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May 13, 2014

End of season review: Aston Villa

Expectations were fairly grounded following a close brush with relegation in 2012-13 but after concluding that season in decent form and with a host of new players recruited over the summer, Villa should have been capable of comfortably achieving around mid-table. It started superbly with an opening day victory at Arsenal but consistency was an issue. Villa beat Manchester City and Chelsea but struggled to overcome weaker teams, particularly at home. Performances collapsed almost completely in the last two months as Villa lost seven of their last nine matches, sailing far too close to the bottom three. The team lost 20 league games -- simply unacceptable -- and again finished in 15th position.

Star Pupil

Fabian Delph was one of the few Villa players to improve his game this season. The midfielder’s industry, drive and technical ability established him as the team’s most influential figure and he also added goals to his game. There were not that many but there were three memorable strikes, two them being winners. Aside from Delph, Christian Benteke was generally a threat when he was fit, scoring ten league goals in 27 games. Goalkeeper Brad Guzan was consistent, as always, and Leandro Bacuna had a solid enough debut season in the Premier League. But there’s no doubt that Delph was Villa’s star man, by some margin.

Detention

Several of the Villa squad had mediocre seasons, with a number of players failing to deliver anywhere near the level of performance seen the previous year. Very few of Paul Lambert’s new signings made significant impacts, either. Aleksandar Tonev had a terrible time of it. The Bulgarian winger seemed totally off the pace at Premier League level, displaying poor decision making, sloppy delivery and shooting so erratic his efforts become an in-joke among Villa fans, who had to laugh for fear of weeping in frustration. Lambert more or less gave up on him after Christmas. In the league, Tonev made three substitute appearances in 2014.

Teacher's notes

Lambert’s reputation and standing declined as the season progressed. His group of new signings failed to improve the starting XI – though he was admittedly unfortunate that Jores Okore and Libor Kozak, who might have done, both suffered serious injuries. Two of them -- Antonio Luna and Tonev -- were out of their depth while he seemed totally disinclined to give another, Nicklas Helenius, a chance at all. The Villa manager didn’t spend his budget as wisely as he might have done.

He struggled to address the weaknesses in the side -- in the centre of defence, in the heart of midfield and in the creative areas. Too often, Villa were predictable and laboured going forward. Then there was the playing style. Instead of a quick passing, attacking approach that had been expected, Lambert’s team regressed into hitting long balls forward.

Finally, there were the issues with his coaching staff, Ian Culverhouse and Gary Karsa, who were suspended by the club. It all added up to a manager losing control of his own staff, losing the belief of his players and possibly losing faith in himself. It wasn’t pleasant watching Lambert’s body language grow wearier and wearier by the week.

Final grade: D

That’s probably being generous. Where do Villa improve next season? Where to start? With the club up for sale, there could potentially be huge changes -- ownership, management and playing staff. Time will tell. Purely from a team point of view, there are too many of the squad just not up to Premier League standard and the manager, whoever that will be, has to raise the level of quality with four or five players who would instantly improve the first team. The priorities are at left-back, two midfielders (one of them a playmaker), a left winger and a centre-forward, at least on a season-long loan as cover while Benteke and Kozak return to fitness. A versatile central defender wouldn’t go amiss either.

There’s a case for selling on a handful of the fringe players and giving the club’s home-grown talent the chance to take up more significant roles within the squad. If the transfer budget doesn’t significantly improve, that’s a way of raising funds to bring in higher class starters.