Can Aston Villa be rescued from relegation?
"The last month and a half has been a disaster," Tony Barnes said. "We have to hope for a change in fortune. Until it is mathematical, there is hope we can get out of it."
If this was a disaster movie, the secretary of the Aston Villa Supporters Trust would be the one chivvying everybody along, finding a few berries and imagining a feast. For others, stomachs churn noisily: "We'll get relegated this season," said Paul Theiss, who happened upon a Villa game on TV one day and soon found himself devoted. "We've had a fairly easy run lately, but took just one point from Wigan, Southampton, West Brom and Newcastle. How can we expect to take points off better teams?"
With 14 games remaining, Villa is in serious trouble: second from last place in the Premier League and winless since well before Christmas. Paul Lambert's side has the worst defense in the league, conceding an average of almost two goals per game and seemingly unable to fathom even a rudimentary means of defending set pieces. They're not much better in attack, either, twice as likely to fail to score as to keep a clean sheet, with only Queens Park Rangers scoring fewer goals. If Rangers continue to pick up points as they have done recently against Manchester City, Spurs and West Ham, Villa will soon find no one left to cushion its fall.
As an object of study, Villa's season is fascinating. The first 24 matches yielded just four wins, with few players -- in fact perhaps only Christian Benteke -- escaping criticism. The defense is young and untidy, and also dreadfully exposed. Too often the midfield has looked not so much a work-in-progress as a botched job. And yet three of those four wins were convincing: Lambert's men dominated Swansea in September, and impressed against (an admittedly poor) Sunderland in November; Stephen Ireland's performance in midfield was such that it was Sunderland one came away feeling sorry for. Against Liverpool it was Barry Bannan who pulled the strings -- "vindication for Lambert's steadfast faith in his young team," said the Guardian.
But Villa has not won any of its seven league games since and has been put out of both cup competitions by lower-league opposition. In the past few weeks we have witnessed such fragility from this Aston Villa side that at times one feels bad for watching. Even having started well in the second leg of the League Cup semifinal against Bradford City, full of industry and in the right areas of the pitch, the effect of James Hanson's goal for Bradford was instantly, painfully, visible. The same had happened a few days earlier, when, leading West Brom 2-0, Villa conceded early in the second half and every bit of menace swiftly evaporated from their game.
Lambert did not help matters by subbing off Charles N'Zogbia, the player driving Villa's play with skilful urgency, at halftime. He wanted to keep the winger fresh for the Bradford match, he said, mentally skipping forward to the part where Villa reached the cup final and everyone started feeling better about themselves. The impact of failing was surely twice as heavy as the impact of doing so would have been -- and hoping that N'Zogbia, so inconsistent that mercury itself has thought about a change of name, would just pick up where he had left off? A gamble, to say the least.
Lambert's reputation is not yet so tarnished as some insist, but he will have to get such calls right in the remaining weeks if Villa is to survive. This week's defeat to Newcastle must have taught him, for instance, that playing with wingbacks is a mistake. Villa looks far better with more bodies in midfield, and stands a better chance of sustaining a performance over 90 minutes in that case.
"Lambert was a welcomed appointment, but the change to youth has been too swift," said Barnes, who, like most fans, recognizes that former manager Martin O'Neill was given "too much rope," signing numerous squad players to well-paid contracts. The club's shift toward developing its own talent was and still is admirable. But "you cannot do that overnight," said Tom McGowan, a lifelong Villa fan ("unfortunately") still haunted by the final chapters of Deadly Doug Ellis' time as chairman. "In the space of two years Villa have stripped what was a very good Premier League team into one that looks woefully short."
Since three consecutive top-six finishes, the last in 2009-10, Villa has sold Ashley Young, James Milner and Stewart Downing for fees totaling $87 million, as well as last summer losing the defensive steel of Carlos Cuellar (who cited "club politics" in his decision) and cashing in on James Collins.
Lambert spent around $32 million in the summer but used the money to bring in eight players on relatively cheap contracts (even at $11 million, Benteke cost more than twice as much as any other new arrival) rather than signing fewer, more expensive (more experienced) players. His strange relationship with Darren Bent, the sort of poacher Villa should at least have on the bench, has hardly alleviated the sense of an impoverished squad. Theiss believes that the manager did some good business -- "our best performers this season have been Lambert's buys," he said -- but had too much to do with too little cash.
Villa's limitations have again been evident in this transfer window: despite an obvious weakness at left back, where Joe Bennett has been as much a part of opposition managers' tactics as Lambert's, Stephen Warnock and Alan Hutton have been allowed to leave, to ease the wage burden. Neither is an exceptional full back, but both are the kind of older heads you might want to be able to call on as already taut sphincters begin to quiver.
The owner, Randy Lerner, professed his frustration at missing out on transfer targets in the past few weeks, but also seemed to acknowledge that, at best, Lambert would have the opportunity to paper over the cracks, saying: "Fresh players always give at least a sense of progress and optimism."
The signing of young French midfielder Yacouba Sylla may well prove to be a bargain at $3 million (despite interest from elsewhere he has signed a long-term contract, and models himself on Newcastle enforcer Cheik Tiote), but one could be forgiven for seeing this as a signing made with one eye on rebuilding from the Championship. "The team is young and learning," said Theiss, "even if they won't learn fast enough to keep us up."
"If we do go down, we need to finish the rebuild that has been started," Barnes said. "We will come back in a stronger position, having dealt with our payroll. Hopefully we can bounce back on the first attempt and the fans will be re-energized." Attendances have dropped as this season has gone on, from 36,565 at the start to 32,500 in January (for a "six-pointer" against Southampton). Relegation has acquired an even greater pallor in recent seasons as clubs such as Portsmouth, Birmingham City, Middlesbrough and now Bolton Wanderers and Wolves struggle to arrest the decline.
"If Villa do go down, I fear a period of Middlesbrough-esque stagnation," McGowan said. Even the most optimistic post-relegation forecasts depend on retaining the services of players such as Benteke and Andreas Weimann, as well as the continued (accelerated, even) development of the likes of Bannan, Ciaran Clark and Marc Albrighton. All of this will have to be done without the tens of millions of pounds that Premier League status alone brings. And then McGowan poses the question that is nagging away at Villa fans.
"If Lerner won't invest now, to safeguard the club's Premier League future, when will he?"