By Sam Lee
Paul Lambert starts the season as one of the favourites for the sack after two seasons of relegation scraps and a summer of uninspiring acquisitions. Goal takes a look at the state of play at Aston Villa...
Aston Villa have been shopping in the bargain basement of the Premier League transfer window, hoovering up players you would expect to land at cash-strapped, newly promoted clubs just hoping to get by for a season before taking the parachute payments and running.
Paul Lambert wanted to reenergise Villa with young blood when he took over two years ago, but he and the club have now started to look towards experience. Coupled with Randy Lerner’s desire to sell the club, though, it has led to a number of free transfers of players on the scrapheap.
Philippe Senderos, unpredictable at best during in his peak, Kieran Richardson, a Manchester United nearly man, and Joe Cole, whose career has tailed off after he left Chelsea in 2010, have all been brought in. At 29 years old, Senderos and Richardson should be established players now but are stale options for what is rapidly becoming a stale club. Cole is 32 and has struggled to recreate the old magic for years.
The news that 26-year-old Aly Cissokho has been brought in from Valencia on a four-year deal should not bring any comfort – he was poor and clumsy in his season-long loan at Liverpool last season.
The exits this summer have been limited to academy graduates or recent summer signings who have not quite made the grade - a sign of the times at Villa Park.
Marc Albrighton, full of promise when he broke into the team in 2010-11, was loaned to Wigan in 2013 and, after only being offered a one-year deal at Villa, elected for a two-year contract at newly promoted Leicester City.
Nathan Delfouneso, the England youth international who has been sent on loan five times in recent years, completed a free transfer to Blackpool - who barely have a squad. Nathan Bowery has also moved to Cheltenham.
Yacouba Sylla, who joined last January, has been loaned out to Erciyesspor, Nicklas Helenius has gone back to Aalborg on loan a year after signing on at Villa Park, while Antonio Luna has also secured a short-term move to Verona.
The squad is balanced, at least, but is severely lacking in quality. Ron Vlaar could well end up elsewhere given his soon-expiring contract and fine World Cup performances, though even he has hardly been a rock for his club in recent seasons.
Brad Guzan is a good goalkeeper and one of the best players in the squad, but anybody playing behind as slow a centre-back pairing as Vlaar and Senderos could be in for a long season.
Ashley Westwood in midfield is capable of fine performances on his day but is often the target of the Villa Park boo boys when the going gets tough – he is not particularly slow on the ball, but seems to not use it as quickly as the fans demand. Fabian Delph and Karim El Ahmadi will have to deliver if the club are to stave off yet another relegation scrap.
Jack Grealish, an 18-year-old academy graduate, has performed well in pre-season and is perhaps one ray of light in an otherwise gloomy pre-season. Whether he is ready for the Premier League is another issue but he should be given a shot, even if only to appease some of the club's fans who have been hoping to see the local lad in action for some time.
Villa are more than decent up front, especially if Andreas Weimann and Christian Benteke get back to their 2012-13 form. Benteke is the key man but is recovering from the serious Achilles injury which kept him out of the World Cup. Gabby Agbonlahor is one-dimensional but it is a good dimension on its day and his direct threat can cause problems when Weimann is buzzing around and Benteke is occupying centre-backs.
It looked like Villa would lose Benteke last summer after his blistering debut season in English football, but after handing in a transfer request he surprisingly signed a new contract.
There were then fears that 2013-14 could have witnessed a severe case of second-season syndrome, but on the whole he performed well and scored 10 Premier League goals, before sustaining that Achilles problem in April.
On the plus side, his time on the sidelines has kept him out of the sights of bigger clubs, because Villa would almost certainly have sold as soon as a decent offer was put on the table.
So if he can work his way back up to full fitness Villa will have their dangerman back – and they will need him to be at the top of his game given the paucity of quality in the rest of the team.
Paul Lambert starts the season as one of the favourites for the sack. He has enjoyed a close working relationship with owner Lerner but investment in squad development has dried up and the Scot has borne the brunt of the fans’ frustrations as results have nosedived.
The 2012-13 campaign nearly ended in relegation, and also included humiliating cup defeats, so much better was expected last time out. Although survival was assured some time before the final weekend of the season, it was not good enough for most fans and Lambert will start 2014-15 with no credit in the bank.
The mood at the Villa is not good these days and the fans are not shy of making their feelings known.
There are several factors which could force Lambert out; it makes sense that any new owners may want to bring in their own man, and a poor start to the season could even force Lerner to act.
Lambert has the worst Premier League record of any Villa manager and with Roy Keane and his considerable shadow installed as No.2, you get the feeling the decision to jettison him would not be too difficult.
|A GOOD 2014-15 WOULD BE...|
|ASTON VILLA ODDS FOR 2014-15
(From William Hill)
Given the lack of quality in the Premier League this season - any one of seven or eight teams could go down - Villa fans would normally hope to be part of the group of clubs finishing between 8th and 12th, alongside Newcastle, Southampton, Hull City and Crystal Palace.
But even these measured ambitions have proven too lofty in recent seasons so anywhere above 18th will do the job, as long as new investment is made next summer...