Paul Lambert did a huge amount of harm to both Aston Villa and his reputation this season, largely due to a tactical approach that saw us play the worst football in the league.
Pre-season preparation - Buy cheap
Lambert was never in a good position in terms of the summer transfer window, with Randy Lerner essentially leaving him with no money. Even accepting that, the players who came in showed a clear lack of ambition: Philippe Senderos, Joe Cole, Aly Cissokho, Kieran Richardson, Carlos Sánchez as transfers and Tom Cleverley on loan.
Senderos, Cole, Cissokho and Richardson were all cast-offs from other sides, and if the idea was they would add experience to the team, none of them had played any kind of leadership role the previous season which was what the team lacked. Sánchez and Cleverley were more ambitious but risks - Sánchez starring only in one of the worst sides of La Liga, and Cleverley coming off a terrible time at Manchester United. There were also some strange decisions to let players go - above all Marc Albrighton, leaving the side with no real wingers and betting on developing a new style of attacking play.
The season - A self-inflicted disaster
The question of individual players became moot as Lambert pursued a disastrous tactical path for which he can blame no-one but himself. A positive 10 points from the first 4 games only covered up the fact that Villa were conceding huge amounts of possession, allowing opponents large number of shots and mounting few attacks of their own. As soon as the lucky finishing tailed off, the inevitable crash came in a string of 7 losses, and 10 games without a win.
The early exit in the Carling Cup should have come as no surprise, but the fact that it was against Leyton Orient was still embarrassing. The FA Cup run felt like it came as a surprise to Lambert himself and not a hugely welcome one.
The response in the New Year was no better. Lambert did change the tactics but swung to a ridiculous extreme as the team began to play desperately slow possession football, concentrating on keeping the ball with no thought of attack. The winter entrances of Carles Gil and Scott Sinclair seemed the right type of deals but had little effect when the attack was so slow. The lack of directness in getting the ball to Christian Benteke was astonishing, with the entire side playing at a level far lower than the sum of their parts. The 2-0 loss to Hull brought Lambert's reign to an end none-too-late, with Villa in the midst of a relegation battle for the third season in a row.
Final grade: E -
A very poor season for Mr. Lambert, whose lack of preparation led to a very low level of performance throughout. A disappointingly negative attitude towards his work, though we accept that financial problems may have played a role.
On the pitch - job done, just about
Sherwood came in with one job, to save Villa from relegation. He quickly got to work on the solution - get Christian Benteke scoring. In doing so he rather defied expectations. Parodied as a rigid 4-4-2, "get the ball and kick it abaht" disciple of Harry Redknapp who hadn't adapted to the importance of flexible central midfielders in the modern game, he actually adopted a rather innovative 4-3-2-1 with a central trio of three midfielders, integrated Jack Grealish and revived the flagging careers of Tom Cleverley and Charles N'Zogbia. Wins over Tottenham Hotspur, Everton and West Ham pretty much secured safety, along with a hugely improved scoring record with the shining highlight of a 4-0 thrashing of Sunderland.
It wasn't achieved without a few bumps on the road. A slightly naive approach was exposed against QPR, Manchester United, Southampton, and, most distressingly, Arsenal in the FA Cup Final, compounded by a lack of tactical flexibility during matches. The limited qualities of many of Villa´s players were too evident in the final stretch and they dipped after securing safety.
While Sherwood defied his worst doubters, there are still questions for the next season. However via the revival of Benteke and the development of Grealish, he's already secured a strong position - a transfer of Benteke could finance the needed team rehaul or he could spearhead the side next season, while Grealish is now established as one of the most exciting young players in the League.
Off the pitch - not so crazy
Sherwood's time at Tottenham was enough to turn him into a polarising figure throughout the league as he seemed to react badly to the pressure. At Villa he has taken his chance to show a cannier side with the media and fans, concentrating on the relegation struggle and limiting the publicity stunts. He seems to have worked well with chief executive Tom Fox, having been personally chosen by him and has won over the fans.
The only blemish has really been his handling of Carles Gil. There could be any number of reasons for the Spaniard´s exclusion but the explanations provided have been vague and frustrating for a player who the fans have largely seen play well on the pitch. The worry that Sherwood is keener on bigger, English players in place of the technically-gifted but diminutive Gil might be an unfair one but it hasn't been cleared up effectively.
A huge challenge now awaits in his first ever summer transfer window as a manager.
Final grade: B+
A good job by Mr. Sherwood, defying certain worries about his previous record with a positive and energetic approach. Sometimes a little stubborn and needs to be willing to explain his thinking more but produced some excellent work.