A week ago, Aston Villa had just dropped into the Premier League’s relegation zone for the first time since April 2013 and manager Paul Lambert’s tenure still appeared interminable. Randy Lerner, distant and far more dispassionate about the claret and blues than he had once been, was seemingly the only man involved in Premier League football who was ignorant to Villa’s on-field plight. Pressure from the Villa Park faithful ultimately dictated what happened next, and rightly so.
The axe swung on 11 February to relieve Lambert of his command over a team that has scored just 12 goals in 25 top-flight games this season. This represented the first correct decision made by Lerner and his board of executives for a long time. Inaction had paralysed and frustrated Villa supporters for so long and this move was, at least, something. Replacement of the incumbent Scot will, of course, prove to be a far more important judgment as time goes on.
At present, despite booking a place in the FA Cup quarter-final with a 2-1 victory over Leicester City on Sunday, the new era ushered in under Tim Sherwood is one being met with caution. The former Spurs manager’s swift appointment would indicate that Tom Fox had him in mind prior to Lambert’s dismissal but that will do little to ease the concerns of Villa fans who question Sherwood’s lack of experience and the squad’s perceived lack of quality.
However, even the most pessimistic of Villans are likely to be quietly intrigued by what changes Sherwood will bring to the club. An absence of belief is the real reason for the team’s occupation of the lower echelons of the Premier League and Sherwood is nothing if not confident. His energy will be most welcome in his communications with the press, the fans and crucially, the players. Where Lambert would appear pained and inarticulate, Sherwood will ensure his players remain upbeat and endeavour to plainly express his views, which is an invaluable characteristic during a relegation battle like the one in which Villa are now embroiled.
In a match starved of much quality, Villa’s victory in the FA Cup will mean a great deal to the new head coach, who celebrated like a supporter in the stands when Leandro Bacuna and Scott Sinclair scored respectively. Indeed, progression to the latter stages of England’s premier cup competition is a pleasant distraction from the uphill task that faces them in the league but it will by no means alter the harsh reality that Villa are performing very poorly. Although the BBC were quick to suggest that Sherwood’s half-time team talk proved instrumental in the win, a rose-tinted view of proceedings does little to conceal the side’s frailties.
Even in victory, the Villans looked blunt in attack for much of the game. Christian Benteke cast an isolated shadow up front and only truly came to life in the final 20 minutes of the game. Even during that period, many of his shots were limited to those from outside of the area and were often hesitant efforts, underlining the Belgian’s diminished confidence of late. Sherwood will do well to transfer some of his vigour to Benteke, who is undoubtedly Villa’s most imperious player.
Andreas Weimann, on the other hand, is simply not good enough with or without confidence. The Austrian, who burst onto the scene as a teenager, routinely struggles to influence games in the manner that he should. Unfortunately for Villa fans, his willingness to try hard quite effectively masks his impotence when it comes to creating and taking chances. In the cold, hard struggle against relegation, players who do not deliver must be discarded, and Sherwood proved during his time at Spurs that he is willing to be bold and frank in his dealings with them. With the likes of Carles Gil – out for the Leicester tie through injury – available to replace Weimann, the winger position shouldn’t cause Sherwood too many issues.
The area that will be of grave concern involves those who ought to shoulder much of the responsibility for the dearth of creativity in this Villa side: the midfield trio of Tom Cleverley, Ashley Westwood and Fabian Delph. Every first touch against the Foxes was either sideways or backwards for Cleverley, who is confirming his mediocrity to all of those who have doubted him for so long. Westwood’s control of the ball would be impressive were he capable of following up with a successful, penetrative pass but too often does he play it too slowly or inaccurately. Delph, whose contract renewal inspired a torrent of optimism at Villa Park just a couple of weeks ago, now finds himself in a vein of poor form, his passing ill-considered and his defensive duties often neglected. With Carlos Sanchez displaying many of the same issues as the other three, Sherwood has a mighty – and essential – task on his hands to get them playing expansive football together.
Vitally, the defensive unit at Villa Park has been relatively impressive this season. Aside from a 0-5 thumping at Arsenal recently, Jores Okore, Alan Hutton, Ciaran Clark and, when fit, Ron Vlaar have been the outstanding performers in front of an ever-reliable Brad Guzan. Sherwood will be thankful that he is inheriting a cohesive backline with young players who are willing to give everything for the cause and leaders in captain Vlaar and his American keeper. This will enable him to focus on his players further up the pitch while Guzan and Given challenge one another for his favour and the likes of Okore and Clark grow into fine defenders. It is fair to say that the strength and discipline of this rearguard is Paul Lambert’s positive legacy at Villa Park.
To say that Aston Villa are too good to go down is to overlook not only the fact that they are the lowest scoring Premier League side in history but that they are plagued by reduced confidence and an inherently regressive, backward-looking attitude to the game. The fans have been, naturally, most vocal about Lambert’s reign but it is the players who are in the greatest need of this change of management. Sherwood’s exuberance will breathe life back into the club and should give the players encouragement in the fight against relegation.
Nevertheless, a manager’s impact may only be felt rather temporarily unless more executive decisions are taken properly and with the club’s best interests at heart. Poor ownership in recent years was compounded in the summer by Lerner’s choice to publicly state his desire to sell the club, thus unsettling all of those associated with it. His control has waned and his interest slipped, meaning it is only a matter of time before the club changes hands. Worryingly, that matter of time could span many months to come, which introduces a sense of short-termism about all that happens at Aston Villa Football Club.
Unfair though this may be on the fans, players and coaching staff, it makes Sherwood’s job quite simple: avoid relegation and see what happens at the end of the season. Sadly, that is how it has been for a few years now and it will continue to be until Lerner goes. Lambert and his style of play had to go, certainly, but the real problem at the club remains in charge.