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Jan 24, 2013

Bantams expose Lambert's lightweights

Under other circumstances, it would have served as an endorsement of Paul Lambert's ethos. A side of spirited lower-division players, with fewer than 50 Premier League appearances between them, and a back four with an average age of 22 overcame one of the game's traditional giants. They showed their skill. They played as a team. They wanted it more.

Except, of course, that Lambert was not vindicated. He was humiliated. For Bradford City, their Capital One Cup semi-final victory was unbelievable. For Aston Villa, it was inexcusable. Because, unlike all their other setbacks this season, both legitimate reasons and the usual excuses could not be used in mitigation.

Villa have sold players? They still fielded a side that cost around £45 million against one that was put together for the princely sum of £7,500. Villa are trying to reduce a wage bill that ballooned out of control in Martin O'Neill's reign? Bradford fielded a footballer who reportedly earns £200 a week. Villa's players are new to the big occasion? City's tend to play at Vale Park rather more often than Villa Park.

Both the manner and the reality of their 4-3 aggregate defeat to a League Two club were enough to put Lambert's entire approach into question. If his position is not under greater scrutiny, it is largely because Alex McLeish's year in charge was so depressing that there was a widespread acceptance that change was required and progress could take time.

But neither Randy Lerner's wish to cut costs or Villa's sterility under McLeish forced Lambert to be as radical as he has been. A manager with a seeming distrust of anyone accustomed to top-flight football and its considerable rewards renders himself a strange fit for former European champions. An apparent belief they lack the hunger of unproven players may be true in some cases, but not all.

Along the way, one with a deserved reputation as a bargain hunter makes his own task tougher. Even in an abject season, Lambert has recognised and rewarded some talents: Ashley Westwood, plying his trade in League Two last year, looks an accomplished Premier League midfielder in the making; the imposing Christian Benteke is the foremost Didier Drogba impersonator in the country; Andreas Weimann, promoted from the fringes of the side, looks a more accomplished finisher than the marginalised Darren Bent.

But it is difficult to find an entirely different XI, especially from among the untried. Lambert's summer signings boasted a combined total of 45 minutes' Premier League experience. They belonged to Joe Bennett, whose return to the top flight has been awkward, if less traumatic than his encounter with a League Two winger, Zavon Hines, at Bradford's Valley Parade.

Along with the failings of Eric Lichaj and Enda Stevens, it is why left-back has been a problem position. But while the defence as a whole, the most porous in the Premier League, has struggled, it is part of a wider trend. Norwich's enterprising attacking under Lambert rather camouflaged their difficulties at the back. When they were promoted from the Championship, eight teams conceded fewer goals. When they stayed up in the Premier League, it was with a mere three clean sheets.

Lambert's overall return is of just seven shutouts in 61 matches among the elite. One who specialised in subduing opponents as an accomplished defensive midfielder is less adept at identifying and nullifying a threat from the touchline or in a team talk. Villa have often found themselves undone in familiar fashion. They conceded too many goals from set-pieces under both Gerard Houllier and McLeish; if anything, the sense of confusion is still more pronounced under Lambert. Three of Bradford's goals over the two legs came from a combination of Gary Jones' accurate deliveries and thumping headers.

Unusually, the chaos was mirrored all over the pitch. Lambert is often a fine tactician, able to switch systems at will. They ended against Bradford seemingly without a midfield or width, becoming probably the first team to play five up front in a League Cup semi-final since Oldham in 1990, but with a very different return.

It was a result to reduce Lambert's authority. That is more damaging as his abrasive approach means he needs to be in the right. Like many a Glaswegian manager, he has a knack of making enemies needlessly, stretching from some of his senior players to a Bradford vicar, who has a sideline as a PA announcer.

An unholy row matters less than an unholy mess, however. With Villa embroiled in a relegation battle, with them threatening to plunge into the Championship despite Lambert's £23 million investment in young players, it is a test of whether both Lerner and the supporters will continue supporting the manager. They have backed him until now, perhaps because they felt they had no option. But the exit to Bradford could prove a tipping point, the moment when Lambert stopped being given the benefit of the doubt. His was always a high-risk approach but now the hardliner has an even harder job.

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