Paul Lambert’s managerial career didn’t have the most auspicious of starts. The one time Champions League winning midfielder resigned his post at Scottish Premier League club Livingston, with the side rooted to the foot of the table and having won two of 26 matches.
When he took charge at the Almondvale Stadium for the final time; a 1-0 home defeat against Dunfermline in front of a paltry 4,371 spectators on February 11th 2006, neither Lambert nor the wider football world would have foreseen his later standing as one of the game’s brightest bosses.
After being handed a chance to rebuild his reputation by League Two Wycombe Wanderers, Lambert gradually developed a style that, via a stint with Colchester United, earned him the manager’s position at Norwich City.
It was for his work at Carrow Road, where he took the Canaries into the Premier League off the back of successive promotions, that Lambert became a sought after commodity. Aston Villa didn’t hesitate to recruit the Scot after sacking Alex McLeish at the conclusion of 2011/2012 – a season in which Lambert had successfully established Norwich in the top-flight.
Since his first trying assignment, then, the ex-Celtic player’s managerial star has largely been in the ascendancy. Until now. Until, after a bewilderingly sterile first four-and-a-half months at Villa this term Lambert, when asked if the FA Cup was something that Premier League clubs could do without responded thus:
‘I think if you ask the majority of them, if they’re being honest, I think they’d probably say they probably would do, yeah’.
Throughout a testing first campaign at Villa Park, fans of Lambert’s new club remained extremely patient – not a virtue for which they are renowned – in the face of some humbling experiences.
A dreadful 2012 Christmas period, which saw Villa thumped 8-0 at Chelsea immediately prior to conceding four and three without reply in home matches against Tottenham Hotspur and Wigan Athletic; not to mention losing a two-legged Capital One Cup semi-final against League Two outfit Bradford City, were readily forgiven.
The reason for such understanding among a demanding support was, despite a series of bruising knocks, the discernible trace of a far-sighted plan. The group of youngsters in whom Lambert placed great faith would emerge from their maiden season tougher, and primed to lead Villa on to a prosperous future.
There had been enough in a terrific pre-Christmas 2012 display at Liverpool to point to heady days ahead. Throughout a purposeful end to the campaign, Lambert’s evolving team appeared to be learning to make good on their zeal by winning matches. Furthermore, the League Cup run, regardless of its embarrassing ending, included thrilling four goal wins at Manchester City and Norwich.
Right-back Matthew Lowton merited discussion as a potential England international, while all around were players to engender excitement. Lowton’s left-sided counterpart Joe Bennett had found his Premier League feet. Ashley Westwood and Fabian Delph offered midfield vibrancy and imagination.
Most stimulating of all, the three-pronged attack of Christian Benteke, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann, had already hinted at the devastation their combined threat could wreak on any defence in their sights.
Crucially, Ron Vlaar, the authoritative Dutch centre-back whose return from injury coincided with last season’s upturn in fortunes, was fit from the outset of this season to operate in front of the excellent Brad Guzan. Villa’s side finally had an air of solidity, a trait so evidently lacking during Lambert’s early tenure.
All the optimism now looks cruelly misplaced. With points at a premium, and days before his ill-advised comments with respect to the FA Cup, Villa’s manager rushed Vlaar back from his latest bout of calf trouble for a vital game at Sunderland. His team won thanks to a typically predatory Agbonlahor strike, but it was an unmistakably pyrrhic victory.
Vlaar limped off with twenty minutes to play. Deprived of their linchpin, Villa had failed to win any of their previous five matches – even then, when toppling Southampton 3-2, both goals conceded came after the ex-Feyenoord man had left the field.
Pragmatism was not on the agenda this term but, that Lambert couldn’t see beyond the need to avoid defeat at the Stadium of Light, owed itself to a horrible recent spell of form. The nadir of that fruitless pre-Sunderland run came with a last minute home reverse against Crystal Palace. The result was no fluke. With more care in front of goal, the away side could have been out of sight by the time of Dwight Gayle’s decisive effort.
If their miserable December had been an anomaly in an otherwise progressive campaign, the weary Villa support might just have been more forgiving, both of results and their manager’s apparent disregard for the competition which offered a final hope of glory.
Back on August 17th all the promise and confidence of summer seemed on the cusp of becoming something tangible. Villa opened their most keenly anticipated season for some years with a 3-1 win at Arsenal. The Midlanders were resolute in defence, energetic and fleet in midfield. The revered forward trio was rampant. New recruit Antonio Luna raced up-field from left-back to score the game’s concluding goal with a finish worthy of his attacking colleagues.
All too quickly, however, things began to unravel. Old failings resurfaced. With the occasional exception, home form remained abject. Goals became increasingly hard to come by. A new-look defence was being undone as routinely as the last.
Lambert’s tinkering at the back is especially disconcerting. Lowton and Bennett’s year of growth has been tossed aside in favour of the deployment of Leandro Bacuna and Luna – the latter being habitually targeted by opposing sides as a palpably weak-link in the Villa armoury.
Yacouba Sylla has not emerged as the muscular foil required by Westwood and Delph. The Villains’ midfield, usually featuring the peripheral Karim El Ahmadi as its third ingredient, looks lightweight and is easily overrun.
Most dispiriting of all, the formerly magnificent Benteke is a husk of the man that dominated all-comers during his first term in English football. The Belgian’s initial impact was such that the abiding controversy concerning Lambert’s side-lining of Darren Bent died a quiet death.
Saturday’s cup humiliation at the hands of Sheffield United has consigned Villa to four months of nothing more than ensuring they keep their heads above water. Benteke’s boss will be desperate for his erstwhile talismanic forward to find new life and revive his charges.
With an eye on the bigger picture, Ciaran Clark and Nathan Baker’s respective ongoing struggles in the Villa backline suggests a lack of progress under their manager. That is an issue to disturb every single stakeholder in a club that has a squad choc-full with fledglings – all whose games need careful honing.
The clear thinking of a year ago has been compromised. Lambert’s string of close-season purchases appear at odds with his understood objective; to grow an expansive team, constructed with talented young footballers.
Libor Kozak, Aleksandar Tonev, Nicklas Helenius, Bacuna and Luna are of the requisite age, but all are yet to prove themselves of sufficient quality. Kozak will be denied that opportunity any time soon by a serious training ground injury.
The end result is an imbalanced Villa Park playing staff – with respect to depth in each area of the park, ability, and stage of development.
Fans’ willingness to stand firmly behind Lambert; his early work given extra sheen by virtue of it being directly compared to his predecessor’s efforts, is on the wane. Disquiet had remained remarkably suppressed before he uttered those infamous views on England’s premier knockout trophy.
The comments were all the more remarkable coming from a man whose personal revitalisation at Wycombe came by way of leading a League Two club to a league cup semi-final – rather than on season ending finishes of 12th and 7th. As a 17 year-old player, Lambert was part of the St Mirren team to win the Scottish Cup. He knows the value of lifting silverware; of the resoundingly positive effect a cup run can have across the entire spectrum of a club.
In explaining his thoughts on the FA Cup, Lambert referred to not having a ‘massive squad’ at his disposal. It is some tacit admission, however, that he believes neither himself nor his players capable of negotiating their way through an extra six games; on top of 40 in nine months (38 in the Premier League, and the two his side played in this year’s Capital One Cup).
Thanks to their win at Sunderland, a rare ray of light that would surely have benefited from being supplemented by progress in the cup, Villa are six points clear of 18th placed Crystal Palace in the current Premier League table. It is a position of relative comfort, but Lambert has unwittingly turned the spotlight firmly on how his team fare from here on in – and moreover on his own managerial aptitude.
Suddenly, the visit of Arsenal, a full nine days on from being deservedly beaten by Sheffield United, has assumed a new bearing. What would have been an occasion free of expectation has been transformed into a night on which every aspect of Villa’s display will be held up for dissection.
The goodwill generated by Lambert’s initially refreshing, coherent approach to steering Villa back to the right end of the Premier League is perceptibly eroding. Slowly but surely the questions will turn towards the manager’s capabilities.
Is the 44 year-old’s proficiency best reflected in his exhilarating three years at Norwich, or more accurately by the early travails with Livingston and his present messy plight?
It is a debate that, with games against Liverpool, West Bromwich Albion, and Everton, following hot on the heels of the clash with Arsenal, Lambert could have done without provoking.
Speaking in reaction to his team tumbling out of the FA Cup Lambert said: ‘It is up to us to give them (the fans) something to be happy about and we have not done that’.
Aston Villa’s manager could have been referring to the club’s entire season to date. Now we will discover if he has the means to turn the tide of opinion back in his favour. If not, Lambert will appreciate that regardless of the time and industry invested to climb his professional mountain, the descent will be rather more brisk.
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