After a strong finish to last season and a strong start to the current one, Paul Lambert and his Aston Villa squad built up what seemed to be a pretty healthy stack of good will. Now, on the back of four straight losses, some pretty horrendous play, falling to within three points of the relegation zone and some reportedly unpleasant interactions between players and staff and Villa supporters, that good will has largely evaporated. Whether that's an especially reasonable response is a complex subject, but it doesn't change the reality; it's gotten ugly at the Villa once again, and without a win over Swansea City this afternoon, it's likely to get even uglier.
As to whether Villa's actually capable of delivering such a result, well, it's anyone's guess. On recent evidence, things don't look too promising; the four straight losses look bad, but they don't really do much justice to just how poor Villa have been over the past several months. They've been unable to break down the opposition under any circumstance, and it certainly appears as though the league has adjusted to their once lethal counter attack. This is a club that looks largely out of ideas, and it's been quite painful to watch.
On the other hand, we've been here before; those that believe that things are presently anywhere near so dire as they were this time last season have seemingly forgotten just how bad the 2012 festive period really was; at the moment, Villa seem like a mediocre side scuffling through a rough patch. Last December, it felt as though survival would be a genuine miracle. There are undoubtedly Villa supporters that hold that same belief right now, but it's a viewpoint that's been parroted so often these past few seasons that it's rather difficult to take it seriously.
In reality, it was pretty apparent from the get-go that the Paul Lambert era at Aston Villa would be a long-term project. The shedding of high-salary, big-name players wasn't an accident, nor was it due to a failure of said players to fit the "Lambert mold." From day one, the plan was for Villa to build a core of young talent that could grow into a team together, and unless you're mid-90s Manchester United, part of that growth is going to entail some hard times. Nothing that's happening now should come as much of a surprise.
Unfortunately, it appears as though it has taken many Villa fans by surprise. In many ways, Aston Villa is still a very big club. They have the largest fanbase in one of England's most populous metropolitan areas, a very big and very wonderful stadium, fairly significant global awareness, and a proud and accomplished history. In a sense, it's entirely realistic to believe that Aston Villa should be in much better shape that they currently are. But there's a difference between the macro idea of where a club ought to be, and the reality on the ground; this is a rebuilding phase, and rebuilding phases are at time painful. Especially when they take the long view.
But what does all of that mean in regards to this afternoon's match? Well, nothing. But also everything. Villa's talented enough to beat Swansea, but they're also flawed enough to get stomped. The squad is what it is at the moment, and it has some pretty significant problems. But in the long term, a bad stretch-even one that runs as long as five or even six losses in a row-doesn't really matter come the end of the season. Villa's not playing for anything other than making progress, and freaking out over a poor run of form before it genuinely brings the Premier League status of the club into doubt is missing the forest for the trees.
So, Swansea. A win would be wonderful. Even a point would probably be a pretty satisfactory result, in the grand scheme of things. But frankly, nothing that happens in this game will shift the narrative one bit, nor will it alter reality; Randy Lerner is committed to Paul Lambert for the long haul, and given the plan Lambert has put into motion that's probably the right decision. That doesn't mean the individual games aren't important, or that frustration is unfair or unhealthy, but it does mean that it's the long view that should be paramount.