After a slight revival, culminating in a 3-1 win at Anfield, Villa have been in terrible form of late, sliding down the table into 17th. The Midlands club have lost four of their last seven Premier League games, winning academic english writing just once in this run. Worse of all, they have been leaking goals, conceding 21 in their last seven. The loss against Southampton last weekend, who have now done the double over Villa, was a huge blow. As was their failure to hold onto a 2 goal lead against local rivals West Brom. Relegation is now looking a real possibility for a side that under Martin O’Neill has ambitions to finish in the top four. So what has gone wrong at Aston Villa?
Too much too soon?
Paul Lambert came into Villa with the bold aim of reshuffling the pack and re-invigorating a side that has essentially stagnated since Martin O’Neill was in charge. Lambert let some of the older players like Collins leave, dropping others such as Shay Given, in favour of fresh new talent. Benteke has been the embodiment of this, having come in for the previously consistent goal scoring threat of Darren Bent, in what has been somewhat of a revolution at Villa Park. The shake-up is much needed, but one can argue that Lambert has been too aggressive and too hasty in his upheaval of the squad. In football we often take for granted the fact that evolution is key to growth and success, not revolution, although patience is most certainly a virtue for most football fans and club owners.
Lambert took over a side who had slipped down the table under McLiesh, but worse of all played a brand of football that was woefully uninspiring. Lambert himself had Norwich playing a relatively direct but attractive brand of football and looked to what to get the Villa faithful behind a new, young, dynamic Villa side. The average age of Villa under Lambert is noticeably down. The side that drew 2-2 to West Brom included just four players over the age of 25, the oldest of which was goalkeeper Brad Guzman at 28. Of the most used team by Villa this season, only four of the players were at the club last year, Weimann, Agbonlahor, Clark and Guzan, demonstrating the huge overhaul that has been undertaken at the club.
Inability to defend
Much of this relates to the previous point. We have seen in recent weeks in particular how poor Villa have been at the back, conceding four goals against Bradford for example over two legs. In fact, no side has conceded more goals than Villa this season, who have let in a shocking 44 goals in just 23 games, 1.91 goals a game. Compare this to last season when Villa were, despite a poor season, relatively better at defending, conceding just 1.35 goals per game. This upturn in defensive frailties for Villa is obviously costing them, as we saw when they failed to hold a two goal lead against West Brom at the weekend. What has added to this is the release of two former centre-backs in Collins, currently playing well at West Ham and Cuellar, currently getting regular football at Sunderland. Both of whom could probably have continued to do a job at Villa.
One major issue in their defensive solidity is that Lambert seems to be unsure on what is his best formation. According to Whoscored.com Lambert has tried out eight different formations, with his favourite being a variation of the 4-2-3-1, used 9 times. Lambert has begun to experiment with a three man back line, utilizing it against West Brom as well as on two other occasions from the start. Villa are just far too open; conceding the second highest number of shots per game with 17.4 shots per game. For Villa’s position to improve they simply must tighten up and become better organized, conceding so many shots per game is indicative of how poor they have become as a defensive side.
Striking a balance between attack and defence is clearly key. One issue is that individuals have let Lambert down at times this season. N’Zogbia has, despite a recent semi-renaissance, so often failed to justify his £9.5 million price tag since joining the club. Whilst as noticed Agbonlahor himself has been less productive this season, although he was much improved at West Brom last week. Getting the best out of N’Zogbia, Agonlahor and Benteke could be the key to improving Villa’s attacking prospects, but having three such attacking players in the side might further limit their ability to defend. A 4-3-3/4-5-1 hybrid with N’Zogbia wide left and Agonlahor wide right could be a possible formation for Lambert to consider.
Is the future bright?
Whilst things look terrible now it is obvious that Lambert is trying to build something for the future at Villa. He has come in and tried to overhaul a tired squad, without being given huge funds. If he can keep them in the Premier League, which is a big IF, there is certainly the prospect for a bright future at Villa Park. So many of the current playing staff are youth team prospects as well as players purchased for small fees who are also very young. The race at the bottom is certainly getting tighter with Villa involved in a serious relegation dog fight.
Their next league game, at home to Newcastle, has to be considered as a must win. Getting relegated would be nothing short of a disaster; as if the club can stay in the league Lambert certainly has an admirable long term vision to progress the club. Next season’s Premier League TV deal, the highest ever, is even more incentive for Villa to remain in the division and may prompt Randy Lerner to make a late foray into the transfer market.