Another Christmas slump sees the Villans slip to a forth consecutive defeat.
Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. It is an opportunity to mark baby Jesus’s birthday, relax with family and tuck into Mum’s finest pigs in blankets. If you’re an Aston Villa fan however, the festive period has lost its shine ever so slightly. Few need reminding of the carnage of Christmas 2012 but in case you were too busy gorging on mince pies, the following video may help jog the memory.
Since the beginning of advent this term, Villa have accumulated just 3 points from 5 Premier League games, a largely fortuitous win on the road at Southampton back on December 4th . Defeat at a combative, if not bulldozing Stoke City outfit last Saturday and a spineless home performance against Crystal Palace on Thursday, has left the Brummie fans calling for the head of Paul Lambert. Sure, Villa are missing the influential presence of Ron Vlaar, the goals of Christian Benteke and long-term injuries to the likes of Jores Okore and Charles N’Zogbia have been unsettling but countless problems remain unsolved. It is my purpose to draw those to the surface.
1) “The lads are doing just fine …”
says Paul Lambert time and again. It’s a great pity that the fans’ bank balances are not looking quite so healthy. Over the festive period the games come thick and fast, requiring the spectator to shed out £70 in 2 days should they attend both the Palace and Swansea matches. The pattern of play is dour, a passing sequence regularly beginning with Ciaran Clark, finding its way to Fabian Delph before some 20 passes later arriving back at the feet of goalkeeper, Brad Guzan. It bears an uncanny resemblance to the England national side who haplessly fail to unlock the door of opposition defences at major world tournaments. What arguably aggravates the home fans even more than the mundane playing style though is the manager’s stubborn refusal to admit that his team were not good enough. There are a finite number of times the same clichés can be used, and patience is wearing very thin.
2) Monotonous Midfield
Barry Bannan secured a move to Crystal Palace in the summer months and in his absence, several Villa players have been rehearsing his signature over-hit Hollywood passes. The usually neat and tidy Ashley Westwood has been the main culprit sending set pieces harmlessly over attackers’ heads while inexplicably picking out opponents. The former Crewe man admitted that he had not “hit the heights” of his debut Premier League season in mid-November and a sensational sweeping strike against West Brom aside, his performances have been lacklustre.
Delph meanwhile has continued to establish himself as one of Villa’s better players with his no-nonsense tackling style and marauding midfield runs. Even he has found himself stifled of late however, Villa too often camped outside their own 18 yard box for him to make a positive impact. When the team are in possession, he seems hurried to manufacture something and is quickly becoming accomplished at losing the ball when looking to dribble past an opponent. Against top half teams it’s been no picnic just to keep the ball either, the Villa defenders harangued by forwards when they’d rather have ample time to hand around a basket of salmon and dill sandwiches.
Lambert prefers to play with a midfield 3 and because of this it is disconcerting that Villa have the 2nd worse passing percentage in the division. With the extra man in the heart of midfield, possession should be quickly claimed and more easily recycled. However, Villa still struggle to keep the ball unless it is being rolled along the back line. You’d be hard pushed to find many worse passers of a football than Yacouba Sylla and Karim El Ahmadi. The pair, renowned for their willing industry, can make sideways balls look troublesome and although the latter does weigh in with the occasional goal, is finding himself unpopular among the Villa ‘not so’ faithful.
3) Where’s the width?
As already suggested, Lambert favours selecting a robust midfield 3 and this can hinder any threat in wide areas for the claret and blue. The Scot has fiddled about with the formation throughout the season, initially preferring wing backs in Bacuna and Luna before reverting to 4-5-1/4-3-3 systems, when flaws became exposed in their defensive capabilities. In the last couple of fixtures, a more conventional 4-4-2 formation has also been trialed without success. Marc Albrighton has returned to the team on the right side of midfield with the goal-shy Andi Weimann slotting in on the left. Having suffered from various ailments over the course of a most miserable 24 months, Albrighton is showing glimpses of quality that earned him praise during the Martin O’Neill reign. He’s direct, happy to swing in an early cross or equally eager to knock the ball past his opposite number. Teaming up with the marginalised Matt Lowton down the Villa right seems the solitary source of attacking threat at this moment in time.
4) Shoot on Sight Policy
Aleksander Tonev joined Villa with high hopes having been recommended by fellow Bulgarian and former Villa captain, Stiliyan Petrov. His first few months in Birmingham have been most forgettable though and is fortunate that a montage of his most embarrassing goal attempts is yet to have been created. In principle, a shoot on sight policy is no bad thing; keeping the goalkeeper on their toes particularly during the winter months may force the odd mistake. It is essential to hit the target however. Currently it is only the Villa ballboys being overworked as they retrieve his wild drives from the Holte End rafters. In Tonev’s defence, he’s not the only player to send his shots closer to the corner flag than somewhere between the sticks. Delph is occasionally over-zealous in pulling the trigger when disgruntled murmurings start up around the ground. Weimann too has been known to send his goal attempts into orbit but is hardly flying high right now.
5) Post-Boxing Day Sales: All Beards Must Go
Villa have been far from razor sharp and though unlikely, their poor performances may have something to do with a sudden growth of facial hair. A trio of regulars have sported a rugged complexion this season but the macho look has failed to strike any fear into their opponents. More is known of summer import, Antonio Luna’s beard than his defensive credentials thanks to the endeavour of the parody twitter account @LUNAS_BEARD. Nathan Baker is another to have braced himself for the cold snap by pulling up his winter furs. Whether it has made the no-nonsense centre back less streamlined is difficult to say, but Baker is two yards short of the speed needed to keep pace with the Premier League’s finest. The third and final under-performer to have let nature take its course is Andi Weimann. Having signed an improved summer deal, the wing-forward is yet to recapture his spark that saw him form a fearsome partnership with Benteke last season. Weimann anticipated my warning and decided that a fresh face was needed for the Palace match but still couldn’t find his scoring boots in the loss to the Eagles. The Austrian wide-man volleyed at Speroni when he had time to take an extra touch before ballooning over a cut back from just inside the area.
Nobody was expecting immediate revolution as was nobody anticipating consistency with Villa. However, having seized a get out of jail-free card at the end of last-term, it would have been pleasing to see the Villans make their way around the board unscathed and collected their £200 for passing go. As it is they’ve struggled to deal with the rigours of the property market and the price of selling key personnel over the last few seasons has proved an immensely costly one.