New look Aston Villa proving hard to watch for the fans
As choruses of 'we only want one goal' rang around Villa Park the home fans were made to wait until the 89th minute against Championship bottom dwellers Blackpool to get their wish on Sunday. The goal came from a familiar source as a thunderous Christian Benteke drive proved just too powerful for Joe Lewis in the Tangerines' goal, but the Belgian's late strike did relatively little to lift the feeling of discontent from the home faithful.
It may seem odd to focus on a side that sit in mid-table in the league and claim that there's is one of the more interesting campaigns in the top-flight to date but, statistically at least, it's nothing short of remarkable. If you had said to Aston Villa fans in August that at this stage of the season their team would sit 12th most would have taken that as encouraging progress. The reality, however, is that there is still a great deal of ill-feeling in the terraces.
There's no questioning that Paul Lambert has effectively remedied a concerning problem from recent campaigns having shipped far too many goals to avoid a relegation run in. This season Villa have only conceded more times in the league (22) than the current top 4, with the emerging partnership of Ciaran Clark and former long-term absentee Jores Okore at the back undoubtedly representing the highlight of Villa's season to date.
However, Villa's new-found defensive resolve has actually come at a cost in many ways. The most recent 0-0 draw with Crystal Palace in the league was a predictable result and one which took the club to a tally of 22 points having scored just 11 goals - 6 fewer than any other Premier League side. The stalemate saw their points per goal ratio jump to exactly 2 and when you consider the next highest in the league is less than 1.2 (Stoke) Villa's tally thus far defies logic.
Since the turn of the century only one side have scored fewer goals in the Premier League after 20 matches than Villa's current tally and there are no prizes for guessing which team that might be. In 2007/08 Derby were enduring the worst Premier League campaign ever experienced by a team and sat bottom of the league, a full 10 points adrift of safety. Nevertheless the Rams, for their 7-point haul, had only scored one goal less than Villa have at present (for 22 points).
Indeed, since the 2000/01 season the lowest scorers at this stage of the season have been bottom of the table 6 times, in the relegation zone 10 times - including Villa in Paul Lambert's first season in charge - and outside of the bottom five just twice. The team to join this season's worst attack in that regard are Middlesbrough, back in 2003/04, who also sat twetlth having admittedly scored 6 more goals than Aston Villa's current tally.
It's arguably hard to portion too much of the blame at the manager's door. The supporters were sick of the style - or lack thereof - of football that was being played and in recent weeks, to all extents and purposes, Lambert has finally listened. Somewhat bizarrely, though not if you consider the Scot's playing days with Borussia Dortmund, the Villa boss travelled to Munich last month to, amongst other things, meet with Pep Guardiola.
At the time the 45-year-old said "I think what I saw there should probably stay in my own head" but on the evidence of Villa's recent matches it's clear as to what he garnered from the experience. Paul Lambert's men are now looking to pass out from the back whenever possible and keep possession ticking over, which renders their most potent threat in Christian Benteke a little pointless, no longer looking to work off the target man's knock downs.
Aston Villa are now passing the ball in areas that pose no danger to their opposition and coming across a familiar stumbling block time and time again when it comes to breaking down defences. If Lambert has indeed looked to the Guardiola model then he has gone the wrong way about it thus far. Indeed, in Marti Perarnau's book Pep Confidential - profiling the Spaniard's first season at Bayern - the former Barcelona boss claims "I loathe all that passing for the sake of it, all that tiki-taka. It's so much rubbish and has no purpose. You have to pass the ball with a clear intention, with the aim of making it into the opposition's goal. It's not about passing for the sake of it."
In the six matches since returning from his trip to Munich Paul Lambert has turned Aston Villa's passing approach on its head. The side have attempted 496.7 passes per game in that time, which is a huge increase from the 377.9 per game in their opening 14 matches. Meanwhile Villa's average possession has leapt from just 41.1% to 54.2%, and all despite having 3 men sent off in their last 6 matches, with a full compliment of players on the pitch for just 406 of the available 540 minutes.
While Villa's possession and passing figures have improved substantially, however, they've netted just 3 times over the last month, seeing their goals per game average drop marginally from an already dismal 0.57. They are conceding considerably fewer shots but, despite an increase on their stats from earlier in the season, are still averaging a very modest 12 shots per game; very low for a side that now seem to value possession so much more than at the start of the campaign.
Turning Aston Villa into Bayern Munich in the matter of a month is of course an impossible task and it will take some time before effectively make this radical transition but Lambert's men haven't come anywhere close to striking a balance between defence and attack as of yet. Instead they find themselves in a rut as far as their approach is concerned, with possession football in their own half allowing Villa to be far more frugal at the back but an unwillingness to break from their rigid positions further forward has completely nullified an already-limited goal threat.
Beyond the odd moment of inspiration from Benteke, which have understandably been sparse following such a bad injury, Villa don't look like scoring goals. At their recent best of this millennium Aston Villa were an entertaining counter-attacking team capable of scoring and indeed conceding 3 or 4 goals in a game. Over the festive period up to now Villa's last 5 matches have heralded 4 goals between the opposing sides and at the end of the day, while their statistics make for interesting viewing their performances on the field have been far from it.
Though this is certainly not the fault of Paul Lambert alone, who simply doesn't have anywhere near the quality of player to effectively play like Bayern Munich, one thing for sure is that they need to be more expansive if they are to avoid struggling against opposition like Blackpool.
Will Villa avoid the drop despite the fact that they score so few goals and what do they need to add in the January transfer window?