In the case of Aston Villa, it's certainly been a tumultuous few years and this season's "achievement" of staying in the Premier League can be looked at in a number of ways. I've heard one pundit claim Lambert should be named manager of the season for keeping us up, while others and perhaps the majority wonder what's happened to a club who finished sixth three times in row only three years ago. The problems started when Martin O'Neill left just five days before the start of the 2010/11 season. Our wage bill was not sustainable, and any manager would struggle to take over a Martin O'Neill team which was full of overpaid players which perhaps only he could get the best out of. The "stars" at the time were almost certain to go, with Ashley Young and James Milner attracting a lot of attention. This was not helped by the next two appointments made at the club, one of which I could understand in Gerard Houllier due to his contacts in the game and undoubted experience, another which completely left me baffled in Alex Mcleish. They didn't last for different reasons, but they left behind further potential problems for their successor. Whilst the term "transitional period" sometimes appears to be used as a cover up for a bad season (see Arsenal), I believe this season has been just that. Before he could move the club forward, Paul Lambert had to deal with the issues left behind by all three of the previous managers. O'Neill's unwanted legacy was a high wage bill considering the quality of player at the club and a difficulty in playing possession football which translated to struggling to break teams down at home. Houllier did try and play a more fluid game, and there were signs of progress, however he brought in Jean II Makoun, (only off the books of Villa today) and Darren Bent for between £18-24 million, who is not everyone's cup of tea. Due to his brief stay, however, these players and what he was trying to build would have to be addressed by his successor. Step forward Alex Mcleish who did not appear to have a way of playing, other than to try and draw every single game we played. This negative mentality is clearly not part of a long term project associated with progression. Lambert was appointed to bring vibrancy to Villa which was sucked out of the club from a disappointing 3 years, where the motto "Proud history, bright future" seemed a million miles away. He came with a philosophy, which he has since said he was never going to deviate from. This was to buy young, hungry players with a point to prove along with playing an attacking style of football. His dealings in the transfer market have made the signings made by previous managers look like unimaginative safe bets. His approach is not dissimilar to that of Borussia Dortmund, a club close to his heart. Let’s look at his signings in more detail, and while it's difficult to commend the signings too much based on only one season, I feel this has been the most impressive feature of his management. Ashley Westwood was bought for less than £1 million and as Lambert put it this season, plays like he is addicted to possession of the ball. Compare these to O’Neill’s signings of midfielders such as Nigel Reo-Coker for £8 million, Steven Sidwell for £5 million. They would never have been considered value for money. Yes, Reo-Coker did a job for a few seasons, but the transfer fee for one of the few English players who have cost this much without getting one England cap and the associated wages is an example of O’Neill’s unsustainable spending. After his first season in the Premier League, Westwood looks like he has a fantastic future in the game. We have been crying out for a proper right back since the departure of Mark Delaney some years ago now, and I’m not talking about limited journeymen such as Luke Young. We’ve seen centre backs covering the position as no player has managed to make it their own despite Alan Hutton’s best attempts. Step forward Matt Lowton. I hate it when you can tell a player’s limitations within seconds of watching them, such as “he can’t cross”, “he can’t shoot” etc. Matt Lowton seems to be the all round right back who can do it all. Us Villa fans rated him long before the wonder goal at Stoke, and sublime Sunderland performance. He contributes so much to the team and is one of our most consistent and important players.
Another honourable mention just has to go to the signing of Christian Benteke. Everything has probably been said about him already this season, but the fact that he has replaced a striker who Lambert made captain and who saved us from relegation in the previous season speaks volumes. He offers so much more than just goals, which is something that has never been said of Darren Bent, a striker who cost three times as much. It does have to be said that Bent has been doing it for over ten years, and it remains to be seen whether Benteke can keep this up for the coming seasons.
I’m not suggesting for a minute that Lambert does not have some limitations or negatives. I find it irritating that he doesn’t play with natural, out and out wingers. And before people say he hasn’t got the options within the squad, he bought every other type of player in the last 2 windows, why not sign a winger? This may well be addressed in this transfer window, however with Aleksandar Tonev who can play in both wide areas, a confirmed target.
Other questionable decisions were made during the year by Lambert. Why did Delfouneso start the first home game of the season and then get loaned out for the rest of the season so soon? How can starting Bannan for so many games be justified, and then leaving him out of multiple subsequent squads? The same can be said for Ireland. Since when has Darren Bent been captain material?
Overall, however, I do feel Aston Villa is in good hands after a number of failed experiments over the last few years. We cannot underestimate the loss of Petrov, both as a player and club captain. If people (including myself) weren’t sure how important his calming influence was in midfield, they do now. Lambert would have loved to call upon his experience this season, but unfortunately he didn’t have this opportunity and had to find alternatives.
Lambert’s incredibly efficient spending in the two transfer windows is something Villa fans haven’t seen in many years. The fact that he has had to sort out the mess left by the three previous managers as well as overcome their failings, makes the fact that he has brought the feel good factor back to Villa Park all the more impressive. The 2012/13 season may not be considered a success, but it certainly could pave the way for success and for that I commend Paul Lambert. There’s still a lot of work to be done, and learning to do for our young players and young manager, but the seeds have been planted for success and it’s exciting just to see how much this project can grow.
Source: Villa Mad