x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

New Aston Villa but same old results

Paul Lambert has put his stamp on his new club, all he needs to do now is change the outcome of games, writes Richard Jolly .

Paul Lambert has signed players from Belgium and Holland, the Championship and League One.
Paul Lambert has signed players from Belgium and Holland, the Championship and League One.

It began in September 1888, a month after the British Parliament passed a law allowing bicycles on roads and as the murderer Jack the Ripper embarked upon a killing spree, sandwiching the births of two literary giants, TE Lawrence and TS Eliot.

"It" was the Football League, the first of its type anywhere in the world. Aston Villa were founder members, drawing 1-1 away at Wolverhampton Wanderers in their opening game.

Some 124 years later, another date had to be etched into a distinguished history. On September 2, 2012, Villa drew 1-1 again, at Newcastle United. It was a respectable result that nonetheless provided another landmark.

Never before in a century and a quarter had Villa gone more than a dozen league matches without a win. This was an unfortunate 13th. Villa have not been victorious for more than six months, albeit with a summer interruption to the fixture list.

Should anyone doubt the scale of the task the new manager Paul Lambert faces, they should simply study the facts. Villa recorded their lowest points tally for 25 years last season and scored the fewest goals in any of their 102 top-flight campaigns. A total of seven league wins was the joint smallest in the club's history.

So, while Lambert has presided over three games of the record-breaking run, sinking ships are not rendered seaworthy straight away. It is a damning indictment of his sacked predecessor Alex McLeish that Saturday's visitors Swansea City have won as many league games as Villa at Villa Park in 2012. So, too, have Bolton Wanderers, now a second-tier club. Had last season been extended by a week or two, Villa would probably be one.

They were not merely a team that had forgotten to win games, but one that had given up trying. The negativity of McLeish, a decent man but a deeply defensive manager, had impacted upon every facet of the club. The players were underachieving and, in some cases, unhappy. The supporters were in open revolt.

Three years ago, Lambert inherited a Norwich City team who were first demoted and then defeated 7-1 before his appointment. It is a moot point if he has inherited a greater mess now.

Even McLeish's supposed strengths deserted him in a reputation-shredding year. His Birmingham City sides were usually well drilled. His Villa teams kept men behind the ball but still conceded poor goals. They were strangely, but consistently, fallible at set pieces and if one full-back, Stephen Warnock, had a mediocre year, the other, Alan Hutton, was shockingly bad.

Neither is in Lambert's plans. Indeed, with one centre-back, James Collins, sold and the other, Richard Dunne, injured, it is an entirely new rearguard. They are protecting a different goalkeeper, too, with Shay Given dropped for Brad Guzan.

Stability was not an option, continuity not considered. Lambert has had to rip it up and start again. Only two of the starting line-up at the Sports Direct Arena began more than 13 Premier League games last season. There are new signings, newcomers and a new look.

In contrast to McLeish's innate conservatism, Lambert is more of a gambler. Some of his selections have little pedigree - not that heftier CVs aided players such as Hutton, Warnock and Emile Heskey last season - and, as he did at Norwich, he prefers to put his trust in men with much to prove.

He is buying from the lower leagues and the Low Countries. Matthew Lowton, who joined from Sheffield United, may prove the anti-Hutton, dynamic going forward from right-back but dependable at the back.

Karim El Ahmadi, the Moroccan midfielder signed from Feyenoord, has brought energy and enthusiasm and has been their standout player so far.

Christian Benteke, the £7 million (Dh40.6m) Belgium striker, is a sign of a renewed commitment from the owner Randy Lerner, who cut costs after Martin O'Neill's spending spiralled.

Perhaps Villa's troubled start induced the American to buy again. They fell to a forceful West Ham United on the opening day and were not so much overcome as overwhelmed by Everton at Villa Park. They propped up the Premier League then, the point on Tyneside lifting them only as far as 19th place.

The fact this is Aston Villa suggests their stay in the relegation zone will be temporary. Even in troubled times, the game's giants normally find a way out.

Yet the name was part of the problem last season, and not merely because McLeish came from Birmingham: whatever players had achieved in the past, both individually and collectively, too few proved themselves worthy of the claret and blue shirt. There was too little panache, too little polish, too little pride.

Hence the revolution. This side was constructed from component parts found in the reserves, Belgium and Holland, from the Championship and Leagues One and Two. With the notable exception of Darren Bent, few have a track record in the Premier League. Perhaps that is the point, though.

Villa's recent past was so traumatic that Lambert is trying to discard all evidence of it, to begin again. It is not year 125 at Villa Park, but year zero. But he still needs a win to end the long run and banish talk of McLeish's legacy.


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