Lambert has a very difficult yet exciting task ahead, there is much work to do at Villa
The philosophy of Martin O’Neill to buy young English talent was both beneficial for the clubs performance in the league and for the profit made of their sales. The major issue which has curtailed Villa in recent years however has been the inability to replace both these players and the manager. The arrival of Lambert seems to have addressed at least one of these issues.
When watching England this summer, it fills a Villa fan with real pride to see players like Young, Milner and Downing in the side, unfortunately injuries to Barry and Cahill restricted even more ex Villa players from playing a part in the current squad. Unfortunately for Villa however, these players had to move on in order to progress their careers. Quite simply, Villa were not big enough for them.
A difficult two years
Martin O’Neill’s exit was not unexpected, yet the timing of it was. And Randy Lerner appeared unaware of how to deal with it, two years later, poor decisions have took Villa from a 6th place side to a side which survived relegation by a point. The appointment of Alex McLeish was always going to be toxic, what possessed the board to hire him makes you question the decision making and knowledge of the board.
How could they believe that hiring a relegated, Birmingham City manager, was a good decision? You have to base McLeish’s record not on what he says, but on what he has done. He was simply not the right choice, and if the league had been 39 games long, we would have gone down! A shocking thought, yet one which was very much real. It was not easy for McLeish however; he lost both Young and Downing last summer and was given the remit of cutting costs and wages, for any manager that would be difficult, yet McLeish's problem was that he just didn’t win the fans over.
In fact he actually made Villa the most hated side in the league! I can’t say the boards decision to sack McLeish was a “good decision”, it was simply them clearing up their own mess. I must say that I blame the fans for their negativity last season of which I am sure did not help the sides performances, yet I can understand their views because McLeish’s tactics and mentality killed the atmosphere.
The important thing for me is that the fans never act like that again, it was like a cancer, slowly killing the club. And yet, after the storm comes the sun, and although Lerner appeared set on making a mockery out of Villa again, on another managerial hunt, which judging on last summer showed no vision or planning, this time appeared more organised, the board seemed to know what the fans and players wanted.
Different targets, only one was right
Solskjaer was an interesting target; he was young, had experience of playing for a top side and learning from a top manager in Ferguson and had shown he could achieve success with the sides he managed. My worry however was the weight of the job that Villa offered, it is a very difficult role to take over right now, even though the fans will support anyone coming in, the task of the challenge was great, this is a side who almost got relegated. Not an easy task.
We have seen a real emergence of young British managers in the past few years and it is no surprise that Rogers, Lambert and Houghton have been heavily sought after. Yet for me it had to be Paul Lambert. In my opinion, Lambert is the best of these managers, especially for what is required at Villa. Rogers is very set in his ideology, one which requires specific attributes of his players, those fans wanting Martinez needed to consider the same issue, can our players play this way, or importantly, if they try to play this way, will they stay up?
A pragmatist is essential
What Lambert represents is pragmatism, perhaps this is seen as a negative word, in fact it is perhaps the most essential part of management. Know your players and adapt your styles to suit them. Villa needed a pragmatist, not an idealist. Lambert has shown at Norwich that he can adapt, be progressive and understand the league and his players. Importantly, he is excellent at bringing in and developing players with relatively little money, this may be an essential skill at Villa.
Lambert has shown a trait of which characterizes the best in football management, the ability to get more from the players you have. Lambert did not just survive this past season with Norwich, he provided a mid table finish, playing some good football. His strength was an insatiable appetite and clear conviction in getting his players to put their all into each game, Ferguson said that the game at Carrow Rd was the hardest United have had this season.
For me, Lambert’s qualities come from this previous experiences as a player, his movement from Glasgow to Dortmund is a move not many top British players make and what it gave him was the chance to learn new styles, tactics and play with the quality of players like Matthias Sammer. It also gave him a Champions League winners medal too, a very impressive feat.
As a coach he then learnt and developed his knowledge in Germany, which I think has been essential for his managerial career. He sees the game differently than many in the English league and it shows in his sides performances this past season. His understanding and ability to change tactics in a game shows a real knowledge of the game and its requirements. Am I pleased he has decided to come to Villa, ecstatic!
A difficult task?
Any manager coming into Villa would galvanise the fans and players, yet Lambert offers us the real hope of making Villa a respectable club again, we have become hated by many under McLeish, Lambert will seek to improve our reputation with the fans and those outside the club. This is important, because Villa needs to become an attractive club to players. Can we reach the heights of the top six, I doubt it, yet our aim in the next three years should be for 7th-10th, this is where I believe Villa are in terms of their standing in the league, it is not a negative, simply we do not have the money or quality to be any higher.
However, there are issues to address for Lambert to get Villa to this position. As mentioned, we have been stripped of our quality; Milner, Young and Downing are real losses and simply have not been replaced. McLeish did not motivate the players he had, yet was devoid of the quality afforded O'Neill and Houllier previously. I do not expect Villa to spend huge sums on players this summer, Lerner invested heavily under O’Neill and a period of high wages and average players ensued. With the departures of Cuellar and Heskey, Villa are seeking to gradually reduce their wage bill, yet is what we are left with good enough?
Average, unmotivated squad?
The signings which came in last season were average at best, even Shay Given, although sometimes excellent, has shown for Ireland he has lost some of his ability, and injuries are becoming a recurrent theme for him. What seemed a good signing last summer, appears now to be a risk to continue with. Alan Hutton is perhaps one of the worst full backs in the league and he offers little in an attacking sense to make up for his average defending qualities. As for N’Zogbia, I was disappointed in his application last season, I don’t think McLeish handled him well, though I wonder how much Lambert will enjoy working with him. Lambert has spoken before about how he wants players who will run through brick walls for the team, I question N’Zogbia’s willing to do this. Thus, the replacements brought in last summer have all been poor signings, offering very little for Lambert.
As for what else Lambert has to work with, there are issues all over the pitch and perhaps only a few bright sparks. Firstly defensively, I question the mobility of Collins and Dunne, and worry that in Cuellar, we have lost our best central defender. In Nathan Baker we appear to have a potentially decent player, yet I have not seen enough to believe he can be a starter. Our best option may be Ciaran Clark, who although has shown his ability in midfield, is much more needed in defence. Rumours of interest from West Ham in Collins should be seriously considered, his wages are high and we should seek to move him on. It means however that we need a centre back to come in, potentially with speed and mobility.
We also need to consider our full back issues of Warnock and Collins. Licah and Herd may be possibilities to replace these two, yet I am conscious that our squad is very thin on depth and importantly experience. As for midfield, Petrov’s illness is a real shame for the man, however I felt he was finished at Villa last summer, we need to now consider replacing him. Herd and Clark have played in these areas this past season, yet I feel we need more in there. Makoun is a puzzling situation, personally I think he would be perfect for what we need, yet I question how much desire he has to stay at Villa and again, will Lambert like him?
There are players like Delph and Ireland who have not impressed enough for their value and who I believe we should seek to move them on. However, does anyone want them? And it leaves the issue of squad size. Carruthers and Gardner have shown they possess potential ability yet Bannan has not impressed since his drink driving incident, however we must seek to bring in players who can carry these young players as they develop.
Out wide I believe we need to consider bringing in at least one player to motivate N'Zogbia and Albrighton (who I do believe can flourish under Lambert). We have always seemed to lack a creative midfield player and it is important we look to bring one in, I believe that Johnny Howson, recently bought by Lambert from Leeds would be a great addition to the side, however the issues of bad relations between the clubs will possibly effect this potentially great signing.
Up front, I believe in Weimann Villa have a real gem, who will need playing time this season to develop further. As for Bent and Agbonlahor, I believe Villa will stick with them, yet I would consider selling at least one of them. If an offer of £20 million came in for Bent, I would be inclined to accept it. Yet if an offer of £10 million came in for Gabby, I would choose that deal instead. Bent gives you goals and he, like the others, has clearly been affected by McLeish and the atmosphere this past season, a new lease of life into the club may be perfect for Bent, who is a prolific scorer. Whereas Gabby is just not good enough, Weimann shows much more potential, those Villa fans who love Gabby need to view him objectively, he lacks the quality, understanding and finishing ability to be a top player, he is not young either, at 25 he does not indicate future potential, meaning that what you see is what you get, which is simply not good enough.
And who are realistic targets for Villa this summer? For me, Villa’s targets should be; in defence, Grant Hanley from Blackburn, the Scottish international has impressed in a difficult Blackburn side and at only 20, he offers a bright future. In midfield I would be tempted to go to Blackburn again and bring in Steven N’Zonzi, I believe at 23 the French midfielder is too good for Blackburn and could give Villa much needed quality in midfield. Another midfielder we should seek to replace Petrov is Diame at Wigan, he is a player who could offer a lot to Villa’s midfield to add intensity and strength, which has been lacking in recent seasons.
To add extra creativity to the midfield I think Villa should consider either Howson or Mark Davies, players who will give the creativity Villa currently lack. Out wide there have been rumours of Adam Johnson being available on loan, he would be a top class player for Villa and would certainly provide more than our current wingers.
There has been talk also of a possible loan deal involving Daniel Sturridge, for me this would be a great signing, he showed his class at Bolton and at times for Chelsea last season, yet it seems he is being phased out with the new arrivals at Stamford Bridge and he will be wanting to play and impress rather than sit on the bench. Other than him I believe Steven Fletcher is the obvious choice, far too good for the Championship and a player who can offer a lot to Villa. Another to consider may be Nicholas Bendtner, he can be a very talented player for a mid table Premier League side and a consistent run in the side will bring out the best of him.
Yet these may only be considerations if Bent was sold, £20m is a lot of money and it would give Lambert the funds needed to build his squad. Let us not forget that Lambert is excellent at bringing in lower league players and getting them to perform in the top league, this will be important as he looks to build a side on relatively little.
A daunting task ahead
All in all Lambert has a very difficult yet exciting task ahead, there is much work to do at Villa, work which requires an austerity mentality of cutting wages and receiving potentially little support in the transfer market. A daunting task perhaps and Lambert was keen to dismiss talk of expectations. Yet Lambert is the best man for the job, his mentor was O’Neill and you can see this in his demeanour and character, yet he appears more astute and Villa are very lucky to have attained the services of one of the best young coaches not just in England but in Europe.
In recent years we have seen Jurgen Klopp take an under performing Dortmund side to the top of the Bundesliga, I doubt whether Lambert can achieve this, yet they are similar individuals and Villa is not so far different to the situation Klopp inherited; a period of financial austerity, a strong youth academy and a club which has a strong history which has fell off in recent years. It is an exciting time for Villa with their new man and I hope the fans bring back a positive atmosphere and by doing so the players and club can be galvanised, this will be key if we wish our club to progress back up the table. I for one though wish to welcome Lambert, I am very excited about our new manager and the new era which awaits our club.