Belief at Villa
By Alec Shilton
Optimism is rife at Villa Park with Paul Lambert’s replacing the hugely unpopular Alex McLeish as manager after finishing last season with the worst home record in the club’s history.
But despite Randy Lerner’s sale of Cleveland Browns for over $1billion, Villa won’t embark on an imminent spending spree with Lerner looking to run the club more sustainably. Lessons will surely have been learned from the post-Martin O’Neill wage bill strife that has hamstrung the club’s spending over the last two seasons and Lambert will have to make any cash available go as far as possible.
The 43-year-old Scot has already added much needed steel to his midfield – the club are without leukaemia–stricken Stiliyan Petrov and Jean Makoun is set to leave having had work permit issues - by signing tough tackling Karim El Ahmadi from Feynoord. The Eredivisie club received around £6million from Villa this summer as the defensive ranks were also bolstered with the signing of Dutch international Ron Vlaar. The injury-prone centre-half started the two Euro 2012 games that he was fit to represent his country and will be looking to add to his total of nine Dutch caps while plying his trade in the Premier League.
Matt Lowton has also joined for around £2.5million from Sheffield United. Lowton can play across the backline but is likely to feature most prominently at right back with Alan Hutton now surplus to requirements under the new manager.
The only other addition is that of Australian playmaker Brett Holman who was signed on a free transfer by Alex McLeish. Lambert has promised Holman a clean slate in Birmingham and the Socceroo has responded with a promising pre-season.
One long-standing issue looks closer to becoming resolved as Villa’s wage bill has been trimmed further with the departures of Carlos Cuellar and Emile Heskey on free transfers with James Collins returning to former club West Ham for a fee of around £2.5million.
Lambert’s greatest immediate challenge with his squad lies in getting the best out of the talented yet volatile Stephen Ireland and Charles N’Zogbia. Both have endured difficult starts to their Villa careers as injuries and loss of form left them out of favour under previous regimes. The new manager has stated he sees the pair as central to his plans.
Another target for Lambert is to nurture the development of the younger players in the squad: Ciaran Clark, Nathan Baker, Barry Bannan, Chris Herd, Marc Albrighton, Samir Carruthers, Gary Gardner, Fabian Delph and Andreas Weimann all stand a good chance of carving themselves out successful top-flight careers. Lambert’s history of getting the most from his players should help them along their way.
With Vlaar, Clark and Richard Dunne being the only players with sufficient experience to feature regularly in central defence, this is an area that Lambert will look at. He also wants a left-back to replace Stephen Warnock Aaron Cresswell fits the bill though not at Ipswich’s £6million valuation. Attacking options must also be broadened with a strong forward a likely fit to compliment Darren Bent’s finishing qualities.
A fit and firing Bent will be vital to Villa’s hopes as they will look to create chances for the striker through the ambitious football that the team so evidently lacked last season as they notched-up just 37 league goals from the 38 games played. Their all-round performances should improve dramatically but Villa still lack the quality and depth to their squad that might allow them to challenge for qualification for European football. Predicted finish: 9th