Lambert's Tactical Nous, Villa's Brave Hearts Bring Valuable Victory at Stoke
If you're an Aston Villa fan, you're feeling pretty happy with your team right now.
This season was always going to be tough—the chairman said it, the chief executive said it, the manager said it. Heck, even the players said it.
With a young crop of players and no spine to speak of, Villa fans "endured" every 90-minute spell their side carried out during the first five months of the season.
But something changed at home to West Ham. Christian Benteke and Charles N'Zogbia scored the goals to bury Sam Allardyce's side and secure three points in a must-win game.
Did Matthew Lowton, Ciaran Clark and Co. come of age that day?
We've gone from "they're only kids..." in a derogative, depressed tone to "they're only kids!" in an excited, look-to-the-future-esque tone. Funny what four wins and 12 points can do, isn't it?
The Stoke victory was perhaps the most impressive of all. Reading and QPR were vital, but a winless record at the Britannia Stadium since 1984 was a statistic very much playing on the minds of the fans.
It's one thing to beat the sides you simply have to beat, but can you use that momentum to carry on winning?
Lambert made two changes to the side that lost in a valiant effort to Liverpool—Jordan Bowery and Fabian Delph came in for Yacouba Sylla and Barry Bannan.
It signaled a formation change: back to the 4-2-3-1 after a month or so utilising the 4-3-3.
Fans questioned the inclusion of Bowery, who was making just his second league start. But it's critical to take into account who the other team he started against are: West Ham—a similarly physical and tall team.
He was brought in to track the runs, work hard, defend against aerial bombardments and deflect attention from Benteke.
With Huth and Shawcross doubling up on the Belgian, Lambert had obvious concerns of his target man being crowded out. When in sustained possession, Bowery shifted forward from the No. 10 position to become a secondary target.
Villa played off either of them, and Stoke's feeble attempts to mark Benteke out of the game failed.
Bringing Delph in was also a wise choice; Sylla plays in a timid, scared fashion despite his size, and what's needed at the Britannia is guts, determination and grit.
The value of Delph, Gabriel Agbonlahor and others was vital to stemming Stoke's flow, and Bowery played well and interchanged superbly with Andi Weimann to evade markers.
Lambert's changes were excellent as usual, proving the worth of a tactically astute manager in the modern game. Stoke, who are currently executing an Olympic dive toward the relegation zone, could only hope to boast such a thing.
But tactical reactivity gets you nowhere if you don't have players with heart, and the Scot has impressed many with his ability to motivate. After a dismal Christmas period, many had Villa down.
After a wonderful seven games, most have them surviving.
There's still a lot of work to be done, but Villa fans will feel that six or seven points from Norwich (away), Sunderland (home) and Fulham (home) will see the team stride over the finish line with room to spare.
And what fuels that hope? Villa are playing some of the best football in England right now.
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