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Apr 13, 2014

Villa in free fall


It's all turning very ugly at Villa. Saturday's 1-0 defeat to Crystal Palace not only continued a worrying tailspin in form, it betrayed a team lacking confidence and ability, a manager seemingly at a dead end, a club in chaos. - Report: Crystal Palace 1-0 Aston Villa Defeat to Palace -- who, like Fulham, Stoke and Newcastle, have now done the double over Villa -- is bad enough, but the rumours and conjecture floating around, emanating from social media gossip, input from pundits, and from manager Paul Lambert himself, is even more concerning. Fans who bought into the long-term vision of a club rebuilding for two or three years before emerging stronger, and with a renewed drive towards the top six, now have genuine reason to doubt that, and to question the direction Villa are heading. Prior to the game, former Celtic player, Charlie Nicholas, now an analyst on Sky Sports, claimed he had been told, "on very good authority", that Lambert has been "exceptionally close" to deals for Gareth Barry, Romelu Lukaku, Philippe Coutinho, Lewis Holtby and Moussa Sissoko, only for these to collapse at boardroom level. While that's not exactly a revelation, for we've known for some time that the higher calibre of players are beyond Villa's reach, it poses further questions: how can Everton and Fulham, for example, manage to construct loan deals for Barry, Lukaku and Holtby, when Villa cannot; and when will the situation change? Such financial restraints were not supposed to be permanent. Lambert's post-match press conference comments alluded to frustration, too, when he reportedly conceded that there were issues behind the scenes that were not publicly known. He declined to expand further. Again, there have been mutterings -- and that is all they may be -- that Gabby Agbonlahor and Fabian Delph were not ill or injured against Fulham last week at all, but dropped from the squad for disciplinary reasons following a dispute with the coaching staff. Presiding over all this gossip, is the mother of all rumours, of course, which refuses to dissipate; that a takeover of the club is imminent, and even that Chairman Randy Lerner has already agreed a deal to sell. Time will tell, though the driver behind this is undoubtedly wishful thinking. There doesn't seem to be a way out of Villa's slow and depressing decline without fresh investment, ambition and strategy, and it’s perhaps fair comment to wonder which manager could thrive without such change. The club, in recent times, has become one which simply makes up the numbers in the Premier League, and history shows that there is only one fate which befalls those that flirt with relegation every season. Eventually, it catches up with such clubs. Putting all of this to one side, and accepting that Lambert probably hasn't been able to build the Villa team he wants, in an ideal world (though how many Premier League managers would say the same -- possibly all?) let's look at the Palace match specifically. Though there are undoubtedly underlying wider issues, the manager has to take responsibility for the decisions he makes on recruitment, coaching, match preparation and team selection, and Lambert appears to be falling short. He is beginning to look beaten -- even when things seemed desperate last season, with Villa in the bottom three, there was a defiance and a belief about the manager. Now he looks lost. His team are playing with fear, and Lambert's selection against Palace was that of a manager focused on staving off defeat first, rather than looking for a victory. Not for the first time, his starting XI was an eyebrow-raiser. Occasionally, Lambert opts for a back five, with three central defenders, and did so on Saturday. It has rarely worked, yet he persists with it now and again when the penny should have dropped that it does not work. Not with these players. With Delph, Karim El Ahmadi and Agoblahor all returning, someone had to drop out. Leandro Bacuna was absent from the squad altogether, presumably injured, so to then demote Marc Albrighton to the bench was a poor call; either Bacuna or Albrighton should be starting every week. Both of them are quick, attacking players, capable of beating an opponent, providing a quality delivery from wide positions either in open play or set-piece situations. Choosing to leave Albrighton, who has been Villa's brightest player in recent weeks, was a mistake, particularly with Grant Holt starting at centre-forward. That was Lambert's first error. It left Villa predictable and one-dimensional, barely able to generate a chance worthy of the name. On the other side of the coin, three central defenders did not prevent Palace, particularly in the second half, from creating some very presentable opportunities. Lambert's second error was his use of substitutions or, more pertinently, his failure to act at the right time. With the game still goalless heading into the last half an hour, and with Palace upping the pressure, Villa were desperately in need of a change of pace and the match was there for the taking; Holt had all but run out of steam and Agbonlahor was doing nothing. Instead, there was nothing until Palace had gone ahead (incidentally, Ryan Bertrand needed to have got far closer to the scorer, Jason Puncheon, who was able to turn and shoot in the penalty area), by which time it was too late. Villa's subs, Andreas Weimann and Albrighton, had but a few minutes to perform. Even then, they combined to nearly pinch an equaliser when the winger's cross was headed on by Holt and Weimann's flick was brilliantly tipped behind by Palace goalkeeper Julian Speroni. Lambert does have players with the right tools to win games, if they're used correctly. Defeat leaves Villa on the brink of real trouble. Around them, rivals are fighting hard to stay in the division; Cardiff with an unexpected victory at Southampton, Fulham with back-to-back wins. West Brom were foiled, again, by a stoppage time equaliser but at least the Baggies are scoring goals and giving themselves a chance of winning games. Villa are doing nothing to help themselves, and will be grateful for Sunderland's lowly position and form, and Norwich's dreadful final four fixtures. It's as if Villa have just about given up; there's a malaise from the top right through to the dressing room. Relegation may be avoided due to the failure of other clubs, but a happy ending for Villa feels unlikely without a further change of ownership, manager or both.