The 2013-14 season comes to a merciful close on Sunday afternoon as Aston Villa come to White Hart Lane. One should imagine that both sets of fans will be thankful when the final whistle goes, and they can forget for a while the horrors of what they have seen and look forward to the World Cup and 2014-15. Both could do with one final hurrah, though, and while pride may not be much to play for in the world of modern football, it should be enough to create a good game.
It is fair to say that patience is starting to run thin with Villa manager Paul Lambert. The justification for last season’s many failures was that it was clear that he was trying to build something – that the meek collapses that personified the team would disappear when the youngsters that populated the line-up matured and reached their potential in what was, at times, an exciting, attacking system.
Rather than evolve, however, the side has stayed almost exactly the same. Defensive mistakes remain as common as ever, while Christian Benteke’s total loss of form and long injury layoff significantly blunted their attack. Instead of climbing the table, Aston Villa find themselves in 15th, the same position they in which they finished last season, and they need to beat Tottenham to equal their points tally from 2012-13.
It has got to the point where Paul Lambert needs to start 2014-15 strongly or he could find himself out of a job. If some rumours are to be believed, then yet another takeover is imminent and he will be out on his ear anyway. It would be a great shame. His persistence with youth is admirable and his style of play, when executed well, calls to mind the best of the Bundesliga – no surprise given that Lambert studied for his coaching badges in Germany.
The trouble is that they simply do not execute their style well. For a manager who presided over a Norwich City side that epitomised decisiveness, coolness under pressure and stylish positional interchange, it is incredible this Villa side has come to embody the polar opposite of all of those attributes.
They are remarkably predictable in their attacking. While Lambert’s Norwich undoubtedly played long to Grant Holt, they had more strings to their bow and rarely became fixated on the long, straight punt downfield. By contrast, no Premier League side has played more long passes per game this season than Villa. They occasionally produce a quick passing combination on the edge of the box to make chances but more often than not they simply go long and look for flick-ons, or just cross the ball.
Lambert’s Norwich side was a good example of one that sat deep, soaked up pressure and sprung forward on the counter to exploit space in behind the defence. At their best, this Villa do the same. Their 3-1 opening day win over Arsenal was a complete triumph for their style, while Gabby Agbonlahor caused Liverpool and Steven Gerrard in particular all kinds of problems in the 2-2 at Anfield in January.
More often than not, however, they have been desperately limited in attack, hopelessly clearing the ball only for it to come straight back. Monday night’s 4-0 defeat to champions-elect Manchester City was a textbook example of this inability to play out from the back.
As one would expect from a side led by a German-trained coach, Aston Villa look to win the ball in their own half, attempting the majority of their tackles close to their own box before playing straight down the pitch, looking to catch their opponents high up the field. Rather than doing this successfully, like Mauricio Pochettino’s Southampton, Villa instead commit the most fouls per game of any Premier League side. In keeping with that stat, no team has had more bookings than Aston Villa this season (78) but they are somehow one of three teams yet to receive a red.
As far as the line-up and system goes for Sunday’s game, we can probably expect a repeat of Monday’s cagey effort at containment. With so many key players out or out of favour, Lambert is left with little choice.
The long-serving and long-suffering Brad Guzan will complete a full season between the sticks with his 38th appearance of the campaign. In front of him will be a back three of Ron Vlaar, Nathan Baker and Ciaran Clark, each as limited as the other and altogether all-but guaranteeing a way to goal for Emmanuel Adebayor and Harry Kane.
Wing-backs Matt Lowton and Ryan Bertrand should be a bit more adventurous than they were against City but will primarily play alongside the back three, making sure that the inherent weakness to width in the system is not exploited too much.
The three-man midfield will be made up of Ashley Westwood, Karim El Ahmadi and Fabian Delph. If there is one positive from Villa’s season it will be Delph’s emergence as a player of genuine ability and reliability. His combined averages of 2.9 tackles per game and 1.7 interceptions make him Vila’s most proactive midfielder, while no other player makes as many passes or completes such a high proportion. To cap it all, his 1.7 dribbles per game are a key part of Lambert’s plan to exploit transitions.
Up front, Andi Weimann and Jordan Bowery will do what they can to spring a surprise. Weimann has had a desperately disappointing season, while it was hard not to feel sorry for Bowery on Monday night, seeing an inexperienced young forward trying to make his name reduced to auxiliary full-back, tracking Aleks Kolarov up and down the line until his substitution on the hour.
This is not really a starting eleven of which Spurs should be scared. In what will surely be Tim Sherwood’s final Premier League match in charge of the club, he will send them out to enjoy and express themselves, two things they absolutely failed to do last weekend. The display at the Boleyn Ground was way short of acceptable and the reminder that many of these players are playing for their futures should be the one they need to force a return to winning ways.
Name - Rob Brown
Twitter - @Robbro7