Waves of relief resonated around the Emirates Stadium on Saturday afternoon, but there was one corner that remained untouched by their restorative powers.
The Aston Villa fans, satisfied their team had given their all in North London, stood to applaud, but they did so with grim faces.
They knew that Wigan’s emphatic victory over Reading had once again dragged them into the relegation zone.
Manager Paul Lambert is approaching the final stage of a most curious experiment. He has overseen the systematic eradication of proven Premier League players and the installation of, for the most part, Championship and League One replacements. There was something rather endearing about this strategy and yet as the season draws to a close, its most critical flaw becomes abundantly clear.
Out went James Collins, Carlos Cuellar, Emile Heskey and Stephen Warnock. In came the less-than-well-known European talents of Ron Vlaar and Christian Benteke.
In came the cream of the lower leagues. If you change the head of the broom for a cheaper head, and the stick of a broom for a cheaper stick, it is not the same broom. And it may not be a better broom.
With just five league wins all season, Lambert appears to have successfully built a side that can challenge for the Championship. It’s just not the ‘Championship’ that the supporters had in mind.
Still, it may put them ahead of schedule for next year… But there is method in Lambert’s apparent madness and it is long overdue. Randy Lerner, bewitched by the lure of the Champions League, bestowed famine-ending sums of money on former manager Martin O’Neill, some of which was invested wisely and some of which was squandered on mediocrity.
Disappointing season-long spells for Gerard Houllier and Alex McLeish brought further spending and with it further uncertainty. A year ago, the club announced record losses of £54m for the 2010-11period. Wages had gone through the roof with 91% of the club’s turnover going straight back out again in the payslips. Lerner, welcomed with open arms and lauded as the perfect example of a foreign owner, blinked, gulped and withdrew. There would be no Champions League football. There would be no Europa League football.
The survival of the club as a going concern is of paramount importance. Villa may well be one of the biggest names in English football, but other names just as big have been swallowed up in debt and consumed by the lower leagues. Perhaps if Peter Ridsdale had slammed the anchors on earlier at Leeds, financial apocalypse might have been avoided. Perhaps, in this new austerity, there may still at least be Premier League football at Villa Park.
This strategy, this carefully managed decline, is still a huge gamble, but if Villa do avoid the drop, they’ll be nicely set for the future. Against Arsenal on Saturday, there were signs of a growing coherence. There was the way the back four kept morphing into a back three according to necessity, Joe Bennett sliding in and out of the central areas like a bolt lock.
There was the way that Fabian Delph and Ashley Westwood scuttled back and forth across the midfield, moving quickly to shut down attacks as they developed. How Arsenal could do with a mobile, physical presence in front of their defence. While Benteke’s performance was a little more subdued than some he has offered of late, the work rate and endeavour of the three man unit behind him was impressive.
Andreas Weimann stole the limelight on the right, aided by Arsene Wenger’s reluctance to arrange for defensive cover on the left when Nacho Monreal charged forward, and in the centre, Charles N’Zogbia bobbed and weaved with an intensity that was sorely lacking last season.
But it was on the left where we saw the clearest sign of the Lambert Effect. Gabriel Agbonlahor, once content to hang on the shoulders of defenders and wait for the chance to pounce, selflessly shuttled up and down, preventing Carl Jenkinson from opening up the flank for Theo Walcott.
In terms of fully developed talent, perhaps Villa now lag behind their rivals. In terms of work rate and hunger, they will not be found wanting. Lambert has re-equipped and retooled this club for the post-FFP era. At what cost, remains to be seen. Little wonder then that the Villa fans are so tense.
The next three months will define the future of the club.
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