5 Decisions by Paul Lambert That Have Let Aston Villa Down in 2013-14
Aston Villa fans have been left with a sense of deja vu as the 2013-14 Premier League season comes to a close. The Villa supporters are faced with the threat of relegation for a third successive season with just three games left to play for the injury-riddled Villans.
The unrest and displeasure of the Villa faithful was on display yet again after the team lost their fifth match in six tries against Swansea on Saturday. Support for manager Paul Lambert is at an all-time low as the team faces a crucial meeting with Hull this weekend.
While Randy Lerner and the players are also culpable for Villa's disheartening season, many of Lambert's decisions as Villa manager are clearly identifiable as key reasons that Villa are struggling to perform.
If the Scottish manager returns as Villa manager next season then he will have to acknowledge and rectify his errors in order for Villa to improve and avoid yet another flirtation with Championship football.
These are five managerial decisions that have let Villa down in 2013-14.
Over-Reliance on Christian Benteke
As Villa's most talented player, it is completely understandable that Lambert would want to structure his team's approach around the strengths of Christian Benteke.
Consequently, Villa have focused the overwhelming majority of their play this season on building off of Benteke's ability to win headers and his pace on the counter. Lambert's team sets out to absorb their opponent's pressure and create chances on the break or from long balls over the top.
Unfortunately, this strategy has backfired in multiple ways. Even with Benteke available, this approach has limited Villa and made them a predictable opponent. Opposing teams know what to expect when they face Villa and Lambert's team has not demonstrated the tactical flexibility or versatility when their preferred tactics do not work.
Additionally, Lambert's desire to willingly concede possession has placed a heavy burden upon Villa's young, error-prone defenders. Villa's defence has not displayed the discipline, experience or organization to succeed with consistency against sustained pressure.
Finally, Benteke's season-ending injury has compounded the issue by leaving Villa without the central cog to their offensive machine. The physical attributes Benteke possesses are not replaceable and his absence has crippled Villa's already flawed attacking approach.
Poor Use of Substitutions
Implementing substitutions is a crucial part of managing a game and is an area that Lambert has not succeeded in as Villa manager this season.
Lambert is overly reluctant to make substitutions in various situations where they could have a game-changing impact. Too often Lambert has waited far too long to make a substitution when his team are down and needing a goal or he has failed to replace a tiring, ineffective player with fresh legs.
Part of Lambert's reluctance to make substitutions relates to the thin nature of Villa's squad. Injuries and Villa's modest transfer budget have prevented Lambert from having an assortment of dependable options off the bench.
Nonetheless, players such as Marc Albrighton, Nicklas Helenius, Callum Robinson and Matthew Lowton have languished on the bench too often when they could have positively impacted a game.
Whether it's a half-time switch or even a 60th-minute replacement, Lambert's hesitancy to make in-game adjustments has left his team in a poor position to win on multiple occasions.
Failure to Sign a Creative Midfielder
When the summer transfer window closed in 2013, the most glaring need that Villa had failed to address was to acquire a creative midfielder whose confidence on the ball, vision and passing ability would help craft chances for Villa's forwards to convert.
A summer move for Hiroshi Kiyotake would have solved this problem and Villa's interest in the player showed Lambert's awareness of the issue. Unfortunately, the transfer never came to fruition and a similar player was not targeted to fill the void.
This conundrum has only become more clear as the season has progressed. Without a No. 10 in the squad, Villa have struggled to break down an organized defence and are often out of ideas in the final third.
Ashley Westwood possesses good vision from deep-lying midfield, but he is more of a volume passer than the playmaking dynamo that Villa need. Marc Albrighton is an eager crosser and energetic runner, but his creative contributions are limited to the flank.
The winter transfer window should have solved this problem. Wes Hoolahan was targeted by Lambert, per Daily Star (h/t Samuel Stevens of the Independent) his former manager, to come to Villa Park and act as a midfield creator. Instead, the transfer fell apart just like Kiyotake's and the window closed without the needed reinforcements.
Now, as Villa are slumping to the finish line, the lack of creativity in Villa's attack is as apparent as ever. Not signing a playmaker has haunted Lambert and Villa for the entire season.
Marginalizing Marc Albrighton
As previously stated, Villa's dire need for creativity has plagued the team all season. Strangely, Albrighton, one of Villa's few creative outlets, has had a difficult time breaking into the first-team under Lambert, despite possessing qualities Villa otherwise lack.
Albrighton has started just eight matches this season and Lambert's marginalization of the academy product has weakened the team.
For the first half of the season the winger was a forlorn figure at Villa Park and Albrighton was even sent on loan to Wigan for a month after being deemed surplus to requirements by Lambert.
When Lambert finally called upon Albrighton, using him for a string of matches in December, the English midfielder responded with encouraging performances full of energy and a willingness to attack his defender.
These displays, however, were not enough to earn Albrighton regular playing time and he has only begun featuring more consistently over the past several matches. During this period, Albrighton has been Villa's best player and likeliest source of a goal. Not trusting Albrighton sooner was a big mistake.
Reluctance to Drop Poor Performers
Lambert's relatively conservative approach can be further seen in his willingness to stick with underperforming players, even through long periods of poor form. Two players who have been regular starters this season exemplify this issue.
Nathan Baker has been one of Villa's first-choice centre-backs for the majority of the season despite making numerous errors over the past two seasons. Technically limited, slow to react and a rash tackler, Baker has remained favoured by Lambert throughout a slew of calamitous performances.
Similarly, Andreas Weimann has struggled mightily this season under the weight of increased expectations. The young forward has scored just three goals and has a disturbing habit of disappearing from matches altogether.
Both players have turned in good performances for the club and have youth on their side. However, Lambert's overconfidence in both men and his reluctance to drop them has hurt the team.