x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Paul Lambert's philosophy is being put to test with Aston Villa

Faith in youngsters and callous approach to Aston Villa's senior players is backfiring on coach Paul Lambert, writes Richard Jolly.

Under Paul Lambert, Aston Villa suffered their heaviest defeat and face relegation.
Under Paul Lambert, Aston Villa suffered their heaviest defeat and face relegation.

The exodus began with 34 minutes remaining. While those from Birmingham headed for the exits, a man born in Brooklyn remained rooted in his seat, watching the unrelenting horror of Aston Villa's third successive thrashing.

Randy Lerner had come from America especially; it was a particularly unrewarding trans-Atlantic journey.

Unlike many fans, the Villa owner witnessed all of Wigan's 3-0 win, giving his side the poorest Premier League record over three games since the hapless Ipswich Town team of 1995.

Played three, lost three, scored none, conceded 15.

It has been a miserable Christmas and it will be an unhappy New Year at Villa Park.

The 8-0 defeat at Chelsea was the heaviest in Villa's 138-year history. Factor in 4-0 and 3-0 home defeats, to Tottenham Hotspur and Wigan Athletic, and it means Villa are the division's lowest scorers and possess its most porous defence, numbers that explain why they also have the worst goal difference.

Under the circumstances, Paul Lambert, the manager, was unable to deny that Villa are in a relegation battle.

They were demonstrating relegation form long before his arrival.

Last year was their annus horribilis, 2012 yielding just 33 points from 39 games.

The way Alex McLeish's reign ended with negativity cloaking the club, from the players' defensiveness on the pitch to the supporters' despair off it, meant the new manager had a remit to be revolutionary.

Continuity was not an option.

When Villa defeated Liverpool as Christian Benteke, the fearless figurehead of the new era, dominated Martin Skrtel, the radical overhaul looked both brave and correct.

Three crushing defeats later, matches which encompass injury problems and a crisis of confidence among the young players, Villa's Anfield excellence is starting to seem a false dawn.

Benteke, Andreas Weimann and Ashley Westwood have all shown promise but the league table has acquired a worrying look.

Now Lambert's philosophy is being put to the test. Stubbornness tends to be a defining characteristic of great managers.

It is also apparent in those who are plain wrong.

The Scot had appeared an alchemist in his swift rise, transforming lower-league stalwarts into Premier League players at Norwich City but relying on the unproven is a risky recipe that more cautious coaches would not attempt.

Lambert's great gamble was that Villa could abandon the experienced, import the untried and emerge all the stronger in the future.

A formula of short-term pain, long-term gain can work but not if the immediate consequence is Championship football.

Among the many remarkable statistics generated at Villa Park recently - for instance, Tottenham had 15 first-half corners last Wednesday - it is another that, of the players picked against Wigan, only Stephen Ireland had started more than 50 Premier League games.

The sizeable casualty list is an explanation, but only one.

Lambert's distrust of proven top-flight performers is apparent in his every move. He believes they lack hunger. Darren Bent and Shay Given were benched, Stephen Warnock and the admittedly awful Alan Hutton were loaned out.

Richard Dunne and Stilyan Petrov, two with the character to make a difference, have been sidelined all season.

Yet it is a moot point if, given their ages and wages, Lambert would have picked either.

Lerner wanted a manager who would cut costs after the wage bill mushroomed to unmanageable proportions and one who would put his faith in youth after a side grew old and stale. He got one who took that approach to extremes.

And now Villa, who tried to cast their past aside, find themselves in the position they were in two years ago, a mighty club with a mere five demotions to their name looking to stave off a sixth.

Then they took out an £18 million (Dh106.6m) insurance policy against relegation, signing Bent for a club-record fee.

Now the rescuer is in need of a lifeline from another club after becoming the most high-profile victim of Lambert's regime. But the manager has to decide if he should make stopgap signings to stop Villa going down. It is the question of if a fundamentalist can compromise.



With four goals in four games as a striker, with two hat-tricks already in a season of just 11 starts and 14 finishes and with a contract that expires in the summer, Theo Walcott's bargaining position may rarely have seemed stronger.

Yet if Arsene Wenger has to sign him to an extended deal, the reality is that Walcott needs Arsenal as much as they require his services.

The winger wants to play as a striker. But consider the Manchester clubs, with their phalanx of four out-and-out centre forwards, and he would not get that role there.

Nor at Liverpool, when Daniel Sturridge signs for them, or at Chelsea, who, whether or not it is Demba Ba, will sign a specialist striker to understudy or displace Fernando Torres.

So Arsenal, with the opportunity to play up front or, if Olivier Giroud's height is required, suits Walcott.

And he, with his pace and growing assurance in front of goal, is ideal for them. A drawn-out saga should end with the stability of him staying put.




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