Paul Lambert has plenty of good qualities about him as a manager. Scroll through this site for a while and you'll find no lack of pieces extolling the Scot and what he has done at Aston Villa. I mention this only to point out that this article is not a call for Lambert's head as I'm afraid many will take it. Nevertheless, he has developed a perplexing habit of putting on players the responsibility for his decisions as manager.
Take, for instance, the case of Marc Albrighton. The young winger was Villa's player of the month in December and finally showed his first signs of being the midfielder the club hoped for since the Gerard Houllier year. Since the match on January 1, however, Albrighton has only appeared in four of the club's eight matches, and then for only 145 minutes. In those matches he has performed quite well, especially in the 0-2 loss to West Ham United where he came on as a sub in the 55th minute.
What is the reasoning for Albrighton being left on the bench while Villa have - with a few exceptions - struggled to get much going int he way of attack? Certainly it must be injury or something off the pitch. "But he's done really well for us. He doesn't sulk. He's a good kid. He's a really good guy. He's quiet. But he's a good player." That's Paul Lambert on Albrighton from ten days ago, so we can rule out off-the-pitch issues.
Instead, Lambert chalks up Albrighton's absence to bad luck. In the wake of the punchless 1-0 loss at Newcastle, Lambert said that Albrighton "had staked his claim. But my job was picking a team I thought could get a result. Marc was really unfortunate but that is football."
That's a fine excuse for not starting Albrighton, but we all watched that match. The eleven players that Lambert picked were ineffective and the attack was almost nonexistent. Yacouba Sylla came on for an injured Ashley Westwood when Albrighton could have provided a better spark. Joe Bennett came on for an ill Ryan Bertrand, and that sub makes sense. For the third sub of the day, in an effort to spur on the attack, Lambert used... well, he used no one.
So what about this is unlucky for Albrighton? He's played exceptionally well when called upon and can't even find his way into a match that is begging for the kind of spark he provides. If you remember the match you'll remember that Villa were entirely ineffective at finishing passes in the final third of the pitch during the second half. Albrighton has thrived this season when he is playing balls into the box and doing precisely what Villa weren't. The only way in which Albrighton has been unlucky is that he has a manager who - for all of his upside - is blatantly terrible at in-match substitutions. He's been unlucky to have a manager who doesn't seem to know how to utilize his best players, so falls back to a known system with worse players.
I've been simmering about this for a while, but new quotes from Lambert today brought me to the breaking point. Aleksandar Tonev, who you may remember as the midfielder who has never seen a shot that he wouldn't take, has only appeared once this calendar year, and then only for four minutes against Everton. To hear Lambert tell it, Tonev might actually be the solution to all of Aston Villa's problems in midfield: "He's got blistering speed, two great feet and you probably wouldn't know what's his strongest foot actually because of the way he can kick it with both. He's taken long to adjust but you always know that can happen."
But again, it's a matter of the player needing to provide something else. Maybe there is a fantastic reason not to play Tonev - I know that I certainly haven't enjoyed his time on the pitch - but given the sad state of Villa's midfield, there's no reason not to give him a try every now and again. He's not adjusting to Premier League expectations from the bench or the training ground. Yes, there is a very real chance that Tonev may not be cut out for matches, but given that we haven't seen him get significant time since December, it's very hard to tell. It's not as if a bad Tonev is going to be that much of a drop from the mediocre Karim El Ahmadi that we see week in and week out.
Lambert has the manager's prerogative to do whatever he wants with players, that much is undeniable. But shifting the blame to those same players when they've done nothing to merit it is starting to wear thin. Tonev's case may be more reasonable, but the fact that Marc Albrighton continues to languish on the bench due to "bad luck" is inexcusable. Were it not for continually perplexing decisions like that one, the mention of Tonev would go completely unnoticed. But there is a pattern that Lambert has established, and it's not a great one. It's time that started to change.
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