Former Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert is back in the news, and back in the hot seat, after he was named manager at Stoke City on Monday. The knee-jerk reaction was, largely, negative. Paddy Power paid out on bets for Stoke to be relegated, and most Villa supporters laughed off the appointment.
Before we write Lambert and Stoke off, I’m gonna stick my neck out a little. So here goes a defense of Paul Lambert, and an appreciation for the incredible feat he pulled off five years ago at B6.
When Lambert was appointed at Aston Villa in 2012, the state of the club was a familiar one to American fans: Villa had given it their all in pursuit of a Champions League berth, but the window had closed. A couple top players had moved on, and other aging ones were starting to fade out of the picture. In response, Villa did what so many teams do: gut the squad, bring in some promising youngsters and take your lumps, with the expectation that, in a few years, those youngsters would progress and pull the club back into contention.
This “rebuilding” tactic is common in American sports, where giving up the chance to compete for a few years often results in a more promising future, and it’s pretty much the tactic Villa were trying. There was just one problem: this wasn’t the United States, Villa aren’t in the NBA, and relegation was a huge threat.
Doing what Villa did with Lambert at the helm was nothing short of reckless; when Randy Lerner decided he no longer wanted to spend money on the club, he should’ve ended the experiment then and there and sold the team, rather than trying to rebuild it on a shoestring budget. Villa were forced to go with the young, unproven route because they couldn’t afford anyone else — the club shopped that summer in the Championship, League One, League Two, Dutch Eredivisie and Belgian Pro League. Ron Vlaar, Karim El Ahmadi and Brett Holman were the veteran signings; Gabby Agbonlahor and Brad Guzan the elder holdovers.
Lambert gave 37 starts to Matt Lowton, who was 23 when the season started. He handed 34 starts to Christian Benteke (who was 21), 30 to Ciaran Clark (age 22), 27 to Ashley Westwood (age 22), and 25 to each of Nathan Baker (age 21) and Andi Weimann (age 21). Joe Bennett (age 22) got 21 starts, Barry Bannan (also 22) got 20, and Fabian Delph (age 22 as well) got 19.
Of the 12 players that started at least half of Villa’s Premier League matches that season, nine were no older than 23 at the season’s start.
And, as it turns out, it wasn’t like this would prove to be an exceptional group of youngsters, either. Baker, Bannan, Bennett and Weimann are all currently playing their trade in the Championship (ditto for Eric Lichaj and Enda Stevens, who got nine and six starts, respectively), none of them really progressing past bottom-end Premier League or top-end Championship calibre. Clark, Lowton and Westwood are all in the Premier League after spending at least a bit of time in the second tier, but each are at smaller clubs. Delph, now at Manchester City, and Benteke, once at Liverpool, are the only two guys from that squad to really go on to bigger and better things than Villa.*
(*One could argue that what El Ahmadi and Vlaar are doing now back in the Eredivisie is “bigger and better,” but we’re splitting hairs.)
If that Villa squad was in the Championship, it probably would’ve been expected to finish the season mid-table. Yet there Lambert was, steering it to a League Cup semi-final and survival with a few points to spare.
Lambert’s Villa was, at its best, a perfect display of counterattacking football. There were shock wins against Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester City, before his magnum opus at Southampton in December 2013, when Villa had just 22 percent possession but won 3-2.
None of this is to excuse all of the dumb things Lambert did at Villa — and trust me, there were plenty (the “bomb squad,” playing four strikers at once against Bradford City, the sudden shift to possession-based football for no reason, losing 8-0 at Chelsea, going 10 hours without a goal, never actually developing any players, etc.). Nor is this a piece to make some argument that Lambert’s reign on the whole was good for Villa, because it wasn’t; he ultimately left the club in a worse position than he found it, and certainly needed to leave when he was sacked in 2015.
Rather it’s to point out that, yes, Lambert has succeeded against the odds to keep a team up in the Premier League and, if he returns to what worked for him at Norwich City, then in those first 18 months at Villa, he could very well help the Potters avoid relegation.
Villa stayed up in 2013 because Lambert found one thing they could be better at than almost anyone else in the league: counterattacking. Tony Pulis’ Stoke sides stayed up for years under a similar mantra — just with a different brand of football. If whatever thing you’re better at than everyone else works just a third of the time out, you stay up.
Sure, Lambert and Stoke might go down without offering much resistance, but it’s also entirely possible that he’s able to find something in this squad and keep them up. His history at Villa shows either is possible.