Q & A With Vital Villa
1. The big question has to be, where has it all gone wrong for Aston Villa since Martin O'Neil's tenure?
It all went wrong during his tenure. We got too close to seeming to crack the top 4 but we didn't have the foundation in place for it, so when a player became injured who had been a regular first teamer, we splashed the cash to replace them, but never shifted unwanted players off the wagebill quick enough as O'Neill wanted a squad to compete, but only ever had 11 favourites who were rarely dropped despite form.
That knock on affect financially meant we had to pull the reigns in and that started under Houllier but he tried to change too much too quick really, and then his health issues didn't help.
The appointment of his successor seems to defy everybody's logic but our owner's and CEO's and was without doubt the single biggest mistake our board have made since coming to the club. Many fans understood players chose to move on, we didn't sell them lightly and we got good money for each of them, and many fans understood that we were spending well above our grade and effectively giving out immensly good wages for average players who were not contributing to our cause.
The appointment of Alex and his shenanigans and style (can you call parking the bus a style?), destroyed so much faith in the fanbase for many it's probably too late for that to be recovered now.
Lambert was undoubtedly the majority of the fans choice, many are still with him, the direction and the desire to build a young, hungry core as it's what many of us wanted us to do. However in the summer the lack of experience to help carry the younger lads as they were adjusting to the league, and to help carry and direct them during times where their form wasn't right in a particular game remained an issue, and unfortunately that has become an issue that has now bit us royally on the rectum in the last 3 games.
Prior to that and from the start of November, players were showing signs of adjusting, building partnerships and slowly showing the belief that they knew they could compete in this league, and grind out results hence our unbeaten run.
But the Chelsea game seems to have knocked that belief out of them, and against Wigan it was in many ways a performance with no cutting edge, and a lack of belief that they could create something that we'd brought an end to in November.
For example, confidence was growing enough for players to have potshots from outside the box, an opportunity arose to strike it, and they were starting to. Every opportunity to try something against Wigan, was met with a pass backwards ie the safe choice, for fear of making an error.
And trying to play safe and being worried about making mistakes only leads to one thing in football...more mistakes and a further loss of confidence.
They have to get that confidence and belief back, and we need the experienced heads around them now (not a squad full again, just 2-4 key players to help lead and direct) to help bring that back.
Pre Chelsea, whilst things were far from perfect, the signs of the team clicking were there, and January should've been our month to put a little run together and lift us out of the pack. If the players don't get that belief back, well, we can't afford another 3 months before we start showing our Novemberish form again.
2. And looking at just this season, what did you expect this year from the new manager Paul Lambert?
My choice was unfashionable and it was simply survival because of the direction and the core we were hoping to build. I'd have taken survival by goal difference which looks horrifically unlikely to happen now given our goals against column! For me 14th would've been an unexpected present, 12th would've been a dream this season with everything that has changed on the playing side. Others, as things were slowly coming together, saw a possible push for top 10, assuming things clicked properly in the second half of the season, but they were in the minority. Most thought at this stage, we'd be exactly where we currently are, but again that's why it's so disappointing for the heart to have been ripped out of them as progres was slowly being made, and if Wigan is anything to go by, we are back to square one.
That would still be my aim though, survival. As things stand I don't see us going down, but I am reserving the right to alter that statement depending on how results go, depending on how the lads react in the coming games (do we get that spirit, determination, fight and belief back) and also based on the moves Lambert makes in the window.
I see the line that he wanted to assess our older heads first, see who would step up to the plate for him, before buying in experience to help, but he has to know the answer to that question now and he has to rectify that in January.
3. Where has it all gone wrong for Lambert and his side, 15 goals conceded in the last 3 games!?
Different fans have different thoughts.
Some think the players possibly got carried away, and thought it had clicked with the victories over Norwich and Liverpool.
Our injuries have meant Lambert couldn't rotate as much as he may have liked - others would say he used the injured players sparingly when they were fit.
Our injured players in the main are the experienced heads in the squad and it's that touch of experience we have been missing - others would again point to them being sparingly used, and even when used they haven't seemed interested in knuckling down, or have simply offered us very little on the pitch to justify their inclusion.
The single biggest loss has been Ron Vlaar who was really starting to grow into the captain's role in defence, without him, we've altered the formation to provide a bit more cover but we've ended up with a central midfielder effectively playing the sweeper role, and having not played it before positioning is out, gaps have appeared and so on.
The Chelsea hammering for me has just knocked the belief out of them though. It left them shellshocked, and it's been shown in the Spurs and Wigan game. Yes we now keep going to the end, but without the belief everything is halfhearted and lacks the will to make it happen. We go a goal down and the doubts are ringing in their ears, we then play safer, we make nothing happen, and continue to get punished for it.
4. What needs to happen at the club to turn things around to avoid relegation?
We need shrewd moves in the January, 2-4 key players to help guide, be somebody to look upto in a unit that will give people a lift. Doesn't need to be huge money, they just need to be players who have wore the t-shirt before and can help lead the lads through these low moments, get some belief back in them, so they go on and show what they were starting to previously.
I would say we need some of our current seniors to step up the the plate and earn their wages aswell, but they didn't really do that last season, and for some of them they didn't do it the season before, so maybe we need some new stars to look upto who aren't living on reputation alone.
Lambert also needs to sort out some of his decisions in terms of which formation we are going for - in which case, don't keep selecting players who's heads have dropped and who's form has gone. Take them out of the firing line before their confidence is truly destroyed.
And in terms of selection fullstop, we all talked and brought into players being selected on merit. We need to return to that and when somebody has a stinker, we help the team by removing them, not leaving them on the pitch and taking somebody off who has been performing.
Our midfield also lurches from being too defensive, to being too offensive and weak. We had found a balance but that seems to have gone out the window lately again.
5. Can you turn things around, or is it all doom and gloom and do you think you'll get relegated?
I'm considered a happy clapper. I don't, as above, think we will go down despite the last three games, but if we don't get the belief back it's going to be far more uncomfortable than I expected it to be at the start of the season.
We need to get the players growing into themselves again, trying things and not worrying if they don't come off. If we can do that, add the experience we need,we'll be okay and then we can flesh the squad out properly next summer, replacing those who haven't achieved what Lambert thought they would. It has to be a process.
But as said, if we don't deal right in January now, and Lambert can't get the lads to draw a line under what's come before and get us back to where we were pre Chelsea, I may have no choice but to reconsider that statement.
We knew it would be up and down, we'd shine one week and look completely useless the next, but we were finding a consistency and starting to take points from games we'd have lost in previous months. The second half of the season should've been the point we started to take 3 points from games we'd have taken a point in in previous months.
If we've truly lost that momentum and we can't regain it B6 is not going to be a happy place.
6. It might seem obvious, but what are your weaknesses?
Belief at the moment. It's the biggest single thing in these recent games. Prior to that, it was selectional issues with key positions having people out of position in them, and then the natural errors and lack of judgement younger players make. Confidence in front of goal was improving but we were still missing chances that should've been put away with eyes closed.
So even on our unbeaten run, there was still plenty that needed to be worked on, and improved on.
7. And strengths?
It was the ability for the team to keep going, keep fighting for each other and not letting their heads drop as things didn't come off, they kept going 100%. Tuesday will show if that again because a strength, because it certainly wasn't there against Wigan.
8. Who has been your most pleasing and most disappointing player(s)?
If I had to pick out one player it would be the development of Brad Guzan who we let go in the summer, before Lambert brought him back. He's been a revelation in goal, and even during off performances for him when he's letting in a couple he should be getting to, he's still pulling off saves he has no right to reach.
Others I could name have shown - well started to show - flashes and some consistency that they really could hit the potential we expected from them as they came through our Academy and reserve set up.
Barry Bannan was slowly showing the judgement when to try a Hollywood pass (as most fans nickname his efforts), and they were starting to come off for him with attackers slowly getting on the same wavelength, and in picking and choosing his attempts, his distribution and his impact was improving and he was becoming less wasteful.
Ciaran Clark has grown in central defence, especially showing he could be a good captain with how he talks and dictates at the back, but there's a number of fans who think he will develop more along the lines of Gareth Barry and could well end up as a ball player in a defensive midfield role.
Nathan Baker has come on leaps and bounds physically as a centre half, and finally Andy Weimann has continued to show he has all the effort in the world, but was developing the confidence to become the finisher we thought he could be.
As for new signings, Matt Lowton looks very consistent at right back although he's far from the finished article. You are well aware of Christian Benteke so I need to say little there, and Ashley Westwood was growing into himself nicely as a clean player in midfield as well.
Before Chelsea ripped the carpet from us, there were plenty of positives and hopes for the future even allowing for all the improvements that we still needed to make on the pitch.
9. Was Paul Lambert your first choice to replace McLeish? Were you initially happy with the appointment and did you expect a far more enjoyable season under him this year?
Yes for me, although I did dally with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for a while, but mainly for the same reasons. A young, ambitious manager who yes, would make mistakes, but would be capable of learning from them, and who would come here wanting to build a legacy, and build the foundations and an ethos that the club embraced at all playing levels.
I still see Lambert doing that, but he needed to be a bit more savvy on the experience issue. It's one thing doing this at Norwich and building the core in the lower leagues, it's a different kettle of fish when if you aren't on it, a hammering isn't out of the question that will sap confidence.
But no, we are where I thought we would be at this stage, so I didn't expect more than he's delivered so far, but I saw us pulling it together properly in the New Year and we were on track with that. My disappointment and worry is we are now back at square one, because we were progressing on pitch roughly how I thought we would...baring the unexpected Cup victory against Man City...and then very undesireable results as well. But I knew we'd be up and down, I just maybe didn't factor in how we'd visit the extremes of that.
10. Will Lambert still be at Villa Park come May?
I think so and in many ways hope so. He's had one window so far and he's done a lot of good, combined with some very fan confusing decisions during games. It was coming together slowly, and not every signing will work out for him. This is very much phase one of what was a huge task, and to be fair the biggest rumblings in the fanbase (both through panic and also showing the experience issue) were raised after Chelsea and everybody is hurting, and being kneejerk about things is very easy to do when the mist descends.
But we got a manager the vast majority wanted. We have put in place a plan which the vast majority wanted so we have to see it through and take the God awful moments with the highs.
He was never going to get everything perfect overnight, or even in six months - I said survival this season purely because I don't see how Lambert (especially with some players we have on our squad list) can possibly work out the foundation for growth before next summer at the earliest.
But there's no denying that, for whatever reason, he hasn't always helped himself so far. For a lot of fans January choices are key for them. If we can see some lessons being learnt, we can return to seeing progression, even if it is slow, fans will continue to see what he is trying to achieve and they will be behind it, as they have been so far.
But I think you can forgive any fan for being nervous and tentative when you look at our last three results.
11. How surprised have you been with Swansea City this season, given that Brendan Rodgers left and Michael Laudrup has arrived to take over?
I have been. As I said last time we spoke, I thought you'd struggle a touch because of the managerial change, so assumed you'd just be out to try and match where you finished last season. But Laudrup came in, and kept that continuity going, whilst also improving you further, especially with Michu who I think the whole league are jealous of.
You're certainly good money for where you sit in the league at the moment, and I've few doubts that you'll finish in and around that as well.
12. What are your thoughts on Swansea City, the team and their style of play? How should Aston Villa approach the game to win it?
They you play and the way you are set up is exactly how I would like to see develop over time to be honest. You've put in place over a number of years and ethos, and you've picked successive manager who build on that base to kick you on further, and at your best you are a joy to watch.
We have to approach the game exactly how we did last time, and get back to a performance that sees us give you as little time as possible on the ball, and we fight for everything.
Our game earlier in the season could've gone either way with the chances both teams created, and if we expect anything from the game, we are going to have to do what we haven't done often this season - make every chance count, get ourselves in front leaving you to chase the game, creating more openings we can hopefully benefit from.
If we let you dictate the game we're in trouble, especially with our form at the moment.
13. Despite the poor form, can you get a result at the Liberty Stadium?
Yes we can, but it all depends if we draw a line under the last three results and we get back to playing and believing in ourselves.
I can't not add, that at the moment, that's a huge 'but'.
Our pre match poll will go up tomorrow, I will not be surprised if over 50% respond with a 'lose' vote based on what we've seen lately.
14. What position will Aston Villa and Swansea City finish this season?
I think 10th is good for you, especially on your current form and style of play. I'd expect you to have a dip again, but I wouldn't be surprised to see you respond to that with another good run.
For us, at this moment in time I'd galdly take 17th. I still hope we get back to developing as we were, and go for a more respectable 15/14th, but I'd take 17th.
Thanks to Mike Field for his thoughts ahead of the game. You can visit Vital Villa here