With the season over and Aston Villa safely in 15th place, manager Paul Lambert could be forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief after a rollercoaster of a campaign. Villa hit massive highs: beating Liverpool 3-1 at Anfield, dismantling Sunderland 6-1, and being 2-0 up after 50 minutes against United away. These, however, were matched by catastrophic lows: getting hammered 8-0 by Chelsea, losing 3-0 to eventual relegation sufferers Wigan in an insipid display, conceding three to United in the second half to lose 3-2. Nevertheless, the season ended on a bright note for Lambert’s Villa.
For one, the array of signings procured by Lambert and Villa’s scouting team ranged from good to utterly inspired. In the former category Yacouba Sylla arrived from Ligue 2 and immediately looked at home, and when he did play, Ron Vlaar proved a rock in the midst of defence. In the latter category, Ashley Westwood emerged as Villa’s metronome at the heart of midfield and Matthew Lowton turned in consistently excellent performances from right-back. Of course, the biggest success was undeniably the rampaging Christian Benteke, who ended the campaign as Villa’s top scorer and one of the most feared strikers in the league.
Where there were strengths, however, there were also weaknesses. Although Lambert’s signings on the whole proved excellent, some of the old guard of Villa players underperformed massively. The likes of Stephen Ireland and Charles N’Zogbia, apart from some bright sparks, mostly had poor seasons. In this article, I have a look at three statistical performers of Paul Lambert’s reign so far and assess why Villa have a bright future.
Best to get the obvious one out of the way first. Christian Benteke started the season as a little-known Belgian forward, but his all-round striking ability ensured that heads were turned on his goalscoring debut as a substitute against Swansea City, and his reputation only grew as he continued to savage Premier League defences.
In almost every category, Benteke has excelled. In terms of pure finishing ability, he was superb: 59% of his shots were on target, which goes some way to explaining his 19 goals from 32 games started. Compare his shooting stats to other topscorers in the Prem, and it begins to look even more impressive.
In this small table of the top five scorers in the Premier League, we can see Benteke’s 59% of shots on target beat out four of the finest finishers in the league. His conversion rate is also superior, 4% higher than much-lauded poacher Robin Van Persie. His clear-cut chance conversion % is the second-lowest of the five, but the final stat, minutes per shot on target, is particularly interesting. This isn’t so useful viewed in isolation as the other stats, given that a striker is at least partially reliant on his team to provide him with a chance to get a shot away. Considering the gulf in quality between Villa and the other four teams in this list, it is therefore particularly remarkable that Benteke should top this list in addition to the other two category wins he’s had.
It’s not just in terms of basic poaching skills that the Belgian has done well in, either. His imposing stature gives him an obvious advantage in the physical Premier League, and he won 57% of his attempted aerial duels. On top of that, he created 53 chances, far ahead of his closest competitor Barry Bannan – who had the benefit of taking most of Villa’s set-pieces when he was on the field – on 34. In fact, if we take the figures for chances created from open play, the difference looks even more stark, with Benteke sitting pretty on 49, 28 ahead of Andy Weimann.
In short, Benteke had a superlative debut season in the Prem, and Villa will desperately want to hang on to him for the next season and beyond.
Full-back isn’t exactly the most flashy of positions, so to have caught the eye so noticeably as Matthew Lowton did this year, you have to be pretty good. It’s not an understatement to claim that Lowton was arguably Villa’s most important player, tactically, other than Benteke in 2012/13. His constant running to create width on the right, coupled with sound positional sense and tackling in defence, meant that Paul Lambert’s eventual 4-3-2-1ish formation didn’t get stifled through lack of width. Lowton’s smart runs forced the opposition to defend wider, opening up space for the power of Benteke and the pace of Weimann and Gabriel Agbonlahor.
If we take Lowton and two of the Premier League’s best right-backs – Manchester City’s Pablo Zabaleta and Manchester United’s Rafael Da Silva – we can see that surprisingly, the three are more or less evenly matched. In fact, with one category loss and two victories apiece, Rafael and Lowton look to have beaten out the far more experienced Zabaleta. Though the tackle, ground and aerial duel, and dribble success percentages cannot really be argued with, the penultimate stat, open play chances created, is another that varies wildly from team to team regardless of player quality. This is partly due to how good the team is: for example, a team dominating possession and expecting to win the game is more likely to be aggressive with its full-backs’ positioning. Despite this, Lowton excels, illustrating his vital role in the side.
One of the first things Paul Lambert identified as missing in the Villa squad was a lack of a proper deep-lying playmaker, capable not only of retaining the ball but also spreading play and dictating the tempo of the side. Barry Bannan, the closest candidate, was too rash in his decision making, and his propensity for attempting the spectacular when the mundane would have sufficed was hardly in his favour. As such, one of Lambert’s first buys was Ashley Westwood, a player who admits to idolising Manchester United’s Michael Carrick.
When placed alongside such skilled registas as his idol Carrick and Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta, Westwood doesn’t shine, but to his credit he isn’t crushed either. The previous corollary in regards to team strength pointed out in some categories earlier apply much more in this situation. A regista’s job is made far easier when his team is dominant, allowing him to retain the play with more ease as well as step forward and try more ambitious passes against a deep-lying defence. As such, Westwood’s figures match up relatively well, considering the difference in class. What’s interesting to note is the relative similarity between his and Mikel Arteta’s figures, since both are given particularly defensive tasks ahead of their defence. Though both have players to aid them, both are their teams’ primary midfield destroyer. Of course, Arteta’s figures in this sense are unsurpassed in the entire league, but given that all these players are entering their 30s in a role that rewards experience, Westwood’s figures look more than decent by comparison.
Throughout all this, we haven’t covered why Villa did so poorly last season. Mostly, it was down to a simple combination of inexperience and lack of creativity from midfield zones. The two are somewhat linked.
As Villa lack a playmaker in midfield, other than the overworked Ashley Westwood, their best bet is to attempt to exploit space rather than play themselves into it. Lambert recognised this, and set up his side with a counterattacking bent. The pace of Agbonlahor and Weimann and Benteke’s hold up ability meant that the front three were perfectly suited to this. The acquisition of Yacouba Sylla in January gave another physical box-to-box midfielder alongside Fabian Delph, giving Villa more options with their support from deep. Finally, two attack-minded full-backs meant that Villa didn’t sacrifice too much width with their central counterattacking.
Unfortunately, this reliance on counterattacking was dangerous. Firstly, and more importantly, Villa regularly overcommitted on the break. This meant that they could hurt big teams in an instant, but it also meant that they were vulnerable on the counter themselves. This lack of savvy and experience is unsurprising in such a young team, but it hurt Villa badly. The other main problem was that if Villa went a goal or two down against any team, it made their job so much harder. A team that is actively trying to get a goal is much easier to counterattack against than a team who are already one up and cruising. The opposition is much less likely to commit the numbers of people to an attack that Villa needed to create space.
However, it’s too soon to write off Villa for next season, as Paul Lambert has given every sign he’s working towards fixing the problems in the squad. New signing Alexander Tonev, a promising Bulgarian winger, is the type of player who can thread passes as well as get on the end of them, and is a good dribbler. Another new signing, Leandro Bacuna, is a more vertical player, linking play by energy rather than by passing. This bodes well for Villa’s chances of breaking down deep defences. With ball-playing defender Jores Okore also on his way and rangy Danish striker Nicklas Helenius heavily linked, Villa’s reported (if unlikely to be followed up on) interest in Montpellier attacking midfielder Younes Belhanda gives another sign they’re looking for players to help break down the opposition. If these next generation of signings can be procured, and Villa cast off more dead wood – as apparently they are – then the future could well be bright for Villa.
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