Aston Villa's past couple of seasons have not always been easy to watch. Billed as a rebuilding effort under Paul Lambert, per Andreas Weimann on the club's official site, Villa spent much of last season fighting to stay in the Premier League after injecting the team with younger players on lower wages.
Lambert's second season has shown some improvement and progress; Villa are four points better off and five places higher than at this stage last season. But Villa are hardly safe from the threat of going down and have won just two of their last 12 games.
With a run of tough games facing Lambert's team, the manager must now rely on a player he had barely acknowledged during his first 18 months in charge in order to ensure his team's safety: Marc Albrighton.
Albrighton has had an extremely trying couple of seasons at Villa Park. Having been with the club since he was a boy, Albrighton was one of the team's rising stars under previous managers Gerard Houllier and Alex McLeish.
Injuries have stalled much of Albrighton's progress during the past few seasons but even when fit, Albrighton has struggled to become a regular under Lambert's watch. Albrighton shared his frustration over these years in an interview with The Birmingham Mail's Mat Kendrick.
I’ve had a tough time over the past couple of years with injuries and I don’t want to keep dwelling on them. I just want to put all that behind me. I came in and thought I did well just before Christmas and then I got put to the bench for a few more games. But the manager gave me my chance against West Ham and again against Cardiff so hopefully now I can cement my place.
Out of contract in the summer, Albrighton has been Villa's outstanding player in the team's last two matches. The winger has proved his worth to the team and will be crucial in helping Villa avoid a relegation scrap for a third successive season.
Much of Villa's offence this season has been based on counter-attacking play. Wins against Arsenal, Manchester City and Southampton came as a result of Villa's eagerness to shift suddenly into a swift attack against an unprepared defence.
Albrighton, a pacey and energetic player, can contribute to this approach. More importantly, however, Albrighton's skill and creativity make him a deadly player that can unlock a more organized defence, an area Villa have struggled in. Albrighton's performances against West Ham and Cardiff demonstrate this unique value he offers to Villa.
.@RealMarc12 Albrighton attempted 20 crosses in just 34 mins vs West Ham. Only one player has attempted more in an entire game this season— Martin Laurence (@martinlaurence7) February 10, 2014
According to WhoScored, Albrighton averages 2.4 key passes and 2.3 successful crosses per game, leading his team in both areas. This is especially impressive since Albrighton has started just four of the 10 matches he has played in this season.
Albrighton's crossing is a potent offensive weapon that Villa do not possess when the Englishman is not in the team. Crossing is an especially useful tactic given the aerial prowess of Villa's forwards, most notably Christian Benteke.
The winger consistently attacks his defender and works hard to find the space to play a dangerous ball to one of his teammates. His aggressive play on the right flank is extremely important since Villa do not field a central midfielder who is adept at creating chances.
Villa's pair of right-backs, Matthew Lowton and Leandro Bacuna, are both strong in attack, complementing Albrighton's strengths and increasing Villa's offensive potency down the right.
Furthermore, Albrighton has a stinging shot and regularly troubles opposing keepers with fizzing drives and powerful volleys. While long shots are not the most reliable method of scoring, it is very valuable to have a player capable of scoring a goal from a tough position or against the run of play.
Albrighton's recent performances have earned him his place in the team, but the winger has been helped by poor showings from some of Villa's other players. Summer signing Aleksandar Tonev has been extremely disappointing and has lacked both composure and quality.
Andreas Weimann has been preferred as a right-sided forward for most of Lambert's time as manager, but Weimann has had a substandard season and lacks the technical refinement that Albrighton possesses. The Austrian is no longer a fixture of the starting XI and has returned to playing centrally, helping open the door for Albrighton's return.
Albrighton's work will be cut out for him to help guide his team out of their slump as Villa prepare to face Newcastle on Sunday. Despite being nine points clear of their opponent in the table, Newcastle have lost six of their last eight matches in the league and have struggled since losing their talisman, Yohan Cabaye.
Nonetheless, Villa were soundly outplayed in their last meeting. Lambert's side lacked creativity and purpose, qualities that Albrighton can offer. With his spell on the sidelines hopefully over, Albrighton will be a key player in ensuring Villa avoid a lengthy battle to avoid relegation.