A Few Thoughts On The “Lack Of Experience” Narrative

Clive Rose

With Aston Villa winless in four, just one point above the relegation zone and in possession of the worst goal difference in the Premier League, it’s clear that this is a squad in dire need of some real improvement in the January transfer window. Many pundits and more than a few fans have identified a lack of experience as the club’s foremost problem, but that kind of myopic thinking can often cause more problems than it solves.

Aston Villa has had more than their fair share of struggles this season, and the response has become somewhat predictable. "You'll never win anything with kids!" the pundits say. Paul Lambert's "emphasis on youth" is what got Villa into this mess, and the only thing that's going to get them out of it. And so forth, and so on. There's little doubt that a bit more experience likely would have done wonders at times this season, specifically in the aftermath of Villa's 8-0 thumping at Chelsea. But the idea that experience in and of itself is some kind of panacea is inherently flawed.

Aston Villa finished 16th in the Premier League last season, two points above the drop zone and relying on poor results from the clubs below them in order to stay safe on the season's final day. Of Villa's most-used XI in the 2011-12 season, only Chris Herd could be described as inexperienced. Stephen Warnock was brought back into the side by Alex McLeish after being dropped by Gerard Houllier and largely replaced by the then inexperienced Ciaran Clark at left back. All three of the club's summer signings were players with years of Premier League experience, and young players that had featured somewhat regularly under Houllier saw little increase (and in many cases a dramatic decrease) in their playing time. That's not intended to be any kind of indictment of McLeish, but the reality is that when more experienced senior players were available, they were given preference over the youngsters. It didn't lead to much in the way of success.

Consider also Queens Park Rangers. After just barely managing to stay in the league last season, QPR spent a great deal of money in the summer window and brought in 11 new players, most of whom have years of experience and hundreds of top-flight games under their belts. The QPR "revolution" has so far lead to Mark Hughes being sacked and 11 points from 21 games, with Tony Fernandes hoping against hope that Harry Redknapp can pull off a miracle and keep the club in the Premier League.

More to the heart of the matter, when people talk about experience in relation to Aston Villa, what they really mean is Premier League experience. While it's true that Matthew Lowton, Joe Bennett, Ashley Westwood, Jordan Bowery and Christian Benteke were all prospects when they were signed by Villa, the same cannot be said of Brett Holman, Ron Vlaar and Karim El Ahmadi. All three had logged well over 100 appearances in the Dutch top flight before moving to England, and though the Eredivisie certainly isn't the Premier League labeling those three inexperienced is disingenuous. There's an adjustment to the style of play, certainly, but considering that Vlaar took the captain's armband from Darrent Bent about five minutes after arriving at Villa Park it's tough to make the case that leadership can't be provided by players that haven't put in 200 games in the Premier League.

The reality is that it isn't veteran guile that Aston Villa lack at the moment, it's quality. Experience can be a valuable part of a player's skill-set, but it shouldn't be more highly valued than any other aspect of what a player brings to the table. Karl Henry has played a whole lot of games in the Premier League, and I can't imagine he's the kind of player many people want Villa to pursue in January. The somewhat unpleasant reality of the situation is that Paul Lambert probably doesn't have all that much money to spend and there are quite a few holes on this team in need of filling. Players that have established themselves in the Premier League tend to cost a lot of money both in terms of wages and transfer fees. There's more bang-for-your-buck to be had elsewhere, and in a season where Benteke and Lowton have had the biggest positive impact of any of Villa's summer signings it seems odd to try to claim that the approach that led to their transfer is what's caused the issue in the first place.

The road that's led Aston Villa to their current predicament is long and winding, and the problems at the club at this moment in time are far more complex than something so simple as an overabundance of youth can explain. Simple answers to complex problems are always appealing, but seldom are they correct. This winter transfer window could go a long way towards determining the future of both the club and Paul Lambert, and it's vitally important that both the board and the manager get things right. If they determine that more leadership and experience is necessary to move the team forward, I'm willing to accept that they know what they're doing. But going too far in that direction would be a mistake, and my only real concern is that Aston Villa get better no matter what form that improvement takes.

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