My article this week was meant to be all about celebrating the first time in seven years that we had won three games in a row at Villa Park… Obviously that didn’t happen and, yet again, we witnessed a very disappointing performance at B6, one that resulted in home defeat number nine of the season, excluding cup games.
I read many tweets from fans bemoaning our inconsistency but I would state that whilst we may be inconsistent we are very predictable – predictably good against the top four side and predictably bad against teams in fifth to fifteenth. This is backed up with an excellent ten points from seven games against top four sides and only three wins from sixteen games against teams currently placed from fifth to fifteenth (two wins against Norwich and one against Southampton).
This is clearly down to the style of play. In my report a few weeks ago, I stated Lambert is primarily a behind the ball manager who thrives on games in which his team can sit, let the opposition dictate the play, commit men forward and then hit them with fast counter attacks. Our wins since my report, against Chelsea and also to a point against Norwich, were based firmly on those tactics.
Where we struggle, and have done all season, is against well organised, physical teams that boast strong midfields and good wide players. It is no coincidence that we have lost against Stoke (twice), West Ham, Newcastle (twice), Crystal Palace, Fulham and even Sheffield United – all strong, physical sides that expect us to dictate the play and won’t be suckered into our counter-attacking approach.
I really hoped we would have learnt by now that to beat such teams you have to do more than simply rely on counter-attacking football. You have to be prepared to run off the ball and to stretch the play with width and imaginative movement. We simply don’t do it and failed to do so again on Sunday despite a great start from a very well worked Benteke goal. This was no counter-attack but actually a well constructed move which led to what should have been the ideal start. An early goal coupled with the confidence gained from the previous two games should have meant we went on to win the game convincingly.
Instead, we inexplicably sat back and let all the tempo in our play drop whilst allowing our opponents back into the game. A similar thing happened when we scored an early goal against Swansea. By the time Stoke equalised there was an air of inevitability about it and our collapse in the game thereafter was frankly disgraceful. Not only were we void of ideas in the creativity stakes but we were also clearly second to most 50/50 balls, indicating a lack of desire and effort, which is totally unacceptable.
The injuries to El Ahmadi and Weimann did not help but Lambert putting Albrighton in a central position and Sylla in a wide role really didn’t make any sense at all when both players’ natural positions are the other way round. Surely dropping Sylla into the holding role and pushing Westwood further forward and Albrighton out wide would have been a better solution? I knew it was definitely game over when Westwood was taken off and Holt was brought on as that guaranteed more aimless long balls, which Stoke were happy to deal with all day long. In truth, though, the game was long gone from the Villans’ grasp by then and the fact we didn’t register a shot on target from minute twenty-two (When they equalised) to minute ninety-four (a deflected effort from Bertrand straight into the goalkeeper’s hands) says it all about our inability on the day to create anything of note. There was no method, no plan and very little shape. Additionally, our defending for the goals conceded was diabolical and it was by far our worst defensive display when Vlaar has played.
I am often told that we lack creativity because Lambert is trying to make us more solid. Well, we saw no creativity on Sunday yet conceded four goals, which is not a very good combination.
Stoke had not done the double over Villa since 1966, not won away since August, never scored three goals before in the first half in a top flight game and never scored four goals away from home in a top flight game, meaning a lot of unwanted records broken were broken when looking at things from Villa’s perspective.
In thirty-six years of going to Villa Park I don’t recall a manager splitting opinion like Paul Lambert does. He had huge support at the time of his appointment, largely because he came with a reputation for playing attacking football and also because he was replacing possibly the most unpopular Aston Villa manager in modern day history. I will never forget the chants of “We’re passing the ball, we’re Aston Villa, we’re passing the ball” at his first game in charge away at West Ham. Those days seem a long time ago and we certainly didn’t see much effective passing on Sunday or in many of our games this season but he still has support.
His supporters remain convinced he will play good football once he is allowed to sign better players whilst his detractors feel we will never amount to anything under him as he will remain one dimensional in terms of tactics regardless of who he ends up signing. He has the ability to make both groups look silly on a regular basis, which results in his supporters saying “I told you so” one week and the detractors getting their own back the following week.
Frankly, this is far from ideal. For my part, I worry that he is entrenched in counter-attacking football and really doesn’t have any other idea how to play. This style is fine for most away games and certainly home or away versus open, attractive teams. Indeed, it has delivered some great results like last week against Chelsea. However, in the Premiership there are many dogged teams that won’t allow that to work. Our continued lack of ideas in such games is something I find very worrying, especially as there is no sign of it improving.
This Stoke game was a big opportunity to show us that we had learnt what to do but we failed miserably. Going forward, this continues to raise big questions regarding Lambert. You may wish to remind us that he was attacking at Norwich but, if you think about it, the Canaries were in their first season in the Premiership so virtually all teams would have been looking to win against them hence the players attacking openly, which of course played into Lambert’s plan of counter-attacking football. He would never really have had the problem at Norwich of teams coming for a draw or parking the bus.
This, I believe, is why he and the team he coaches struggle when they now face such scenarios. In the Championship and League One, route one football would have gotten him out of such situations but in the Premiership you need more and we simply don’t have it at the moment.
It is ironic that he has seemingly devised the perfect system to beat the four best sides in the country yet struggles so badly to beat most of the others. When you take away our ten points gained versus the top four sides we would now be sitting equal bottom of the Premiership on twenty-four points and almost certainly looking at relegation. At some point, you would think the top sides will work out how to play us so what then?
So the see-saw with Lambert goes on and I don’t see it changing any time soon. The board members, I believe, remain supporters of Lambert as he continues to sustain our Premiership status while reducing the wage bill but unless there is a change in attitude or of personnel in the key positions at Villa Park this summer there will be far smaller gates next season and the 30,000 we had against Stoke will look like a good crowd as people get tired of constant failure and the heartache that losing over half of your home games brings.
Manchester United are next and the weekend and have nearly as bad a home record as us! Is this a mid-table clash or a top four type game? It’s clear the latter will suit us more so let’s hope for that and a rare win at Old Trafford!