A pessimist would bemoan the fact that seemingly every result that could have gone against the club last week did. An optimist would share Paul Lambert’s perspective that last weekend’s results brought the entire bottom half of the table into the relegation fight. I am inclined to agree with the latter.
Last week, most of us would have taken a draw against Liverpool, and on the balance of play, a draw would have been a fair result. The way the game unfolded is of no surprise to any of us who follow the club closely. It would have been nice to see more of a barrage at the end of the game as the team chased a result, but this was the case of a better team taking control of the game as the game went along.
Save for the reverse fixture at Anfield, the underlying theme of this season for me is that the club has only gotten results against teams it would be expected to, while against the team we aspire to compete with, Villa has been just good enough to lose. Contrast that to Southampton’s last two games which have enabled them to move up the table to 12th. The run in is such that Villa may be able to stay up without beating United or Chelsea, but it would certainly help.
The overriding theme of the season that has garnered the attention is the team’s inability to play a full 90 minutes and their propensity to ship goals late in games. One might conclude that this can be attributed to coaching, and that the manager is failing to make the proper halftime adjustments. The true cause is a bit more nuanced than that. Lambert does a fantastic job setting up his team to take advantage of the opponent’s weaknesses and hide the weaknesses of his own side. The problem arises when the opposing manager makes adjustments to what Villa are doing. At that point Lambert may not have any trump cards left to play or the cards he does play are not enough to win the hand. The card game metaphor is a roundabout way of saying that this team can’t play a full 90 minutes because they are not good enough to to so consistently, especially against the top sides.
That ties everything back into the fact that this team has generally gotten results in the games one would expect them to. This has left them with little margin for error as the teams around them have picked up the odd result. The game at The Britannia isn’t a must-win, but it is close. Stoke are a horrible team, and the money Tony Pulis has spent to achieve what he has is starting to draw scrutiny. Comparing it to what Martin O’Neil did here and at Sunderland is an apt comparison. Hell, this man paid actual money for Cameron Jerome!
We do have the skill, and dare I say flair, to control possession even away from home. We have all been critical of Ciaran Clark at times, but his size will be needed. Hopefully he can pass a fitness test on Saturday. With him, Vlaar, and Baker at the back, Villa should be able to cope with long balls and crosses. Yacouba Sylla should also start. I’d have him, Delph and Westwood in the middle of the park, with Delph the most forward of the three. That team should be able to stand up to the physical challenge at hand. Looking at the table, they may need to be.