x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Paul Lambert may have suffered a knock-out blow at Aston Villa

Coach hopes for turnaround against Arsenal after fans vent anger at cup exit.

Aston Villa's manager Paul Lambert. EPA
Aston Villa's manager Paul Lambert. EPA

Maybe the mutiny in the Midlands was a one-off event. Perhaps it is the start of a full-scale revolt. Tonight may tell whether Paul Lambert has lost the loyalty of Aston Villa’s long-suffering supporters.

Fans tore up tickets and threw them at their manager after last Saturday’s 2-1 defeat to Sheffield United in the FA Cup.

In such circumstances, there is often a rush to condemn the angry or a reference to the short-termism of the mindset of many. Where Villa are concerned, however, such comments are utterly misplaced.

This is the club with the eighth highest average attendance in England but they are the lowest scorers at home in all four divisions.

Villa Park has witnessed a mere seven goals at the right end this season. Only three of them have come in the last three-and-a-half months. The bare facts are that Villa have only won seven of 29 home league games in Lambert’s reign.

And yet the tipping point may have come in the FA Cup. Lambert may not have realised it but Villa is a historic club with old-fashioned priorities.

Despite the primacy of the Premier League, the knockout competitions matter to supporters. Martin O’Neill’s relationship with the fans was never the same after his 2009 decision to jettison the Uefa Cup by taking a severely weakened team to CSKA Moscow.

Gerard Houllier, fearful of relegation two years later, took a similar approach in an FA Cup fifth-round tie at Manchester City. Villa stayed up, but Houllier’s popularity ratings plummeted.

Lambert’s suggestion the FA Cup was a competition top-flight managers could do without “if they were being honest” seemed borne out by Villa’s subsequent elimination to League One strugglers Sheffield United. It mattered not that he made fewer changes than most of his Premier League counterparts; the performance had its own unfortunate eloquence.

“We got knocked out,” he admitted. “There’s no getting away from that.”

Patience has been afforded – fans recognised how wretched Villa were under Alex McLeish and recognised that a revival could take time – but now there are legitimate questions where the transition Lambert invariably talks about will take them.

The high point of the campaign occurred against today’s visitors, Arsenal, a 3-1 opening-day demolition that brought a display of dissent towards Arsene Wenger.

It suggested a young side on the verge of a breakthrough. Instead, they have regressed. Villa were embroiled in a relegation struggle last season and, while they spent much of November and December in the upper half of the division, could face another this year.

It is a probability if their home form does not improve and, reluctant as Lambert is to accept it, it is no coincidence that a counter-attacking team struggles when there is an onus on them to seize the initiative.

It may suit them to face Arsenal. “You’ve got to play without the ball a lot of the time,” said Lambert. Villa do that anyway.

They had a mere 27 per cent of possession in the last home league game, against Swansea City, a lamentable low that illustrates their inability to keep the ball.

After the defeat to Sheffield United, Lambert talked about trying to sign a No 10 – his former Norwich City charge Wes Hoolahan appears the preferred target – without mentioning the one he discarded, in Stephen Ireland.

His preference for buying comparatively unknown players means other bigger names have been discarded. Yet Antonio Luna, Aleksandar Tonev, Joe Bennett, Jordan Bowery, Nicklas Helenius and Yacouba Sylla are all his signings; few, if any, look good enough for the Premier League yet.

Christian Benteke was his great transfer-market triumph but he has gone 12 games without a goal. Andreas Weimann, the other accomplished finisher in his squad, has not scored in his last 14.

They had camouflaged the lack of creativity in the rest of the team. Now their droughts are a symptom of it. Unless either ends his wait, the chances are the unrest will fester.

The Villa public have been short-changed. One way or another, there is likely to be payback.


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