When he was on loan at Preston North End, Callum Robinson showed that he was absolutely capable of being the scoring threat that Aston Villa so desperately need. In his last three matches with the League One side, he had found the back of the net four times. It was an atmosphere in which he was clearly thriving and one that looks to have been good for his development. So it was no surprise that fans began clamoring to see him recalled to Aston Villa.
What was surprising was that he actually was. Robinson is only 19 years old and has had very limited Premier League experience. He's a player who needs the chance to play regularly in order to mature. And to be sure, Aston Villa are currently a club where he could get that time. Despite being the club's leading scorers, Andi Weimann and Gabby Agbonlahor have been pretty miserable for most of the season. With Christian Benteke out suspended, it seemed as if Robinson might be in line for the start this weekend, or at least an extended appearance as a sub.
But that didn't happen. He did make the bench, but Paul Lambert clearly signaled that on Saturday, Robinson was third on his depth chart. Even when Andi and Gabby were both flagging towards the end of the match, Robinson stayed glued to the bench. It was hardly surprising, given the fact that Paul Lambert is not one to use substitutes regularly, and Robinson's presence wasn't particularly called for in the match. There are plenty of times when I criticize Lambert's substitution pattern, but this isn't one of them.
What becomes a problem is the fact that Robinson was taken from an environment that was perfect for him and put into one where he will see very little playing time. Christian Benteke should return on Tuesday, and that means that Robinson moves down to fourth on the depth chart. To see the pitch would mean that we'd have to have an injury to any of the other three strikers or Lambert subbing two strikers in one match (ha!). In other words: he's going to get in a lot of observation time, just as has Jack Grealish and (until recently) Jores Okore. Why stunt his progress when he was so clearly thriving elsewhere?
I've heard one possible explanation that makes at least an iota of sense: with Darren Bent leaving, Robinson was needed as injury cover on Saturday. I can buy that, but I still don't think it justifies the recall. For one, everybody knew that Benteke was coming back this week. Why not wait a few days to loan out Bent to Brighton? For a second, even if you must loan out Bent, why does there have to be a back-up? Yes, it could be needed, but for one match if either of Gabby or Andi got injured, why not switch to a one-striker tactic? It's certainly not optimal, but it strikes me as a better thing (gamble at the chance of using another tactic) than recalling a young player and effectively halting his regular playing time.
If that injury occurred and was bad, then sure, recall Robinson. You'd then have one of Gabby/Andi, Benteke, and Robinson. Three strikers is something that this team needs. But if no one did get injured, you've already got your three strikers starting on Tuesday.
I like the idea of depth, but Robinson could have been recalled at any time. There's no need to go into a match with two strikers starting and two on the bench so why not recall Robinson if an injury occurred? In the meantime, he could have been playing regularly. Now, he'll sit on the bench and get some limited chances in meaningless reserve matches. Hopefully he and Jack Grealish can keep each other company.
Is this the worst thing that has ever happened? Certainly not. Perhaps Paul Lambert does intend to start using Robinson somewhat regularly. I'll be happy to admit if I was wrong here. But he has shown an acute unwillingness to use youngsters this season, and until I see otherwise, I'll remain convinced this was a stupid move. Robinson has a lot of potential, and time on the bench isn't going to improve that at all.