Friends Reunited; Aston Villa & Common Sense

It seems so simple. Being logical in appointing a manager. Daniel Storey says Aston Villa fans shouldn't expect miracles from Paul Lambert, but at least there's a plan...

Last Updated: 26/06/12 at 15:47 Post Comment

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When Paul Lambert was appointed as manager of Norwich City, he had not been an unqualified success. He had won just five games in eight months at Livingston, jumping before he was pushed, and then resigned from his job at Wycombe after failing to achieve promotion from League Two via the playoffs. Even at Colchester, although his side famously won 7-1 in his last game in charge, the U's only finished mid-table in League One after being relegated from the Championship.

The key to successful career progression in football management is to select club or accept a position in which you feel that you can make a difference. It isn't rocket science, but a manager may only be given a year to effect advancement, and in Norwich Lambert clearly saw potential for immediate improvement. A club had fallen on its sword, and he envisioned a change of fortunes (although perhaps not the instant and dramatic rise). If that happened, your stock rises. In taking the Aston Villa job, similarities are apparent. On a less grand scale Villa have also fallen from grace, and the sixth place finishes under Martin O'Neill seem a distant memory. Lambert again sees the opportunity for enhancement.

The crucial characteristic in successful football club chairmanship is comparable. Appointments of managers should not be done on reputation, name or even past performance. All may form part of the decision-making process, but logical choices should be made on the attributes a manager has for your club. Can they make a positive difference? In entrusting the immediate future of a football club, social entity and place of worship all rolled into one, that question should be the lowest common denominator of managerial assignation.

Not so at Aston Villa. The appointment of Alex McLeish was as illogical as it was unsuccessful. As Villa fans will tell you until they almost cry, the fact that he managed rivals Birmingham City was not the issue, it was the fact that they were appointing a manager that had been relegated from the Premier League in his first job in England. Twice. Despite being significantly backed financially (transferleague.co.uk estimates almost exactly £50million spent on players in four seasons), McLeish created a team that was renowned for ineffective long ball football, and Birmingham's total of 37 league goals during the relegation season was six lower than any other team.

Even casual observers were aware of the illogicality of the partnership between manager and club, and the most surprising conclusion was that the Scot lasted until the end of the season. Like Birmingham before them, Villa scored just 37 Premier League goals, and were laughably weak at defending even the most basic of set piece situations. They were mind-numbingly dull for large periods of games, and McLeish's defensive outlook simply stifled the enthusiasm out of supporters and media to the point of mutiny. As if almost to dig his own grave, McLeish won just one of his last seventeen games in charge, a 93rd minute home winner off the torso of substitute Andreas Weimann. To rub a final layer of salt into the wound, Villa gained 38 points, one fewer than relegated rivals Birmingham the season before.

For Villa, it appears, things can only be improved. In appointing Lambert, at least they have made the logical choice. David O'Leary wasn't the logical choice (at least for the long term), Gerard Houllier wasn't the logical choice. Alex McLeish wasn't the logical choice. Lambert is a hungry, intelligent manager who has made it clear that Villa was the job he wanted. He is tactically adept, and has either met or exceeded expectations in his last three seasons as a manager. He has never been relegated (and certainly not at a rival club). He spent £8million at Norwich (not an insignificant sum), and but no Premier League team shelled out less on players last season than Norwich. Their 12th place finish was a phenomenal achievement (and only goal difference away from a top half place).

That is not to say that there are not risks to his appointment. Paul Lambert is not the first manager to have taken a team up from the Championship and enjoyed a successful first season in the top flight, and the likes of Paul Jewell and Phil Brown did not exactly smash the car into fifth and speed on. However, Lambert's educational grounding must surely set him apart from other less illustrious managerial lights. Learning the intricacies of the profession whilst playing for Borussia Dortmund, Lambert took notes on everything shared by his more experienced team mates such as Sammer, Moller, Kohler, Reuter and Riedle, a wonderful grounding for a young pretender. Instead of earning his coaching badges in England or Scotland, he chose to do so in Germany, preferring their style of tutorship. This is a man with his head firmly screwed on.

Secondly, given Villa fans' alarm at the style of play endured under McLeish, they must be appreciative that Lambert is a pragmatic manager. Although Norwich gained many plaudits for their playing style in the Championship, the club attempted the most long balls of any team in the Premier League last season. However, given that the club scored sixteen goals from set pieces (thirteen more than Villa), it is clear that the tactic was used not as a staple, but because it was effective. Moreover, Norwich also made more short passes per game than eight other teams, and only Manchester United, Arsenal and Spurs scored more goals on the counter attack. So whilst McLeish initiated a stubbornness easily sidestepped by quality opponents, Lambert enacted a fluidity and tactical versatility so crucial for teams outside of the top six. It comes back to that buzzword again; logicality.

In any case, whilst Lambert's Norwich used Grant Holt effectively as a target man, playing in direct balls from defensive midfield for him to hold up and lay out to the wings before gambling in the penalty area, this is nothing to make Villa fans worry. For the period of three seasons in which they finished sixth consecutively (2007/8 - 2009/10), their top goalscorer in all competitions for each of those seasons was John Carew. I don't recall him being particularly delicate.

There is a lot of work to be done at Villa. Ageing players such as Richard Dunne, James Collins and Shay Given may need replacing, and several first team players (Ireland, N'Zogbia, Hutton) have woefully underperformed. Fans, too, need to be rallied, reinvigorated in a club that has worryingly lost its way. But if Lambert is given time, the very oasis in the desert of football management, he should provide stability for the club's impressive youth brigade to mature and excel. More importantly, Villa will finish higher up the league.

It shouldn't be big news, it shouldn't need shouting from the rooftops, and it certainly isn't ground-breaking. But all Aston Villa need is some common sense, some respite from illogicality of recent times. Appointing Paul Lambert is the first step in the right direction. And at least the club's fans can see actually the coherence in where they're heading.

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