“It’s unbelievable, seeing Aston Villa in the relegation zone,” said one of the commentators overseeing the Newcastle United – Chelsea game which saw Moussa Sissoko make headlines on his English Premier League home debut.
Yes, it is unbelievable that a club with so rich and storied a history such as Aston Villa currently find themselves nineteenth in the table, with only Queens Park Rangers propping up the standings below them.
Wait. Storied history? Yes.
For those who didn’t know, or those who’ve just started watching the EPL, Aston Villa are only one of five English teams to have won the European Cup, when they beat mighty Bayern Munich in 1982 — ensuring Peter Withe’s name goes down in history. They also went on to beat Barcelona and lift the Super Cup that same year.
The same Aston Villa who are now in the relegation zone.
Although they have never won the Premier League, they can look back on seven First Division Championships, seven FA Cups and five League Cups. If that isn’t storied history, then I don’t know what is.
Sadly though, with the way the club has been performing this season, it looks like Aston Villa’s status in the Premier League could also soon be a thing of the past. Having won just four games all season, the Villans have drawn ten and lost twelve of their league fixtures.
Several fans and pundits put this down to a lack of experience in the squad. Aston Villa’s oldest outfield player is 33-year-old Richard Dunne, who is yet to make an appearance for the Birmingham side this season due to injury.
Captain Ron Vlaar is 27, and is playing his first season in English football. Coming from Feyenoord in the Netherlands, Vlaar knows little about the physical nature of football in England and although he is a physically imposing centre-back, has never captained a side before.
The events surrounding Stiliyan Petrov and Darren Bent are unfortunate, but have to be managed. Sadly, there is nothing boss Paul Lambert can do about the former as he continues to wage his battle with leukemia, which thankfully is in remission right now. But Lambert should have drafted in an experienced player – at least on loan – this winter.
Lambert’s exclusion of Darren Bent from the club’s starting eleven has only made matters worse. Conflict over the England international’s place in the squad has seen him warm the bench for a majority of this season, with Lambert preferring Austrian striker Andreas Weimann and new signing Christian Benteke up front.
What he has essentially done is exclude an experienced centre-forward from his plans. In possession of a respectable scoring record in England with stints at Sunderland and Tottenham Hotspur, Bent has only featured eighteen times in all competitions, eleven of those appearances coming in the Premier League, and has found the back of the net five times.
So why he isn’t playing when fit is a mystery.
Over the summer, Lambert had explained a long-term rebuilding plan to Villa’s American owner Randy Lerner, and was given the green signal to carry out his plan.
Unfortunately, he got his first step wrong by selling a majority of the seasoned players Villa possessed.
Cult figure Emile Heskey left on a free to see out his career in Australia, Carlos Cuellar was released to join Sunderland and James Collins joined West Ham United. The sale of Stephen Warnock to Leeds United this winter hasn’t helped matters either. Neither has the departure of Alan Hutton to Mallorca in Spain.
None of the players Lambert has drafted in have ever played in the Premier League before. Brett Holman, Karim El Ahmadi and Vlaar all came from the Netherlands, Matthew Lowton joined from Sheffield United, Ashley Westwood from Crewe Alexandra — both in League One, Joe Bennett came in from Middlesbrough in the Championship, Jordan Bowery came in from Chesterfield in League Two and Belgian international Benteke transferred from Genk in the Belgian Pro League.
What this essentially means is that Aston Villa don’t have an experienced figure to turn to when the going gets tough. There is no one to motivate the players and effectively tell them what to do when their backs are against the wall.
Too many times this season have Villa conceded goals and succumbed to draws when a win seemed on the cards. The phrase ‘threw away a two-goal lead’ has been associated with the club too many times this season.
Take the example of the game against Swansea City (2-2) at the Liberty Stadium, when Danny Graham scored deep in stoppage time to rescue a point for the home side. Or how about last Saturday, when Everton battled back through a Marouane Fellaini brace to draw 3-3. The same thing happened against West Bromwich Albion (2-2) at the Hawthorns, when Peter Odemwingie struck late to deny Paul Lambert a win.
They were heading for what would have been a memorable win against Manchester United, only to unravel in the second half as the league leaders staged yet another comeback. Weimann scored five minutes before and after half time to put his side 2-0 up, before Javier Hernandez’s magic saw the Red Devils depart Birmingham with all three points as United won 3-2.
Mentioned here are four games where Villa were denied wins with late goals. Experience would have ensured at least ten points out of these games.
There have been times when the talent in the squad has been evident. A 1-3 upset of Liverpool at Anfield and four-goal wins against Norwich City and league champions Manchester City in the Capital One Cup highlight the skills this team possess to cause an upset on their day.
But their naivete has been cruelly exposed at other times. A League Cup humbling at the hands of Bradford City away from home, a ‘cupset’ at the hands of Millwall in the FA Cup and a walloping 8-0 defeat at against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge only underline what is sorely lacking in Villa’s squad.
Lambert can still buy experience if he sees the need for it, but there may not be much choice among the free agents of the footballing world.
With surviving the relegation quagmire the need at the moment, Lambert needs to gee up his charges and motivate them to fight for survival. He did it last year at Norwich and the Canaries successfully overcame the threat of relegation.
Now he needs to ensure Aston Villa do the same.