After Villa scraped a single point from two home games which should have yielded a minimum of four, here’s a look at the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of the club’s Christmas period so far.
As soon as the team for the Swansea game was announced, you prayed that Aston Villa were going to be looking to play Gabby in behind the defence rather than continuing the cultured tactic on display in recent weeks of kicking the ball as far through the air as possible.
Villa did indeed start that way and after a relatively bright start it was this approach which brought Villa’s seventh home league goal of the season, neatly taken by Agbonlahor after he’d latched on to Andi Weimann’s only good touch of the ball all game.
About five or ten minutes later, Villa got a throw about midway into Swansea’s half and Agbonlahor was visibly furious about the amount of time Villa were taking to get the ball back into play. Perhaps he could see what was coming, although the psychological effect of stopping the run of straight defeats – Brad Guzan went around earnestly congratulating the young Villa defence and midfield at the full-time whistle for holding out for the draw – will hopefully have some effect upon the team’s confidence and belief for the visit to Sunderland on New Year’s Day.
Ahead of that match there are whispers that Ron Vlaar and Christian Benteke could return to the Villa line-up. Although this would not solve any problems immediately, Vlaar’s return is desperately needed – the lack of leadership in a back four of Matt Lowton, Ciaran Clark, Nathan Baker and Antonio Luna (Ciaran Clark the oldest at 24) has been awfully obvious since during the Dutchman’s absence – but there has been talk of rushing him back ahead of schedule.
With Clark’s suspension, it may be necessary, but if Vlaar aggravates his injury then we are looking at needing to sign one or two new centre-backs in January, with Jores Okore’s expected return date still unclear.
Christian Benteke may not have scored since 14th September but once he hits the net again you just feel he might start scoring regularly, although he will undoubtedly require better service than the Villa midfield have been giving him in the last few months.
After taking the lead Villa’s young side sat back almost instantaneously and it looked inevitable that they would be unable to see out the win. 27% possession at home is so poor, particularly as Swansea came to Villa Park a side dreadfully out of form, having secured only two wins in their last 14 games in all competitions before Saturday.
Villa Park has been the perfect place for teams to come for a pick-me-up this season but that Swansea side were there for the taking, if only Lambert and the Villa team had shown a bit more courage and ambition.
But then that is perhaps the biggest issue at the club at the moment. Lambert’s assessment that Villa “are halfway there” with their 20 points from 19 games shows clearly the mindset that the club now has – avoiding relegation has become seen in itself as an achievement, and the young and out-of-confidence team just seem relieved whenever they avoid defeat.
This attitude needs to change, and quickly. Lambert, who appears to have the complete backing of Lerner and Faulkner, must invest the funds he is given for January and needs to bring in at least one player with experience and knowledge of regular game time in the Premier League – it is all well and good building for the future, but not at the expense of the present.
The Boxing Day defeat to Palace was as bad a performance as there has been at Villa Park in many a year, even with all the contenders there have been in recent seasons. Villa actually managed to dominate position, but 93 minutes of football yielded just four shots on target and so many basic errors that it made you want to go down to the local park to watch some Sunday League instead.
Weimann completely fluffed both of Villa’s golden opportunities with poor first-time finishes, and even with Gabby’s opener on Saturday, Villa have failed to score in seven of their 12 home games in all competitions so far in 2013-14, possessing the worst home scoring record of any of the 92 teams in the top four divisions of English football.
Villa have mustered just two wins and nine goals in a little over three months (13 games) since stealing three points from Manchester City on 28 September.
Last season, the club went eight Premier League games without a win in a run starting on 23 December and only ending on 10 February; in comparison, they are currently on a winless streak which began on 8 December, and if they fail to win at the Stadium of Light on Wednesday they will do well to avoid that run stretching beyond the next two league games: Arsenal at home and Liverpool away.
So where do Villa go from here? Immediately it’s to the North East to face a Sunderland side who are still the Premier League’s bottom club, but who are also unbeaten in their last five games in all competitions. Although they went 2-0 to Cardiff, they were able to show fighting spirit to save that game and Gus Poyet has got them fighting and believing – two things that Villa desperately need to start showing.
Beyond that, the FA Cup third round tie with Sheffield United should present the club with an opportunity to restore confidence. Unfortunately it’s at home, but Villa will just have to overcome that disadvantage.
January needs to see a minimum of two or three players coming in, and some experience is desperately required to steady the ship and get the club back on track before it’s too late.