out went Emile Heskey, Carlos Cuellar and James Collins. In came Ashley Westwood, Matthew Lowton and Christian Benteke. The squad’s average age has fallen dramatically and a lack of big-game experience is targeted by opponents as a key weakness.
Yet Lambert’s older signings have arguably been his worst. Where Benteke has prospered as a bustling target man, and the other youngsters have at least shown flashes of potential, Ron Vlaar and Karim El Ahmadi have been massive disappointments.
Although both internationals in their late 20s, on whom the burden of responsibility falls, the former has left Ciaran Clark woefully exposed while the latter looks increasingly lightweight and anonymous. Neither are the leaders they were expected to be.
Despite these misjudgements the Lambert way is worth persisting with, however. In recent years Lerner’s strategy has been too short term, managers readily discarded and players all too often bought at their peak, for exorbitant prices, only to become impossible to shift.
For once there is forward planning in evidence, an emphasis on phasing out the high earners in favour of eager academy graduates. Like relegation rivals QPR, Lerner could have gone down the populist route with another January splurge but sustainability should pay dividends in the long run, whether they go down or not. Having initiated this difficult evolution, backtracking now would be foolhardy in the extreme.