The transition was painful, but Lambert finally has Villa bursting with energy… will they keep progressing or stagnate?
Published: 00:20 BST, 22 November 2013 | Updated: 00:20 BST, 22 November 2013
It is almost 18 months now since Paul Lambert swept into Villa Park with a vision of a very different future.
So, where are we? How is “The Project”?
Asked to buy into a new-look club by owner Randy Lerner, the Scot set about his task with zeal.
Big-name players found themselves sidelined. Lesser lights were promoted.
Lions: Villa have slowly progressed under Lambert, but still face a test this season to continue
At first, the transition was painful.
The one thing Lambert had in his favour was the leeway he was granted to carry out his job. It was an unprecedented mandate afforded him by Villa’s supporters.
The fact is that the Glaswegian oversaw little by way of improvement during the first-half of his inaugural season.
The team’s inability to keep a clean sheet, the alienation of senior players, the heaviest defeat in the club’s history at Stamford Bridge and the embarrassment of losing to Bradford City in the semi-finals of the Capital One Cup combined to make it a depressing first six months.
From February onwards, there were highlights. The form of Christian Benteke. The ability of Lambert’s team to dig out results when they mattered most. Players such as Brad Guzan, Nathan Baker and Fabian Delph refused to buckle under the pressure. Indeed, they thrived upon it.
That preceded a summer where there has been another huge turnover of players.
Relief: Aston Villa’s Leandro Bacuna (centre) celebrates scoring in the 2-0 win over Cardiff
The result is that Lambert’s Villa is now bursting with energy. With Ron Vlaar added to the list of those who have finally got to grips with life in the Premier League, there is an altogether stronger feel to the side.
Goals are not being shipped at an alarming rate. The club has, at the time of writing, kept four clean sheets – one less than Villa managed through the whole of last season.
Lerner wanted the club to be self-sufficient. The set of accounts for this period will be issued in January 2015. They will show Villa operating on an even keel.
But the club remains a long way from the top six. Their last three outings at Villa Park against Tottenham show that the visitors have scored an aggregate of ten goals. Villa have scored none.
The Champions League was once within touching distance. At present, it’s just in the distance.
Young prospects: Villa struggled at times last term, but finally found their feet late on in the campaign
Performances against Hull City, Norwich City and Cardiff City have not been convincing. But they have yielded seven points. Credit must be forthcoming for that.
The Villa of last season would have struggled even more against three resolute opponents. Victories at Arsenal and over Manchester City? Fanciful.
Yet the club sits in mid-table. It’s a mixed bag. So, what is the true picture at Villa Park?
Jonathan Fear, editor of the Vital Villa website, said: ‘Undoubtedly some fans are happy. If you look at the results, such as beating Manchester City and Cardiff City, then why not?
‘But if you had actually gone to the games – while the results might be improving – I’d argue the performances haven’t.
‘When the final whistle blew against Manchester City, the woman behind me laughed and said: ‘How the hell have we won that?’
Big man: Villa managed to keep hold of Christian Benteke for at least another season
‘And Paul Lambert can say Rome wasn’t built in a day. That’s true. But it was built by quality craftsmen.
‘The vision might be to create Borussia Dortmund in Birmingham. But from what I can see, we are not bringing our own players through. We’re buying cheap foreign imports, some of who have come off, some of whom won’t.
‘It feels like we are slipping into mediocrity – if we aren’t there already.’
Dave Woodhall, editor of the Heroes and Villans web-site, added: ‘Villa are in an awkward position – too big that just being in the Premier League counts as success yet they don’t have the resources to challenge regularly for the top places.
‘Will the Dortmund or Ajax model be the way forward? I don’t know.
‘But when I look at the likes of West Brom, for example, they have a direction and they keep to it.
Toppled: Two big wins over Man City and Arsenal (below) have kept Villa fans onside this term
‘Two seasons ago, they lost Roy Hodgson to England and it didn’t feel as though the club as much as blinked.
‘But when Villa change managers, they always seem to start again from scratch.
‘Now we have got Lambert who seems determined to follow through a plan. He has to be allowed to follow it through.’
The performances have been steady, rather than spectacular. While Lambert’s side looks more difficult to beat, the supply of goals has dried up.
They are better when teams come at them, they counter with pace and use any space to create trouble.
Unfortunately, there is no creative spark. No-one is going to drop their shoulder and ghost past anyone on a regular basis. Entertaining? Hmm.
Lambert’s Villa is very much a work-in-progress. But there has been progress. How much we will probably be better able to assess at the turn of the year.
Steven Pressley has always struck a chord with yours truly as being a man of principle.
When he stood up to be counted at Hearts, calling out disgraced owner Vladimir Romanov for meddling in team affairs, he knew he was putting his professional livelihood on the line.
Pressley felt, as skipper of the Edinburgh club, that he had a duty to point out what he felt was wrong, no matter the fact it cost him another contract and, to this day, his actions are a source of debate.
Now that he is in management, that sense of principle remains.
Stand up: Pressley’s sense of principle remains as a manager, just as it did as a player
Clearly, what happened at Bradford City last weekend caused Pressley to overload.
He might have been incensed at drawing a match which the Sky Blues had looked like winning after the first ten minutes.
And the handball committed by Jordan Clarke in the dying seconds will only have added to his sense of frustration. As did Phil Parkinson’s reaction at the end.
After the final whistle, Pressley spoke about the bigger picture. He talked about the responsibility he shoulders – along with every other coach in the country – to develop young talent in the proper manner.
He may be right. I happen to think there’s merit in his words.
Up there: Pressley’s Coventry have been on good form despite their points penalty before the season
But to use Bradford City as the object of his scorn because of their reliance on target man James Hanson after the final whistle was wrong.
Bantams’ boss Parkinson can set his team up any way he wants. It’s Parkinson’s job to win matches for Bradford City. Just as it is for Pressley to win them for Coventry.
It’s laudable that Pressley feels this greater responsibility. He showed commendable restraint in the technical area if the words that are attributed to Parkinson are correct.
But just after the final whistle was an injudicious time to voice his grievances. It looks mealy-mouthed.
Much as I empathise with Pressley, the Scot chose the wrong time and certainly the wrong place to make his point.
It would be far better to win the return fixture convincingly – and he could then justifiably have his say.
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