Aston Villa: Bumpy ride, but the Villains stay afloat

Paul Lambert’s first season at Villa Park has been anything but easy. Tasked with bringing stability back to a club which had seen 4 different Managers take the hot seat since O’Neill’s shock departure 5 days before the start of the 2010/11 season – MacDonald (Caretaker Manager), Houllier, McAllistair (Caretaker Manager) and McLeish – Lambert was seen by many as the right choice to bring success back to Villa Park after an impressive season at Norwich.

Constrained by limited transfer funds and a need to cut the wage bill, Lambert continued his Norwich philosophy of buying relatively unknown players and promising youngsters hungry for a first team spot.

Lowton, Westwood, Bennett and Bowery were signed from the lower divisions of English football, whilst Benteke was brought in from Belgium. Villa also signed Vlaar and El Ahmadi from Dutch football in addition to re-signing goalkeeper Guzan, who was released at the start of pre-season, to add some experience to the squad after the likes of Cuellar, Collins and Heskey left Villa Park.

A new Manager and additions to the squad saw an optimism in the Midlands that had been lacking for the past few seasons, however, opening defeats to West Ham then Everton saw Villa end August at the bottom of the Premiership. A draw against Newcastle saw Villa pick up their first point of the season, with their first win coming a game later at home to Swansea which saw first goals in a Claret and Blue shirt for Lowton and Benteke.

The Villa faithful were made to wait until early November for their next 3 points as the team went on a poor run of 3 defeats and 2 draws – including a particularly humiliating performance at St Mary’s where Southampton scored 4 goals – which saw Villa record their worst start to a season in 43 years with just 6 points from a possible 27.

The only real highlight during this time was a run in the Carling Cup, which saw an impressive 2-4 victory at the Etihad Stadium over Man City and a 2-3 win at Swindon to reach the Quarter Finals. Villa’s second League win of the season came away at Sunderland, who were led by former Villa Manager O’Neill, with Agbonlahor scoring his first League goal in a year to record Villa’s first away win since January.

A difficult run of fixtures saw Villa pick up 1 point out of 9 after they threw away a 2-0 lead at home to United, were thrashed 5-0 at the Etihad Stadium and claimed a 0-0 draw at home to Arsenal – this saw the Villains languish in the relegation zone having picked up just 18% of the points available to them so far.

The draw against Arsenal was the start of a 5 game run without defeat, which turned out to be their best undefeated run of the season – wins against Reading and away to Liverpool, as well as draws to QPR and Stoke ensured that spirits were lifted at Villa Park, especially after an impressive 1-4 victory over Lambert’s former club Norwich in the League Cup.

Despite an injury to Bent which saw him ruled out for a number of games, Villa were starting to find the back of the net, with new signing Benteke finding his form in front of goal supported by Weimann who was taking his opportunity in the first team.

Villa’s recent improvement in form came to a crashing halt with their worst defeat in the Premier League era away to Chelsea. Despite a good performance by Guzan who had now condemned Given to the bench, he was made to pick the ball out of the back of his net on 8 separate occasions that day, although the scoreline could have been worse without his heroics.

As a side note, this was the second time in four seasons that I’d been to Stamford Bridge to watch Villa – the goal tally read Chelsea 15-1 Aston Villa so I’m not going back anytime soon! The Christmas period didn’t get any better for Villa as a Bale inspired hat-trick succumbed Villa to a 0-4 loss, followed soon after by a 0-3 defeat at home to relegation rivals Wigan.

In the absence of Vlaar at the back, Villa’s inexperience and tactical nativity was showing as Lambert experimented with 3 central defenders – it is probably safe to say that this experiment didn’t go too well as Villa conceded 15 goals without reply.

Villa recorded their 1st point in 4 games with a draw against Swansea after conceding a last minute goal, they suffered a defeat to Southampton courtesy of a dodgy penalty and threw away another 2 goal lead to pick up a point against Midlands rivals West Brom. If fans thought the team had hit rock bottom, as they slid back into the relegation zone, Villa were dumped out of both cup competitions in the space of 4 days.

The two legged League Cup Semi-Final tie with League Two side Bradford ended with a 4-3 defeat before Millwall beat Villa 2-1 to eliminate them from the FA Cup. With another season of no chance of silverware and a relegation battle threatening Villa’s record of being 1 of just 7 teams to have played in every Premier League season, confidence was at an all-time low.

Defeat at home to Newcastle rounded off a miserable January in the Midlands, which was not helped by inactivity in the January transfer window – for a team craving experience and leaders, Villa brought in a player plying his trade in the French 2nd division and an injury-prone midfielder who had been playing in the USA in the form of Sylla and Dawkins respectively – not really what was needed to improve Villa’s fortunes.

A 3-3 draw at Everton extended Villa’s wait for a League win to 8 games, during which time they had collected just 3 out of 24 points (13% of available points) including 0 out of 12 at Villa Park. Despite probably settling for a point before the game, Villa yet again through away a lead and 2 much needed points after surrendering a 1-3 lead with 20 minutes to play at Goodison Park.

The wait for a win finally came on 10th February at home to West Ham after Benteke scored his 6th goal in his last 6 games and N’Zogbia had one of his better games in a Villa shirt after winning a penalty and scoring direct from a free-kick. Despite a long range goal from Weimann, Villa again conceded a late goal to lose 2-1 at the Emirates Stadium to finish February in 18th place.

March consisted of tough fixtures against Man City and Liverpool, as well as must win games against relegation rivals Reading and QPR. Benteke’s fine goalscoring form continued with his 9th goal in 10 games to help Villa record wins over Reading and QPR, however as probably expected, the Midlands outfit were unable to take points from City or Liverpool.

An impressive performance at Stoke saw Villa pick up a much needed 3 points with a 1-3 victory with Lowton, in my opinion, scoring the Goal of the Season as he controlled a high ball with his chest before striking a stunning right foot volley into the roof of the net. The victory was followed by a point against Fulham at Villa Park before a trip to Old Trafford. Villa were defeated 3-0 by United with a Van Persie hat-trick, who in the process of winning the game, reclaimed the Premier League title from neighbours City.

The last game in April was dubbed a tight affair with Sunderland, who’s poor form and lack of goalscoring prowess, had seen then steadily fall down the table. On what is regarded by many Villa fans as their moment of the season, Villa emphatically won the game 6-1. Benteke claimed the match ball after his first hat-trick in a Villa shirt made him the highest goalscorer for Villa in a season, whilst a goal by Agbonlahor took his tally of Villa goals to 61 to make him the club’s highest scoring Premier League player.

Villa recorded their 2nd win in a row with a victory over Norwich to move them clear of the relegation zone and reach the ‘safety’ of 40 points. Chelsea beat Villa in the penultimate game of the season, however Villa were assured safety after Wigan lost their game in hand to Arsenal to succumb them to relegation.

What had earlier in the season been seen as a pivotal relegation battle between Wigan and Villa on the final day of the season no longer counted for anything significant. In an entertaining 2-2 draw, Bent scored what is probably his last goal in a Villa shirt, whilst Vlaar scored his second goal of the season with an impressive volley.

A late run of good results coupled with impressive performances from Guzan, Benteke, Weimann, Agbonlahor, Delph, Sylla and the English Pirlo, aka Westwood, saw Villa finish the season in 15th place above Sunderland and Newcastle. Although it was a season of highs and lows, Villa fans will be looking forward to the start of the new season.

The second half of the 12/13 season saw Villa’s young guns come into their own and flourish, with Lamberts youth policy paying dividends. Villa have already been busy early in the transfer market having made 5 promising additions to their squad – Norwegian pair Okore and Helenius, Bulgarian winger Tonev, Dutch midfielder Bacuna and Spanish left back Luna have all moved to Villa Park in the past few weeks.

Okore looks the pick of the bunch after signing from Nordsjaelland where he gained Champions League experience with the Norwegian champions and is reported to have turned down advances from Chelsea in order to move to the Midlands. With talk of overpaid and underworked players such as Bent and Ireland set to follow Dunne out of Villa Park, Lambert’s revolution is well underway.

If Lambert can continue to add quality youngsters from home and abroad whilst blooding in some of the talented youngsters who helped crown Villa the best youth team in Europe by winning the NextGen Series Final, the 2013/14 season looks to be the chance for the club and players to live up to the ‘proud history, bright future’ mantra.

 

Written by Dave Hornby

Follow Dave on Twitter @False_Number9

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