For really the first time in his tenure as Aston Villa manager, Paul Lambert has a complete squad. Gone are the days where Villa didn't have anyone to play on the left wing and didn't have attacking options in midfield. The era of Gabby Agbonlahor and Andi Weimann getting free passes into the XI no matter how poorly they've been performing should be gone. And Lambert now has the ability to tactically do almost whatever he wants to—the side is now to play the 3-4-1-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, or any other number of formations we haven't him pull out yet.
That last point—the squad's versatility—is huge. When Villa went away to Norwich on the final day of the 2011-12 campaign, the traveling supporters sang for Paul Lambert to take the job at B6 in large part because of his Norwich sides' ability to change formation and tactics depending on the opposition and still find success. But at Villa, we've seen a lot more "drab" football than "exciting" and a need to stick to overly-defensive formations to mask the weakness at the back.
But that's all changed going into this year. Lambert has strengthened the back line and now has a group of players capable of either playing a three-man back line with wing backs or a traditional four-man back line, dependent on the opposition. Gone are the days of concern about protecting that back line too, as Carlos Sánchez's signing provides strong cover for a defense that's been improved throughout the summer. And in midfield, Lambert can do a host of things. He can opt to play centrally with Sánchez, Fabian Delph, Ashley Westwood, and Joe Cole or he can use wingers like Kieran Richardson, Jack Grealish, and Leandro Bacuna to create chances. One of Villa's issues last year was not having somebody out wide on the left opposite Marc Albrighton—now, Villa are well-balanced on both wings.
More importantly for Villa, the quality of the players in the squad has increased, especially in regards to depth. I put together a list of players I'd feel comfortable with Villa putting out there on the pitch this year—let's take a look at it.
- Forwards: Agbonlahor, Bent, Benteke, Kozak, Weimann
- Midfielders: Bacuna, Cole, Delph, El Ahmadi, Gardner, Grealish, N'Zogbia, Richardson, Sánchez, Westwood
- Defenders: Baker, Bennett, Cissokho, Clark, Hutton, Lowton, Okore, Senderos, Vlaar
- Goalkeepers: Given, Guzan
And while you might not agree that you'd feel comfortable with Clark or Bennett on the pitch, the fact remains that Villa have 26 guys under contract that are much better than Jordan Bowery. And that's the big thing for Villa—the days of bringing guys like Bowery, Tonev, and Sylla off the bench should certainly be gone. As a combination of the versatility and overall quality and depth of the side, Lambert should always be able to make the key substitution or change in tactics that can win Villa matches, something that hasn't happened in the past. And if you look at the transfer dealings for Villa this year, Albrighton was the only significant departure while effectively adding ten new guys who weren't in the fold last year. It's difficult to survive injuries like Villa had last year but they should be much better prepared for them this year. If, say, Richardson goes down, Grealish should be able to step in or if Vlaar does, Senderos is an improved option over Nathan Baker.
The squad depth also makes Villa a side that should be able to perform quite nicely in the cup competitions without sacrificing league form. Guys like Karim El Ahmadi, Matthew Lowton, and Leandro Bacuna likely won't start for Villa in the league but still remain solid options for the cup competitions. Throw in some combination of the strikers and Paul Lambert's side should be poised to make a deep cup run.
And finally, perhaps the most important thing Lambert has done this summer is create squad competition. Part of the issue over the last couple of years for Villa—and especially last year—has been the lack of talent to push out-of-form players from the starting XI. Agbonlahor and Weimann at times last year were just plain horrible but unfortunately, there really weren't players to push them from the lineup. So they continued to start. And instead of Clark and Baker competing to play alongside Vlaar, it'll be Okore and Senderos. In midfield, if Richardson gets off form, Grealish is there to step in or if N'Zogbia starts to struggle, Bacuna should be able to push him. Players should—in theory—play better when pushed for their spot in the squad.
This is certainly Paul Lambert's best side at Aston Villa (or probably ever) and as such, he should be expected to do a little bit more than survive. Guzan, Vlaar, Sánchez, Delph, and Benteke provide one hell of a spine when all healthy for a club that's supposedly up against relegation and there's no reason to think that this Villa side shouldn't be better than last year's version. And with one more signing potentially coming
, Lambert's options might increase even more. He might finally have the squad he's been trying to build for the last 26 months.