In recent weeks I have been banging the drum about what a fantastic club Aston Villa is, what a big club it is, what a special club it is and what a special ground Villa Park is. I have also been bemoaning the fact that not enough people seem to believe it any more, especially from within the club. Well, on Saturday evening we witnessed the football club as we all want to see it: a near capacity crowd making superb noise and the team producing an excellent performance that was full of belief, guts, skill and a will to win. On Saturday evening, everyone connected with the club was filled with pride.
For once there was no apathy and no inferiority complex. The players were in Chelsea’s faces from minute one to minute ninety-four and never let them settle at all. To restrict a team with the likes of Oscar, Hazard and Torres in its ranks to two attempts on target was a great defensive achievement. Better still, we attacked with purpose and always looked the more dangerous side even though Chelsea dominated possession.
Things certainly went our way. The referee getting the disallowed goal decision correct (with a little help from his eagle-eyed assistant), which he may not have done on another day, and Joe Bennett not getting sent off, when on another day he might have, all helped maintain our position of parity which was key to our gameplan. If Chelsea had gone ahead it would have been hard to get back in the game as Mourinho’s teams rarely let a winning postion slip. However, Chelsea didn’t score and any luck we had in the game we deserved. I always say to my staff that “you make your own luck in this world” or that “luck has a habit of evening itself out over a period of time”. Both those statements are applicable to the game on Saturday as we certainly didn’t have key decisions going our way back in August at Stamford Bridge when most neutral observers would argue Villa deserved at least a point.
The whole team performed admirably so it is perhaps unfair to single out certain players but I did think Bacuna, Delph, Benteke and Vlaar were outstanding. Joe Bennett also deserves a mention for coming into a tough match under huge pressure and performing very well indeed. On the day, no-one had a bad game and all the players could walk off that famous pitch knowing they had worn their claret and blue shirts with pride.
In a season which has had many lows (let’s not forget it is still only five home wins from fifteen games and fifteen points from the last fifteen games) this was a fantastic high. It wasn’t the first high of the season either. To have beaten three of the top four teams in the country and also draw at Anfield is an achievement not to be underestimated but cherished. I have often talked about how great Villa used to be and what we have achieved in the past but one thing we have never been particularly good at was beating the top sides so hats off to Lambert and his players as some of the results they have achieved in these sorts of games are superb and deserve great credit.
I always try to be fair. I criticise when it is justified and I give praise when it is due too. It is all about the club for me. In my report, I stated how much I supported Lambert’s appointment and even the strategy of buying young players but I can’t abide negative, long ball football and I can’t stand apathy and excuse management.
I have been deeply frustrated by the club’s lack of ambition on the pitch this season with a far too negative and ugly approach in games versus Newcastle, Sunderland, Palace, Swansea, West Ham and Sheffield United at Villa Park in particular and certain games away like those at Fulham, Stoke, Hull, West Ham and Everton.
If those sort of performances are a thing of the past and we are going to ditch long ball football moving forward then the my criticisms will disappear. All Lambert can do as the football manager is get the team playing in an energetic way, with high tempo, positive off the ball movement and instill a desire to win whilst making sure basic errors are reduced to a minimum. Whether these tactics and performances are a thing of the past is the big question though. We have home games left against Stoke, Fulham and Hull in particular and also the away game against Palace that will be a good indicator. For me, how we perform in those games will be the best indicator of how much progress we are making when added of course to our final points tally come the end of the season.
It is clear we have a very effective plan against the best teams in the country. This Chelsea result was no fluke as our other results against top four sides demonstrate and results against other teams that dictate the play. What we now have to prove to ourselves is that we can beat teams that will sit back and say, “You come at us, Villa. You break us down as we are happy to get a point or snatch a goal on the counter-attack or from a set piece.” That is the big challenge for this team and for Lambert in particular.
My favourite Villa manager in my lifetime was Ron Saunders. It is well documented what Villa won under Saunders. The reason I mention him is that his side scored lots and lots of goals with lightning quick counter-attacks just like this present Villa team is capable of doing. The counter-attack is not a bad thing and all the best teams use it regularly. However, Saunders’ Villa team and all the top sides also knew how to score goals when a team parked the bus. They knew how to crank up pressure with lots of movement off the ball, giving the player on the ball lots of options, which of course creates space. They stretched the play with width and that is what Villa and Lambert have to crack. Once you get ahead in these sorts of games the spaces open up anyway as the team that has come for a 0-0 has to come out and attack more so the counter-attack once again becomes a viable weapon, as we saw in the recent game against Norwich.
Is everything okay now that we have won back to back home games for the first time in four and a half seasons? Not at all. That was a shocking statistic and it is a huge testament to the loyalty of Aston Villa supporters that despite such woeful home form for such a long period of time that the club has still averaged crowds of 35,000.
As I touched on last week, it is vital that the club uses the summer to entice four top quality players to Villa Park, with a couple of astute experienced Bosman signings as well to add more leadership and depth to the squad. With the team being virtually safe, planning for this can start now.
If they do this and Lambert and the players continue to play in a positive style and manner then perhaps we will start to see the renaissance of this famous old club really take shape and maybe my see-saw relationship with Lambert will start to tip back towards him being the man to oversee that rebirth. The players have proved that they have the ability to play football the right way and that is something the manager must ensure that they do. I have said we will get between thirty-eight and forty points, which would be very poor, whereas a friend of mine believes we will finish on forty-seven points, which would represent progress. I hope that he is right.
I often get told that our players are young so they are going to be inconsistent. I understand that and I can even live with that. What I don’t understand, and won’t accept, is a negative approach where we see unwillingness to run off the ball as they are too fearful of losing defensive shape which leads to long ball, ineffective football.
As for the board members, they still fall short on football knowledge; a couple of good results cannot change that. Aston Villa Football Club still needs an executive director responsible for football for the first team manager to work with and a non-executive director who has a strong Aston Villa background to help drive the club forward. While the owner fails to show leadership, in my opinion, Villa still needs a strong figurehead as CEO, much like Levy at Spurs. The board may think that everything is rosy again after the last two games and things in the short term do look better with relegation almost certainly impossible. However, survival is still not good enough and this has to be the last season in which the word relegation is even mentioned in Villa circles. A renewed appetite for competition is needed.
We were given a wonderful, if rare, glimpse of what Villa Park can be like on Saturday. The atmosphere was electric and there is no better sight in football than a packed Holte End going wild after a brilliant Villa goal. The aim has to be to make those occasions much more regular. There are no ‘bonus’ matches, as Lambert described the Chelsea game. We are Aston Villa and have to send the message that Villa Park is not an easy place to visit. Chelsea, and Mourinho in particular, certainly got that message on Saturday night!
Have a good week, everyone. Hopefully, we will be reflecting on another victory this time next week. Three in a row! When did we last achieve that?