Friday, 10 January 2014

Lambert needs results to buy time at Villa

I've had my say on Twitter recently. I'm a Paul Lambert man and have been from day one, but his FA Cup comments ahead of the Sheffield United defeat proved costly. What better way to heal those wounds than with a home win over Arsenal on Monday night!

So Kevin Hatchard of Sportsmedia's taking my place. Here's his thoughts on what's wrong with Lambert and how his fortunes could change:

The Villa boss is dividing opinion among fans
It occurs to me that there is currently a noticeable spilt among Aston Villa fans when it comes to the thorny issue of Paul Lambert’s tenure as manager. There are some who argue that he’s taking the club forward, bringing through youngsters and delivering an exciting brand of fast-paced, counter-attacking football. Some say his hands have been tied by the financial strictures placed upon him by Villa owner Randy Lerner, and that he hasn’t been given the same funds that were made available to previous managers.

However, there are some who accuse Lambert of failing to drag the club out of mediocrity, of maintaining a dreadful home record, and of making a clutch of errors in the transfer market. His critics have been handed further ammunition by the club’s limp FA Cup exit at home to League One Sheffield United, a competition he naively admitted he could do without. It’s one thing to prioritize the Premier League over cup competitions, but to state it so plainly was an error, and an insult to paying fans.

It’s worth examining Lambert’s Premier League record compared to his immediate predecessors. If we consider points per game records in the top flight (win percentage can often be misleading), we see that Lambert has overseen 58 PL games as Villa boss, which have yielded an average of 1.1 points. That isn’t a whole lot better than his much-maligned predecessor Alex McLeish, who collected an average of one point per game. Gerard Houllier was an odd choice by Villa, and never convinced the fans he was the right man for the job, but his PPG record is still better than Lambert’s (1.18).

Lambert underestimated Villa's desire for Cup success 
Lambert’s counter-attacking style can produce some thrilling results on the road (last season’s victory at Liverpool and this term’s win at Arsenal are shining examples), but he has failed to find the right formula at home. Under his guidance, Villa have won just seven of their 29 league games at Villa Park. Last season, only the three relegated clubs had worse home records, and this term only the bottom club Sunderland have collected fewer points at home. This is a chronic issue, and frankly it shows tactical inflexibility. When Villa don’t have space to counter, they lack the ingenuity to open teams up. All too often at home, Villa resort to direct tactics, pumping the ball long and looking for flick-ons. That’s all very well if it works, but if it doesn’t it merely hands possession to Villa’s opponents. Villa have an average possession of 42%, and their pass success rate is an unimpressive 74%.

Lambert does deserve huge credit for recognising the talent of Christian Benteke, and the big Belgian flourished last season, scoring 19 goals in 34 league games. However, after seeing a potential summer move to Spurs fall through, his form has tailed off dramatically this term. He has scored just four goals in 15 league appearances, and looks a yard short. Lambert also gets a tick for bringing Ron Vlaar to the club, as “Concrete Ron” has been solid when he’s stayed clear of injuries. Lambert has been desperately unlucky in losing summer signings Jores Okore and Libor Kozak to long-term injuries, but some of his acquisitions don’t hold up to scrutiny.

Ashley Westwood is a tidy young midfielder, but although he keeps the ball moving, he just doesn’t affect matches enough. His stunning long-range effort against West Brom is his only Premier League goal in 47 appearances, and although he has seven assists, just one of those came this season. Karim El Ahmadi has plenty of energy but little in the way of end product – he has managed three goals and just one assist in 37 Premier League games. Left-back Joe Bennett appears to have been discarded after failing to adapt to the demands of the top flight, but his replacement Antonio Luna hasn’t fared much better. Bulgarian winger Aleksandar Tonev looked to be an exciting acquisition from CSKA Sofia, but he has been handed just six league starts, and in 14 PL appearances he hasn’t managed a single goal or assist.

At his previous club Norwich, Lambert successfully employed a policy of signing hungry young players with very little top-flight experience. While that’s a laudable idea, Lambert has implemented it at Villa in a way that has seen the club’s experienced players sidelined. The club’s record signing Darren Bent was completely frozen out, and while his performances certainly didn’t justify a regular place in Lambert’s team, no attempt was made to adjust the team’s tactics in a way that would play to his strengths. Shay Given, Stephen Ireland and Alan Hutton were summarily discarded, and while Lambert could easily justify those decisions, that’s a lot of experience and financial resource going to waste. Perhaps more subtle and flexible man-management could’ve got a bit more out of those players.

The much maligned ex-Blues boss.
Lambert’s commitment to giving young players a chance is to be commended, but I would question whether he has managed to improve any of the raw talents at his disposal. Defenders Nathan Baker and Ciaran Clark are still making the same naive mistakes they were making when Lambert arrived, Andreas Weimann has scored just one goal in 19 Premier League games this term, while the once-vaunted Marc Albrighton, Nathan Delfouneso and Barry Bannan made no impact under Lambert. Can Lambert loyalists really say his young guns are taking the club forward?

You can’t appraise Lambert’s time in charge without referencing last season’s semi-final debacle in the Capital One Cup. Villa were overcome by Bradford City, a team from the fourth tier of English football. This wasn’t just a one-off defeat – Villa were undone across two embarrassing matches. This can be seen as nothing else but a gigantic black mark on Lambert’s record – a miserable coaching failure.

Whenever I’ve spoken to Lambert I’ve found him to be a passionate and honest coach, who has total belief in his methods, and desperately wants to be the man to take Villa back into the limelight. He has been unlucky with injuries, and hamstrung by the need to reduce the wage bill, but results show that Lambert’s methods aren’t yielding progress. Villa are a healthy-looking six points clear of the dropzone, but three of their next four games are against clubs in the top five, and a rough run of results may tip the balance of opinion in favour of Lambert’s detractors. The Scot says wants time to rebuild the club from top to bottom, but only improved results will grant him that respite.