x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Growing pains starting to hurt Paul Lambert at Aston Villa

Aston Villa are not playing enough good players and they don't have enough Premier League class yet. That's why they're 17th in the table and still trying to avoid top-flight relagation.

Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert has preferred youth over veterans this season. Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images
Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert has preferred youth over veterans this season. Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images

I couldn't believe what I was seeing when I watched Aston Villa at Old Trafford recently. They played a high line and had the intention to attack from the start.

Were they brave or stupid to attack Manchester United at Old Trafford? Stupid, because the game was over after 30 minutes with them 3-0 down. Is it any wonder they have the third-worst defence in the league?

And yet Villa's 6-1 win against Sunderland on Monday didn't completely surprise me. I didn't expect them to score six, but teams full of young players are often inconsistent – they can score a lot of goals but can concede a lot, too.

They are rash and impulsive.

Most teams in Villa's struggling predicament would sit back at somewhere like Old Trafford, keep it tight and try and frustrate the home team.

Not Villa, who go for boom or bust.

The 6-1 win masked a problem.

Villa are not playing enough good players each week. They don't have enough of Premier League class – or not yet. That's why they are 17th in the table.

Villa shouldn't be in a relegation fight. They are a big-city club with a great history. They have the fourth-biggest trophy haul in English football and have won the European Cup. When I played them, you knew you'd get a tough game. They finished runners-up to Manchester United in the first Premier League season and their status was similar to Tottenham's now, a team who regularly played in Europe. Villa had good players, the pitch at Villa Park has always been one of the best and the stadium likewise.

Poor managerial appointments haven't helped. Villa are losing money – £54 million (Dh308.4m), last year – and cutting back on costs. They will have to cut back even more if they are relegated.

The appointment of Alex McLeish didn't work. Fans never accepted him because he had come from their neighbours Birmingham and the football played under him was unattractive. They didn't score enough goals and were too negative. He lasted less than a year.

Paul Lambert reminds me of Martin O'Neill in that he is energetic on the line. He was an excellent player; I played against him when he was at Borussia Dortmund and he was one of their best.

He did very well in management at Norwich, but I'm baffled by some of his decisions as a manager since.

He has players such as Darren Bent, Richard Dunne, Shay Given and Stephen Ireland who are not played regularly.

Perhaps there are some mitigating factors for some omissions.

Dunne has had injuries, Given moved to be No 1 but finds himself No 2 – though the American goalkeeper Brad Guzan is very good.

I played with Ireland at Man City, and he is a top-level player. He hardly plays at Villa. Charles N'Zogbia is another big name player who rarely gets selected.

They've been very unlucky losing the services of the club captain Stiliyan Petrov, who is recovering from leukemia. He has the technical excellence the current side need.

Bent cost £18m, big money for Villa, and he can't get in the team.

He scores wherever he goes. Villa need goals. Does one and one not make two?

There seem to be two things possibly going on here. Either the manager doesn't like him or Villa have to pay Sunderland a few more million when Bent plays a certain number of games.

Christian Benteke, the striker, is doing really well, but Villa don't always play to his strengths. He's a big lad, but has quality with the ball at his feet as well as in the air. Too often Villa play high balls to him.

So Lambert has largely gone with youth whom he can mould to play as he wants.

They have a team of players who will work their nut off and the policy is admirable. It shows long-term planning and it's good to see a young team come through rather than a team of mercenaries imported. Fans identify more with homegrown players, but it's risky if they're not blended with more experienced pros.

Who do they look to when they need a lift or another tactic?

After one game at Villa Park, the former Liverpool player Alan Hansen said "you can't win anything with kids".

He got it wrong with Manchester United's young side, who went on to win the double, but that side had Scholes, Beckham, Butt and the Nevilles.

Villa's players are not of the same class. They lack the quality to finish a game off. I watched them against fourth-level Bradford City in the League Cup. Villa were awful, with those predictable balls to Benteke.

Their Dutch defender, Ron Vlaar, hinted this week that he would move if they went down. What kind of talk is that from the current team captain?

I do think they'll stay up and maybe their kids will improve for next season. Or maybe they should just use more of the experienced talent languishing in their squad.

Andrew Cole's column is written with the assistance of European football correspondent Andy Mitten.


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