The situation at Villa is becoming nearly unbearable. With every soul-destroying display of attacking incompetence, with every passing goalless minute, the fans’ souls wither, cough and keel over just a little more. It is now well over a month (46 days, actually, at the time of writing) since Paul Lambert’s team scored a Premier League goal. The last time a Villa shot bulged the net was against Manchester United in the 1-1 draw they played out in late December, but since then Villa fans have had nothing but brutal, rasping impotence to quench their goal-thirst. Every moment, washing over the stands like an acid bath, is a new nadir. One wonders exactly how poorly the team must do for Lambert to feels the breath of the axe above his pink neck.
For anyone wanting to keep closer track of the goal drought, the Birmingham Mail are keeping a running timer. For Lambert, though the seconds are counting up, they might just as well be counting down, ticking off the time he has left. His reign has never been more than a bad spell away from teetering horribly on the precipice of the abyss. His two-and-a-half seasons at Villa have been a collection painful lurches between encouraging displays of the vivaciousness of youth, and utter dreadfulness. Lambert’s first season brought with it the shuddering thud of Villa’s record league defeat, the 8-0 annihilation by Chelsea, but then ended on a hopeful note, a 15th place finish and general praise for the resilience of his very young side. In Christian Benteke, Lambert had also made a splendid first impression in terms of his ability to recruit (though not many expected the Belgian to hang around for long).
But Benteke was there again in claret and blue the next season, one where Villa again finished 15th and avoided relegation, though with a worse goal difference than the two teams below them in 16th and 17th. Again the hallmarks were inconsistency and false dawns, the opening day defeat of Arsenal betraying a future of F.A Cup losses to lower league opposition. Progress was not been made, not in any tangible sense. And the downcast figures filing mournfully out of Villa Park were being kept afloat only by the relatively recent memories of glorious triumph in Europe. Make no mistake, Villa are one of the best supported clubs in England.
However, looking down the list for this season’s attendances, there are some worrying signs for Villa. Their average attendance of 32,922 places them 11th in the league in terms of bums-on-seats this season, but the capacity of Villa Park is 42,788. This means that the ground is, on average, only 77% full every weekend. If the ground was sold out consistently, Villa would be 7th on the attendance list, above Chelsea. This is what happens when a team doesn’t score for 46 days. And it’s not just the current goal drought, Villa have fewer goals overall this season than all of the teams in the professional English football leagues. They’ve managed 11 so far. The next lowest totals in the Premier League are that of Hull City and West Brom, both of whom have nearly double Villa’s total.
How has this happened? Benteke was, admittedly, injured for the first 6 games (though within this period was actually Villa’s best run of form, as they started the season with 3 wins, a draw, and two losses). During Benteke’s other spell on the sidelines, when he was out for three games in November, Villa went on a handy 5 match unbeaten run, scoring in all but one of those matches. But his absence and subsequent rustiness has surely blunted Villa’s goal threat. The sort of muscular focal point that he can be, as well as the inventive, powerful finishing he provides (see Villa’s last goal, against United), only improves Lambert’s side. There is a reason he was once so sought after, though the listless figure he cut against Arsenal in Villa’s 5-0 thrashing makes this reason difficult to recall. Benteke completed 0 take ons, had 0 shots on target, and created 0 chances in that match. But he wasn’t alone in his floundering, in fact, the entire Villa team was awful.
As a team they created only 6 chances, 3 came from new singing Carles Gil, 2 from Andreas Weimann, and 1 from Kieran Richardson. Gil is, if a little jink-heavy and too light on end-product, an exciting thrust of incision, and he must be reeling with horror looking around at the depressed state of affairs he’s suddenly found himself at the centre of. Weimann, after looking at times last season like a counter-attacking wizard, has not been able to replicate that form this term. Fabian Delph, recipient of a fresh 5-year contract with the club, is more of a midfield motor, and seems capable of only scoring the very occasional wonder-goal. He has scored 3 goals and provided 2 assists in the last 3 seasons. Gabby Agbonlahor, at times a thunder-thighed storm of unexpected pace and power, was benched for the Arsenal game (he too is not sure source of goals, having scored only 16 in the last 3 seasons). One hopes that the loan signing of Scott Sinclair offers something fresh going forward for Villa, a tremulous hope if every there was one.
But how much of this is Lambert’s fault? He seems to be persisting with this counter-attacking style, though with not much successful attacking that can be pointed too to support the decision, its endurance as the first choice game plan is perplexing. And speaking of endurance, is the fitness of a team, both mentally and physically, not key for this sort of approach? A counter attacking side is designed to operate for vast periods of the match without the ball, defending stoutly. Defending is a thankless, tiring task where chasing around opponent’s passing triangles and racing back to cover can suck the vigour from the blood and drain the confidence faster than a split gut. Chances can be few, and are to be best found on the break in the second half, when opponents (who ideally haven’t scored yet) are overcommitted forward and too tired to chase back when possession is lost. Accordingly, it behooves a counter attacking team to be the fittest of the fit, alert for the full 90 minutes, ready to strike on any fleeting moment of weakness. But some of Villa’s numbers indicate that Lambert is failing badly in his duties.
Villa have led at half time in only 30% of their matches so far this season, but their opponents have only led 34% of the time at the break. This indicates that Villa are starting well, at least on the defensive side of things. But Lambert’s team seems to fade horribly as the match goes on, at both ends of the pitch: Villa have scored 81% of their goals in the first halves of matches, leaving a paltry 18% scored in the second half. They concede 63% of this season’s goals in the second half too, and a whopping ten of their 30 goals conceded so far this season have been in the last 15 minutes of their matches, a period in which they haven’t scored at all themselves. So, at the very moment where a gloriously late smash-and-grab might occur for Villa, when the opponent’s concentration is at its lowest and their fatigue at its highest, it’s actually Villa that are wilting more severely. The blame for this physical and mental frailty must fall at the feet of Lambert, whose ability to motivate his team must be questioned in the stark light of this horrid run of form.
Luckily, with QPR, Leicester City and Hull all flailing badly too, a third consecutive 15th place finish might again be on the cards for Villa. But this hopeless, goalless doldrums will only be endured by the supporters for so long, and management will have to act if more results like the 5-0 loss to Arsenal are seen again this season. Lambert is hanging by a thread, but, then again, it seems like he’s been dangling like this for a while, doesn’t it?