Villa's mean away streak, attacking woe continues
It is becoming apparent that the challenge facing Paul Lambert is significant. Transforming a team from relegation candidates to top ten members, and even higher, is not an easy task. It certainly won't happen overnight, and that's something all Villa fans need to keep in mind as they reflect on Saturday's uninspiring 0-0 draw at West Ham.
In today's Premier League, goalless draws are sneered at by pundits and commentators who almost seem to rejoice in reporting a mundane encounter; there's also the ignominy of being given the last slot on Match of the Day, as if that actually carries any true importance.
What played out at Upton Park wasn't fast, free-flowing, easy-on-the-eye football by any means, though the opening 20 minutes were bright enough. But Lambert, a pragmatic character, will take what he can from the game --s a point, another clean sheet and yet another improvement on the result compared to the 2012-13 (Villa lost this fixture, last August, Lambert's first league game in charge). The football wasn't a lot better then either, but the difference between the matches was the outcome. Kevin Nolan's goal settled it last season, and West Ham were largely dominant. This time, the balance of play was reasonably even while Villa arguably had the clearer opportunities to win the game.
It's true that genuine chances created by Villa were at a premium. Andreas Weimann nearly wriggled in early on, only to be squeezed out by Jussi Jaaskelainen, and there was the contentious issue of the same player wrestled off the ball by Ravel Morrison when running clear through the middle and in on goal. It was a difficult one. West Ham manager Sam Allardyce completely missed the point in his post-match scoff ("Rubbish!") when focusing on Morrison's relatively slight frame -- players of a smaller build can still foul, Sam -- but there wasn't conclusive evidence of a foul, more a case of two players tussling for the ball.
Christian Benteke headed against the crossbar with 20 minutes to go, reacting sharply to one of the few decent deliveries into the area all afternoon, and the Belgian nearly squeezed a late left-footed strike into the far corner only for Jaaskelainen's finger diverted it wide. Those three or four chances were about the sum of all that Villa created, however, and it was noticeable that there did not seem to be much of an ambitious attacking push from the visitors.
Therein lies the issue Lambert needs to address. One of the manager's priorities this season was to improve his team defensively. Villa were great to watch for the final third of last season, at least for the neutral -- scoring goals and shipping them at the other end while playing a wide open, expansive style that saw them battling opponents with all the freedom of a group of enthusiastic schoolboy footballers in the playground. Oh, and usually leaving the defence high and dry and totally exposed. Any decent set-piece would trigger panic in the Villa defence.
Villa needed to tighten up, and have done. Having gone months without a clean sheet in the league, the team has three in their past three away fixtures -- shutting out Norwich, Hull and West Ham -- and defensively, the club are no longer a pushover. The improvement is undeniable with Ron Vlaar and Ciaran Clark, in particular, appearing far more assured and comfortable.
Defensive progress may have come at a cost though. In improving that, Villa's attacking game appears to have suffered. With Lambert typically picking three midfielders to sit and mind his defence, there's too little support for his strikers.
The blank against West Ham was the fourth game in a row the team have failed to score, and though injuries to Benteke (who is only now just beginning to reach Premier League pace again) and Gabby Agbonlahor (who missed Saturday's game) have not helped, there's a concern that there's not enough variation in Villa's forward play. At present, there's no-one to split open a defence, to beat a player, to pull something a bit special out of the bag.
That touch of class is missing from Villa, the kind of quality which turns teams in the lower half of the league to top ten contenders. That's what Lambert needs to either bring into the club during the transfer window or find by discovering the perfect balance between defensive solidity and attacking penetration. It won't be easy.