Villa moving in right direction
The manager’s name rang-out in the Holte End as players fought for every ball before looking forward in possession. And even the big front man came on for twenty minutes and scored. What a difference three games makes.
It felt like Villa had turned a corner on Saturday afternoon. There had been evidence of Paul Lambert’s labours against Newcastle United and the international break could not have come at a worse time for Villa as they looked a transformed unit from that which had capitulated before half-time at home to Everton.
But Villa have kept their momentum going. Against Swansea they pressed high up the pitch, fighting for every ball with nothing apparently a lost cause. Swansea looked rattled. The south Wales club usually delight in their conviction to play their way out of defence but Villa cut their play off at source. Darren Bent worked tirelessly but it was the three men supporting him which hassled and harried as a unit to upset The Swans’ rhythm. Stephen Ireland looks hungry this term and there is no doubting the commitment of Andreas Weimann and Brett Homan, the man-of-the-match.
But there was much more than that to Villa’s display than that at times. They composed a move early in the second-half that culminated in Michel Vorm requiring a smart to deny Weimann. In doing so they exhibited a level of confidence that was utterly bereft under Alex McLeish’s regime where play was sterile and trepid.
Much has been made of Lambert’s desire to get his men playing for one another. “I’ve been long enough in the game to know that you need the lad next to you to play well. You need your mate to give you a hand, collectively in a group. You certainly need that,” Lambert said. “Individuals can make a bit of brilliance but team ethic is what we need.”
Another point of discussion has been his moves in the transfer market – Ashley Westwood, Joe Bennett, Jordan Bowery and Matt Lowton all moved from clubs playing in the Championship or below. The latter of these youngsters opened the scoring with a fine volley with his weaker football and then displayed a measure of composure and maturity that no doubt persuaded his manager to make him his first signing from these shores.
Villa knew it was their day when debutant Christian Benteke made sure of the points. “I thought he was unplayable when he came on,” Lambert said of the deadline-day £7 million signing from Genk. Last season the sight of a powerful forward emerging from their dug-out would be met with groans and derision but the Belgian not only added physicality to the frontline but also a finishing touch, albeit courtesy of a huge error from Ashley Williams.
It capped a good afternoon for Villa and there was a palpable sense of pride from the home fans in seeing their team not only getting a result but to do so by acquitting themselves appropriately. The bile-filled atmosphere so evident at the end of last season had dissipated. It might take time for Villa to produce more excellent displays with great regularity but there are surely grounds for tempered optimism.
Lambert has not been afraid to make big decisions, none more evidently justified than his decision to replace Shay Given with Brad Guzan in goal. Guzan has always looked a fine shot-stopper when playing second fiddle to Brad Friedel and then Given but now looks to also have a reliable pair of hands when claiming crosses. It took a thunderous drive from Hatem Ben Arfa to beat him at St. James’ Park and he made two fine early saves against Swansea before looking commanding while untroubled from then on to secure a clean sheet.
If Lambert’s judgement is as sound with his acquisitions as it has been with his early team selection then Villa will be in good shape. Karim El Ahmadi already looks an excellent all-round midfielder and Ron Vlaar every inch the Holte End hero that Paul McGrath, Olof Mellberg and Martin Laursen all became. Lambert’s decision to give Vlaar the captaincy from Darren Bent, in Stiliyan Petrov’s absence, may also prove an influential call.
They may not be playing Champions League football any time soon and Lambert still described his task as a “massive rebuilding job” post-match. But if Villa continue to improve as they have done since losing at Carrow Road on the final day of last season, they will win more games than they lose between now and May.