Firstly, apologies for the absence of this column for the last two weeks - I was travelling and unable to watch the matches, though I kept up with the scores. As such I was approaching this week's column with a heavy heart - two losses and a draw, little seeming tactical change and the renewed absence of Benteke are hardly causes for optimism.
However on viewing the matches and having been removed from the heartbreak of seeing the defeat against Tottenham live, there are some signs that this Villa team is inching, tortoise-like, towards something better. In the last three matches the men in Claret and Blue have scored a goal, kept a clean sheet and dominated possession, three things that they utterly failed to do in the preceding run of matches. Admittedly they have not yet managed to put any of those three things together in one match but some of the underlying structure of the team seems to be improving.
Now this improvement is painfully, painfully slow as Lambert's 4-3-3 limps along in its broken state. Against QPR we saw the first signs that Villa could genuinely keep possession and two parts of the 4-3-3 functioning well . Firstly the attacking right-back in Matthew Lowton exploiting the space left by a narrow midfield trio. Secondly the role of a holding midfielder finding time and space, as Carlos Sanchez posted impressive first half passing and tackling statistics. Corresponding with the improved possession came much improved shooting statistics.
Image and statistics from FourFourTwo.com MatchCentre
Against Tottenham came of course the blessed goal but also the sight of Benteke acting as a proper target man, bringing Villa up the field. N´Zogbia can look poor on the defensive front but he is also clearly at the moment the most dangerous of the wide forwards as he drifts between the flanks. His combination with Weimann was a quality goal and it is worth noting Benteke's presence in the box distracting the central defender. Andi's intermittent scoring provides some hope that if Villa could finally start creating high percentage chances such as this cut back into the penalty area, goals could start coming.
Treasure the moment, we don't know when we´ll see it again.
Finally against West Ham came the much-needed clean sheet. And while the full-time statistics are wince-inducing for the Lions (21 shots to 12 being the most dramatic), up until the 88th minute those statistics looked a lot closer (14 shots to 12 in West Ham's favour, 7 to 6 on target). And Villa carried some genuine attacking threat, noticeably from winning the ball in the opposition half , where previous weeks have seen Villa's few chances break down after being forced to cover the entire length of the pitch. Seee Westwood's interception to release Gabriel Abgonlahor in the video below for the kind of rapid counter-attack play that Lambert is presumably aiming for.
Then turn the video off after 22 seconds...
So there are some minute improvements from the problems previously noted. In the defensive midfield, Westwood and Sanchez are covering their full-backs more attentively, with a clearer structure in place. Lowton has been impressive on the right flank. N´Zogbia has provided a better wide forward threat. Benteke (briefly) and Weimann both have looked more dangerous in front of goal than in Villa's previous games.
Now to the elephant in the room - this tortoise-like improvement has not seen us winning matches. So where are Villa falling down? Well in so many ways, but most crucially in their continued failure to press higher up the pitch, leaving the defending to happen in around the penalty area.
In one of the more inane moments of Match of the Day punditry (which is saying something), Jermaine Jenas praised Villa's ‘grit' and ‘determination' against West Ham. Let's be very clear about this - grit and determination are meaningless analytical terms, used largely when a team has got very lucky. The clip played after this praise of Villa's ´grit´ and ´determination´ was a defensive horror-show including a terrible clearance, a clear penalty that should have been given to West Ham and Cissokho being utterly destroyed in the air yet again (considering Cissokho is also failing to contribute in an attacking sense, Leandro Bacuna should be in Lambert's mind as competition).
Reasons for draw - Grit + Determination 0, Brad Guzan's insane reflexes 1
West Ham finished the match with 16 shots in the penalty area. Bunkering down utterly failed to keep them away from the danger zones. It was the same story against QPR, where Sanchez's good work in possession was undermined by a double failure to pick up Austin on the first goal or prevent the cross for the second. Against Tottenham the late pressure told with a moment's inattention by Abgonlahor and a stupid foul, again by Sanchez.
This tendency to bunker down and defend deep remains the single biggest tactical issue Villa face and nothing yet seems to have changed. Villa fading in the second half generally, and in the last 20 minutes specifically has been a recurring theme of the Lambert era which he appears to be incapable of fixing.
So what to think of Lambert's claret and blue tortoise? At the end of the fable, the tortoise wins. Should the isolated improvements of the last few matches come together, Lambert's tactics might also find eventual success. But the Premier League is a brutal race and already the cushion of Villa's good start has essentially evaporated. Aston Villa cannot afford to continue at this pace.