Time for flexibility?
Aston Villa boss Paul Lambert has shown himself to be a tactical chameleon in his managerial career so far. But Adam Bate reckons it is the strategy that needs changing if he is to avoid disaster at Villa Park.
By Adam Bate - Follow @GhostGoal
Last Updated: 12/01/13 7:32am
Sometimes a manager needs to be flexible. He can go into a football club with plenty of ideas and soon find out he needs to reassess them. While the focus is on Paul Lambert right now, back in the autumn the questions were being asked of his successor at Norwich. Chris Hughton arrived at Carrow Road with the stated intention of playing 4-4-2. Just months into the job, he had to abandon that plan.
Canaries playmaker Wes Hoolahan saw just 13 minutes of action in Norwich's first four games and was an unused substitute on three occasions. Hughton failed to win any of his first seven matches in charge. Everything changed soon after the former Birmingham and Newcastle boss switched formation to 4-4-1-1 with Hoolahan playing off a lone striker. Norwich went on a 10-match unbeaten run in the Premier League with the Republic of Ireland international starting every game.
"My view of Wes hasn't changed," claimed Hughton after restoring the fan-favourite to the starting line-up. "Before I came here I knew he was a good, influential player. But in pre-season and perhaps at the start of the season I was looking more at playing two strikers. It's always a bit more difficult to fit him into that."
Of course, tactical flexibility has not been a problem for Lambert in the past. In fact, he has built his reputation on it - even having his own difficulties incorporating Hoolahan into the team back when Norwich were in League One. The Scot played a 4-3-1-2 diamond formation on the way up through the leagues and found joy with 4-4-1-1 in the top flight. He's also shown the nous to switch formation during a game, as he did to beat Swansea in February, and even utilised 3-4-1-2 to see off QPR.
But the problem for Lambert is not tactical flexibility. The current situation at Villa Park is a test of his strategic flexibility. Changing a philosophy is often seen as a weakness. To deviate from the plan suggests the plan was wrong. And it's clear Lambert did have a plan. Villa brought in a host of young players in the summer with Joe Bennett, Christian Benteke, Jordan Bowery, Matthew Lowton and Ashley Westwood all aged 23 and under.
Those players joined the likes of Nathan Baker, Barry Bannan, Ciaran Clark, Fabian Delph, Chris Herd and Andreas Weimann in a youthful Villa squad that Lambert hoped would prove receptive to his ideas. Experienced - and well-paid - heads such as Darren Bent and Shay Given were sidelined. Alan Hutton and Stephen Warnock were loaned out, while Richard Dunne remains a long-term injury victim.
Survive the season and build from there. That's the message. And after the turgid fare on offer under the unwanted previous regime of Alex McLeish, the Holte End had shown some willingness to embrace the logic. Slow progress is acceptable. What they did not anticipate was the prospect of results getting even worse under Lambert. Ahead of Saturday's visit of Southampton, Villa are just one point above the drop zone. And Lambert's predecessor feels that's the risk you take with young players in an unforgiving league.
"Villa have got some good kids," McLeish told Sky Sports this week. "As you saw last year, I had to try and blood some and throw them in at the deep end - and Paul has done the same this season. It's not an overnight job for Paul and I'm sure Villa will have some patience with him because he's obviously better received going into the club than I was! So at least he's got that on his side. But he's working with a lot of young kids - young defenders who are learning the hard way. The Premier League takes no prisoners."
As Villa capitulated under the Bradford barrage in their Capital One Cup semi-final on Tuesday, it was almost possible to feel sorry for the Premier League side. Of course, the Bantams were the massive underdogs. But target-man Jim Hanson had the air of the playground bully as he tormented a back-four yet to experience the pleasure of turning 24. The need for leaders is an easy conclusion. But that doesn't mean it's the wrong one. This is a young team in danger of hitting the wall.
"One player who definitely needs a rest is Benteke," argues Sky Sports' own Jeff Stelling. "He has been Villa's shining light so far this season but he's scored only once in his last five games and that was a penalty against Swansea. Quite simply he looks jaded, which isn't surprising because he's a young man carrying the attacking burden of a major Premier League side on his shoulders pretty much alone. That's clearly taking its toll."
So what does Lambert do in the January transfer window? Signing a bunch of experienced professionals on new deals risks stifling the development of his talented team, while bringing old heads in on temporary contracts could prove equally destabilising. But the real worry for Lambert will be that if he fails to address the issues in the short term, there might not be a long term for him at Villa Park.