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Paul Lambert, whose managerial career has blossomed from the depths of League Two with Wycombe to the Premier League, probably thought his days of competing with those languishing at the bottom of the league pyramid were over.
His three year job of guiding Norwich from League One to the Premier League and establishing them as a solid unit at the top level, took him to Aston Villa, a constant in the top division for the last 24 years but a club in need of galvanising after two years of decline. In the January of his inaugural year at Villa Park, it is a club from the basement division ironically testing Lambert’s position in the top league.
Villa are placed 16th after 21 Premier League games and are nervously looking over their shoulder at Wigan who are in the relegation zone, separated from the Midlands club by a point. They are in the semi-final of the League Cup, but are now close to the embarrassing brink of elimination to fourth tier outfit Bradford, who beat Villa 3-1 in the first leg, a result that occurred after a dreadful run of form that included festive defeats to Chelsea, Spurs and Wigan by a collective score of fifteen goals to nil.
Lambert has a clear long-term project in place at Villa and he should be, admittedly in contrast to modern football’s desire for immediacy, afforded time as a result. Shay Given, Darren Bent and Stephen Warnock have all lost their places as Lambert tries to build a side on young players, Christian Benteke is a regular up front at the age of 22, Ashley Westwood, the 22 year old who was last year playing for Crewe in League Two, partners Barry Bannan, 23, in midfield whilst Matthew Lowton, a summer signing from Sheffield United, plays at right-back at the age of 23.
Lowton played against Bradford in a back four alongside 21 year old Nathan Baker, 22 year old Joe Bennett and 23 year old Ciaran Clark. The Bantams duly exposed the folly of such inexperience by punishing abject defending at set-pieces to take a handsome lead back to Villa Park in a fortnight’s time.
23 year old Fabian Delph, so far a disappointment following his £6 million move from Leeds in 2009, played alongside Bannan on Tuesday night as Villa cope with the loss of captain Stiliyan Petrov who continues his recovery from leukaemia. It’s the loss of his influence that comes more obvious with every game Lambert’s slight midfield is badly overrun.
Misfortune with injuries has been a problem, the combative Karim Al-Ahmadi has been lost to an ankle knock whilst, at the back, Richard Dunne’s wealth of experience has been missing with a knee injury and fellow centre-back Ron Vlaar, a summer signing from Feyenoord, has seen a calf injury stop his promising impact from the early days at the club.
But the manager has tried intentionally to move away from past eras and it is backfiring. Charles N’Zogbia, Stephen Ireland, Darren Bent and Gabriel Agbonlahor, all players with proven Premier League pasts, have been overlooked at certain stages by Lambert and although Agbonlahor and N’Zogbia started the game with Bradford, they were the only 2 outfield players in Villa’s team to complete a season in the top division.
Faith has instead been installed in Brett Holman, signed on a free from AZ Alkmaar in the summer, and the 21 year old Andreas Weimann who has been part of Villa’s youth set up since being spotted by O’Neill in 2007. His eight goals in the last eleven games being one of the few bright points of Lambert’s youthful overhaul.
It is a deliberate approach that has owed, in part, to the lavish spending of the Martin O’Neil days in which, although the club enjoyed two sixth place finishes, a squad was assembled on a wage bill that accounted for 88% of the annual turnover.
Remnants from the O’Neill days Carlos Cuellar, Habib Beye and James Collins have been moved on, but Lambert has been left with Warnock, Given, Bent, Ireland and Alan Hutton, players who the Scotsman doesn’t view as value for money in the long term and has phased out in the prophecy of their departures that will bring the Villa wage bill down to more healthier levels. Young players with low reputations have formed the new approach, but there is no doubting, as Bradford reinforced on Tuesday, Lambert may have to compromise or risk capping the two years of decline since the departure of O’Neill in 2010 with a possible disastrous relegation.
That may mean dipping into the transfer market to add valuable experience in what would be a potential gamble against accusations of panic-buying, or he could turn back to players like Bent who do not seem to have a future within Lambert’s new regime. The 4-1 and 2-4 win at Norwich and Manchester City in the cup, and the 1-3 league win at Liverpool have indicated Lambert does have the talent in his young side to work with, but those performances have become anomalies in what has become a depressing season that has failed to arrest the slide, even when the long-term picture is taken into account.
Lambert faces a huge decision on whether to back his instinct and continue with his band of fresh blood or change to save the short-term before his long-term vision, refreshing in the modern game, is lost forever. Maybe chairman Randy Lerner has a decision whether to continue with his manager should the club slip closer to the drop and Bradford manage to finish their extraordinary job in two week’s time.
Whatever the Villa hierarchy chose to do, Lambert’s future design is being built on extremely rocky ground.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow him on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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