Premier League 2014-15 preview No2: Aston Villa
Guardian writers’ predicted position: 16th (NB: this is not necessarily Stuart James’s prediction, but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position: 15th
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 4,000-1
Where to start? The owner wants out but has been unable to find a buyer, the manager has presided over two abysmal seasons and is on borrowed time with a section of the supporters, the only additions to the playing squad so far are free transfers, and the chief financial officer is running the club on a day-to-day basis after the chief executive made an unexpected exit. It is little wonder that words such as turmoil, crisis and rudderless get banded about at Villa Park.
On the pitch, Aston Villa have flirted with relegation in each of the last four seasons. A league table for the (13) clubs that have featured in all of those Premier League campaigns – based on the total number of points accumulated over that period – shows Villa bottom of the pile. In the last three years Villa have finished 16th, 15th and 15th, averaging a point per game in two of those seasons. It has been a miserable cycle of underachievement.
For now, Randy Lerner remains the owner of a club that has racked up cumulative losses of £217.7m since he took over in 2006 (last season’s figures are not yet available), brought him precious little in the way of success and stretched his patience to breaking point. “The last several seasons have been week-in, week-out battles,” Lerner said in a statement the day after last season ended, when he confirmed Villa had been put up for sale.
At the time, some of those close to Lerner questioned the merits of making his intentions public, even if it had become the worst kept secret in football and the constant speculation – not to mention criticism – was making life uncomfortable for the American.
Eight weeks later Lerner released another statement, saying that he was turning his “full attention back to Villa matters at hand”, having committed to Lambert at the outset that he would “become completely focused on the upcoming season should there be no agreement to sell by the time players and coaches return to training”.
In short, everything remains up in the air, with the rumour mill offering tantalising glimpses of a brighter future without anything close to confirmation. In the meantime Lambert is flying blind, entering the final 12 months of his three-year contract with no knowledge of how long Lerner will be around. According to the bookmakers, the Scot will start the season among the favourites to be the first Premier League manager sacked.
If that feels harsh in the context of what is taking place at the club now, the truth is that Lambert has endured a dreadful two years. He has the worst Premier League record of any Villa manager and that is before we get to the humiliating defeats against lower-league opponents in cup competitions. Financial restrictions have been in place but it is often overlooked that Lambert has spent close to £40m.
The former Norwich manager believed that he could revive Villa through bringing in young and hungry players from the lower leagues and overseas, rather than recruiting, or utilising, Premier League experience. At the outset Lambert made it clear that it was his choice, not Lerner’s, to go down that path – “The football decisions are mine, I’ll take responsibility for that” – and expressed his conviction that it would work. “I have a great belief that the young lads can do it. I have no trepidation that they can’t do it.”
Come the end of last season, Lambert was singing to a different tune. He recognised that Villa needed experience, which (along with Lerner severely tightening the purse strings) has influenced a change in approach in the transfer market this summer. Villa have brought in Joe Cole (aged 32), Philippe Senderos (29) and Kieran Richardson (29) on free transfers. They are not the most inspiring signings but, realistically, were never going to be given Lerner’s position. The balancing act for Lerner is that, while he wants to limit spending quite understandably, he also needs to make sure that Lambert has enough quality at his disposal to keep Villa out of the mire, or what has become a hard sell will turn into an impossible sell.
Of the new recruits, Richardson offers versatility, and assuming he is deployed at left-back or left-wing back, should be an improvement on what has gone before in a problematic position for Lambert – it is bizarre to think the Villa manager has signed a left-back in each of his three seasons and also brought in another, Ryan Bertrand, on loan during that time. Cole, with his craft and guile, is just the sort of player Villa need if – and it is a big if – he stays fit and demonstrates that he is still capable of influencing matches in the twilight of his career. In his second spell with West Ham United, Cole started brightly and showed flashes of real promise but injury curtailed his contribution and he became a bit-part player, completing only one Premier League match last season.
As for Senderos, the much-maligned Switzerland international is, to put it kindly, a strange addition to a defence that has conceded 130 league goals in the last two seasons. To put it unkindly, Senderos’s arrival is a symbol of just how far Villa have fallen. Perhaps we should reserve judgment until he has had a run of games.
Lambert, who is targeting another couple of players including a defensive midfielder (Ki Sung-yueng remains on the radar) and possibly a wide man, has made arguably his most significant signing in the dugout. Roy Keane, Martin O’Neill’s No2 with the Republic of Ireland, has replaced the sacked Ian Culverhouse as Lambert’s assistant at Villa. It is an intriguing appointment and it will be fascinating to see what impact Keane has.
Keane will take the majority of the training and the word is that he has already impressed a number of the players, including Bent, the club-record signing who is back in the picture after being jettisoned from the first-team squad last summer. Alan Hutton, who has never played under Lambert, is another to have been brought in out the cold – further evidence of a significant shift in approach, which Lerner is understood to have supported.
With Charles N’Zogbia fit and seemingly wanted again after a year on the sidelines with a ruptured achilles, and Jores Okore back in action after recovering from a ruptured cruciate ligament, the Villa side at the start of the season could have a very different feel to the one that limped over the line in May. Libor Kozak, the Czech Republic international who broke his leg in January, is another due to return in the near future.
While all of that news is positive, it is imperative that Lambert holds on to a couple of key players, starting with Ron Vlaar. The Dutchman was one of the outstanding defenders at the World Cup and there are no shortage of suitors for a player who is in the last year of his contract. Vlaar, by his own admission, endured a difficult first 12 months at Villa but he was much improved last season and held Villa’s brittle defence together at times.
Then there is Christian Benteke, whose hopes of starring at the World Cup were shattered when he ruptured an achilles tendon in April. Benteke is making decent progress with his rehabilitation and could well be fit in September. The Belgian’s second season at Villa may not have lived up to the first but he still plundered 10 Premier League goals in 24 starts, despite going 11 games without scoring at one stage. Villa are desperate to keep the striker but it would not be a surprise if their resolve is tested before the window closes.
All in all, Lambert faces one hell of a challenge to pull everything together, whether that be getting the best from his free transfers, motivating players he had previously discarded, convincing the club’s stellar talents to stay on for another season, extracting every ounce from those whose contracts are running down (Fabian Delph, an industrious midfielder Villa can ill afford to lose, and Gabriel Agbonlahor are both in their final 12 months, along with Vlaar), or coaxing a little extra from some that lost their way last season, such as Andreas Weimann.
As for the rest, are Nathan Baker and Ciaran Clark good enough? Is Ashley Westwood able to take his game to the next level? Can Gary Gardner put all his injury problems behind him and make an impression? Is this the season that young Jack Grealish breaks through? And, with or without good cause, will the man sat behind me in the press box ever stop berating Karim El Ahmadi?
Whether there will be any improvement in the style of football, through a change in personnel, tactics or Keane’s influence on the training ground, remains to be seen. Possession might be overrated in football’s new age but it still feels unacceptable that only West Ham and Crystal Palace made fewer passes than Villa last season, and 39 goals from 38 matches hardly qualifies as entertainment.
The proof will be in the pudding when the new season gets under way at Stoke, before home games against Newcastle United and Hull City. Then the computer software that devises the Premier League fixtures decided to have some fun with Villa. The next five matches read: Liverpool (a), Arsenal (h), Chelsea (a), Manchester City (h), Everton (a). A trip to Loftus Road offers some respite of sorts before Tottenham Hotspur visit Villa Park. All of which means that Villa play last season’s top six, and all but two of the teams that finished in the top half, in their first 10 matches.
Villa, in fairness, won at Arsenal on the opening day last season, beat Manchester City and Chelsea at home and drew at Anfield, so we should be careful about condemning them to a bad start before a ball has been kicked. It is hard, however, to be optimistic about the campaign ahead when the club is in such a state of limbo. On the face of it, another survival scrap beckons unless everything spectacularly comes off for Lambert.
The club’s loyal supporters – it is remarkable to think that the average attendance has remained above 35,000 during the last two seasons, when Villa have lost a record number of league games at home (19 in total) and served up some dire football – deserve so much more. Their football club needs re-energising but that will only happen with a change of ownership.
Stuart James for the Guardian