This week Everton host Aston Villa, and we spoke with our old friends over at 7500 To Holte about the struggles Villa have been enduring this season. Aaron Campeau answered our questions, and you can read our answers over at their blog too.
RBM - Where did it all go wrong? The season seems to be spiraling out of control and Paul Lambert has been powerless to stop it. Does Lambert still have Randy Lerner's support?
AC - The question of where it all went wrong is a popular one, and it's also incredibly difficult to answer. In short, this has been building for a number of years and pretty much everything that could have stopped it went horribly wrong. Randy Lerner gave Martin O'Neill far too long of a leash in the pursuit of Champions League football, and though Villa got close they were far too reckless with their spending and they're paying for it now. Gerard Houllier was not a popular hire and there was a very vocal segment of the fanbase that wanted him out almost immediately, but in hindsight I think it's pretty clear that his plan was a solid one and I desperately wish he'd had more time to see it through. The Alex McLeish debacle was doomed from the start, and that lost season really hampered the rebuilding effort.
It's difficult to blame Paul Lambert too much for the current situation, but it's equally hard to praise his performance. I think Lerner will give him some time no matter what happens because it's clear that the constant turnover was doing far more harm than good, and in the long run I think he'll have success. But it's pretty hard to defend him right now.
RBM - Villa's last clean sheet was in early December against Stoke City. What are the issues with the defence? How about goaltending?
AC - The defense has been an absolute mess for nearly two months now, and that's incredibly frustrating because it was beginning to look like a real strength. Paul Lambert began to experiment with a 5-3-2 formation after Ron Vlaar suffered an injury, but after a few very good showings its weaknesses were exposed in pretty ruthless fashion by Chelsea and it's pretty clearly not going to work. It's looked a bit better since Vlaar returned, but Ciaran Clark looks like an absolute mess at the moment and Nathan Baker can't stay healthy to save his life. Left back is also a huge problem; I think Joe Bennett is a winger in the long term, and he's been abused pretty consistently. Enda Stevens isn't much of an answer at the moment. Eric Lichaj is a right back being played out of position, and at this point his confidence looks pretty thoroughly destroyed.
Brad Guzan has been one of the few bright spots of this season. Shay Given started last season wonderfully, but he missed a good bit of time to injury and hasn't looked the same since returning. He was a mess at the Euros and if anything he's gotten worse, so it wasn't much of a surprise when Guzan began to be picked ahead of him, and it was clearly the right choice. If you haven't watched Villa much this season you might look at the number of goals they've conceded and assume he's been poor, but if not for Guzan things would be much, much worse than they are now. It's a testament to both the quality and mental strength of Guzan that in a game where he conceded eight goals, he was clearly Villa's best player on the day. He's got a great future, and once Tim Howard decides it's time to retire from the international game, he'll leave the US national team in very capable hands.
RBM - Aston Villa are 0-1-4 at home and 1-3-1 on the road in their last five respective games. How can they be better away from Villa Park?
AC - They just have to play better. I know that's not much of an answer, but it really is that simple. They're capable of doing so; when this team is playing well they look absolutely fantastic, and even during this horrendous run of results they've shown extended periods of playing very well. This team's single biggest problem has been inconsistency, and Tuesday's loss to Newcastle is a perfect example. They were horrendous in the first half and lucky to go to the locker room only down one goal, but in the second half they were absolutely fantastic and came very close to equalizing and earning a point. Those games happen to every team, but in Villa's case it's the same thing each and every week. They've just got to start putting together a full 90 minutes.
RBM - Belgian striker Christian Benteke has been one of the revelations of the season. Who else has caught your eye in the squad?
AC - As mentioned, Guzan has exceeded my expectations. Andreas Weimann has really blossomed this season, and though Benteke has been wonderful I think it's Andi that's been Villa's best striker this year. Benteke scores some incredible goals and he can absolutely dominate games, but he's still got a lot of growing to do and he's had some absolutely horrendous showings. Weimann isn't nearly as inconsistent, and he's really stepped it up and shown that he can be a force at this level. Matthew Lowton is a controversial figure among Villa fans, but I think people are to some degree guilty treating the entire defense as one. Lowton's still very young and he has his rough days, but I think he's going to be a solid player for a long time. The same could be said of Ashley Westwood, and though he's not a spectacular player by any stretch he's got the potential to become the kind of midfielder every modern team needs in order to be successful. He almost never gets a pass wrong, he reads the game well defensively, and as he's become more comfortable he's begun to show some flashes of creativity.
RBM - Who did Villa bring in during this transfer window? What are the positions of need that weren't addressed? Any exits?
AC - It's been apparent for a few weeks now that Villa wouldn't be doing much big spending in this window, and it was actually something of a surprise they made any moves at all. Neither of Lambert's two signings in this window are household names; 22-year-old defensive midfielder Yacouba Sylla joined from Clermont Foot, and 25-year-old winger Simon Dawkins was brought in on loan through the end of the season (though his contract is up in June, so it's almost like a trial.) I'm not at all familiar with Sylla but I've heard positive things and a few concerns from those who are. Dawkins is a player I've seen a lot over the past two years, and while I don't think he's going to set the world on fire in the Premier League I think he can make a positive impact at a position of real need. I was very much hoping to see a left back brought in because it's Villa's single biggest weakness, but quality left backs are really hard to find and Villa's financial situation made things even more difficult.
Another quality center back to play alongside Vlaar would have been quite nice, but despite rumors that Lambert was heavily pursuing Porto (now Napoli) defender Rolando, nothing came to fruition. Villa didn't lose any key players (which isn't shocking seeing as how they're pretty awful) but a couple of high-earning veterans that were out of the first-team picture have moved on. Stephen Warnock--who, as a reminder, was somehow on England's World Cup team in 2010--signed for two-and-a-half years with Leeds on a free transfer, while Alan Hutton moved to Mallorca on loan for the rest of the season with an option to buy, which I doubt will come to fruition because Alan Hutton is really awful.
RBM - The last time Villa visited Merseyside they thumped Liverpool convincingly. What are you expecting on Saturday at Goodison?
AC - That game was absolutely wonderful. It was also the last game Aston Villa won. I could see Villa managing to hold Everton and get out of Goodison with a point, but I wouldn't put money on it by any stretch. Even if Villa wasn't in this horrid stretch they match up terribly against the Toffees, and if Everton manage to score early it could get pretty ugly. I'd say that something in the 3-1 to Everton range sounds about right.