When Villa owner Randy Lerner appointed Paul Lambert as manager of the club, he was seen as a gamble. After a brief period with Livingston, Wycombe Wanderers and Colchester United, Norwich City snapped Lambert up after his team handed the Canaries a humbling early season home defeat. Following his tried and tested template of building ‘no name’ teams, his time in East Anglia was successful and when Villa came calling, the club was reluctant to let him go. It was a less than easy deal to cut, but after a trying season last term, Villa now seem primed to reap the benefit of Lambert’s talents.
Flirting dangerously with relegation was undoubtedly not in the planning of Lambert, but rebuilding a team, virtually from scratch, was a major task and Villa survived. Looking at the squad, it now appears to be not only full of youth and vigor, but also a year’s experience. I’m sure Villa can look forward to a much more successful period for the club and its fans. But how has this been achieved.
Lambert is no mediocre ex-player schooled in the hard knock college of British football. Whilst he played a large part of his career in his native Scotland, he was brave enough to risk a move to German club Borussia Dortmund when the opportunity came along. It was an environment in which he thrived, securing a Champions League winners medal in 1997, with a man of the match performance against Juventus. He was also instrumental in the semi-final elimination of Manchester United. It was a performance acknowledged by United’s Roy Keane in his autobiography. The German approach to coaching was a schooling not lost on Lambert, and gave him an experience rare amongst English coaches.
Armed with his knowledge of the game and experience, Lambert was confident that he could pick players up from the lower leagues and develop them into Premier League players, as well as utilising any underused talent already at the club. Full back Matthew Lowton is a good example of the former, and Andreas Weimann. Perhaps Lambert’s biggest success has been the acquisition and retention of Belgian international striker Christian Benteke.
Plucked from little-known Genk, he was an archetypal Lambert signing; relatively unknown, and raw. Last season saw the player become almost a force of nature as he notched 21 goals for a struggling team. Pacey and strong, with an eye for goal, he had all of the required attributes, but it was Lambert who saw what he could become, and signed him for the ridiculously bargain price of around £7million.
It’s often a downside to signing a player and coaching him into being a star that other clubs will want to whisk him away. There’s always the consolation of a potential profit to be gained, but retaining the player is often very difficult. In Benteke’s case, the prices being bandied about as last season drew to a close would have suggested a net gain of over £20million for Villa’s coffers, but this is where the man management skills of Lambert came to the fore. When almost all of football’s pundits were saying that Benteke would leave Villa, only disagreeing on which club he would join, Lambert coolly spoke to the player, and convinced him to sign a new contract. It may have been the best signing of the summer.
Villa’s victory at Arsenal on the opening day of the season has been viewed very much as Arsenal’s loss rather than Villa’s victory. Lambert is not then sort of manager to worry about this however. He’ll do his job and continue to grow his team. I can’t imagine that this season will not see an improved league position for Villa. The only question is how much improvement Lambert can coach and coax from his team, but a top eight finish is not beyond them, and would represent a worthy success for the skills of man management and good old fashioned coaching.
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