The Premier League is in a state of flux this season – or perhaps just the culmination of several years of change. The Big 4 gradually changed to a Big 5, Big 6 and even a Big 7. Nowadays, if we want to include Liverpool and Everton, we’d have to talk about a Big 11. Or perhaps we could coin a new phrase and talk about the ‘top half’ and ‘bottom half’ of the league.
As ever, Aston Villa seem to be precariously hanging between the two. A promising early start gave way to a disastrous run of losses, before finally picking up in recent weeks with wins over Crystal Palace and Leicester City. Villa seemed set to push on – but then Ashley Westwood was out until January, Kieran Richardson got himself sent off as his replacement against West Brom and Villa slumped to another disappointing defeat, leaving them in 13th.
In previous seasons like this, Villa might have been one of the teams sniffing around for a European spot. Instead Paul Lambert is faced with the task of simply making the club a buyable proposition for the summer, as owner Randy Lerner looks to sell.
But as unglamorous as that sounds, it could be crucially important. Takeovers have been a bit of a lottery in the Premier League – do you get Roman Abramovich, win the Premier League and win the Champions League, or do you get Portsmouth’s string of sketchy owners and League Two Football?
Stability and a reputation as a permanent fixture in the Premier League undoubtedly plays an important role. Clubs that are available on the cheap and who sell off their best players (see Portsmouth) are more likely to attract shady figures. A club with solid finances, who don’t have to panic-buy their way to safety are a better prospect for owners looking to make the investment needed for real success.
To Randy Lerner’s and Paul Lambert’s credit, they seem to have realised this and have worked to try and build a squad that can get through the season without destroying the club’s balance-sheet. Nonetheless surviving on the cheap is a risky proposition in the Premier League.
There have been some notable successes for Villa this season – the loss of the three first-choice centre-backs would normally be enough to land a club in real trouble but the emergence of Jores Okore and Ciaran Clark as an impressive partnership shows depth in the squad. Alan Hutton’s renaissance has been as welcome as it is startling, and Ashley Westwood and Carlos Sanchez are showing signs of forming a real distributor-destroyer partnership in midfield.
Yet there have been some persistent failures – Lambert’s attachment to Charles N´Zogbia is beginning to look pathological when the former Wigan star has so clearly lost the ability to influence a match. Kieran Richardson continues to be as inadequate at Premier League level as he has been throughout his career.
And now the January transfer window approaches with all its attendant dangers. Ron Vlaar and Fabian Delph were the main features of transfer talk early in the season. Injury issues for both have dampened that speculation but Lambert will need to make the decision whether Villa should cash in on them before their contracts run out in summer. Wisely invested, that money could be the key to a solid-mid table finish. Poorly done and Villa could run the risk of selling key players and entering a downward spiral towards the end of the season, which could have disastrous consequences for any subsequent ownership change in the summer.
Lambert’s position is unenviable. Even should he steer the side to a comfortable finish, his position under new owners would be precarious. His only chance is to show that he has a real project underway which should be supported by investment rather than derailed. Villans might not like it, but they have to pray that’s the truth.
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