Got your attention with that one, didn’t I? Click here if you want to skip my throat-clearing and find out right away whether I’m serious or not.
I arrived at the Globe two minutes before kickoff and, in the scrum of Arsenal and Liverpool supporters cordially analyzing the result, didn’t see my friends. I sat by myself for a few minutes until I heard Greg Asad call my name across the crowded room. I have watched games by myself before, but how nice to have a support group of supporters! Greg, Cat Stewart, and I were it for Villa, though—at least we outnumbered the two West Ham supporters, who didn’t even sit together the first half. And we could all look down our noses at poor Hull Guy, alone at the bar.
Well, we could, until Hull went ahead against Sunderland and we fell behind against West Ham. Both leads would hold up until the end.
Going into the game, I knew better than to think West Ham would be an easy win. If we’ve learned anything this season, it’s that Villa tends to perform better against good teams than bad ones. Until New Year’s, for example, we had earned more points (six) from the current top three teams than from the current bottom three (four points). Every time we’ve faced a weakened bottom-feeder (Hello Fulham! Nice to see you, Palace!), instead of killing them off, we seem to reawaken their own dormant predatory instincts. I pray it’s not the specter of losing to Villa that rejuvenates them.
And yet, despite myself, I couldn’t help thinking it it would be an easy win. Villa had come to life in the last couple of games—against the Baggies, we’d even scored goals at home! Furthermore, the Hammers were sitting in 18th, and wouldn’t even have Andy Carroll’s high-altitude head to lob balls at. And we did start pretty well, getting most of the ball, but, as West Ham sat back, it was clear we didn’t really know how to break them down.
Holding possession was clearly unfamiliar territory to our players. The more we held the ball, the less we were able to figure out what to do with it. Against any other team, we tend to sit back and catch them on the break, but, against another team content to do the same thing—what then? Clearly, both teams can’t sit back. Someone has to venture across the center line and, as hosts, it fell to us. At least we haven’t forgotten our manners.
Well, that worked well for awhile, until the end of the half, when West Ham—WEST HAM!—sensing our weakness, ventured forward until they had us pinned back in our own half. We bunkered in, defending desperately, praying for the halftime whistle. I felt sure we’d start more brightly in the second half but, when the whistle blew again, it was as though halftime had never happened. West Ham resumed their assault, we crumbled, and, within a minute, Stewart Downing beat Ryan Bertand and gave the ball to Kevin Nolan, who scored on a nice backheel. And, a few minutes later, Fabian Delph inexplicably tried to get cute and dribble out of trouble on the edge of the penalty area, was dispossessed by Nolan, and, stunningly, we were two down.
I never count Villa out if we’re one behind. And even two behind seems doable. But not all in the second half, and not on that day. Villa did come to life, helped in huge part by a sprightly Marc Albrighton, but, though we ended up with the edge in possession and shots, we couldn’t put a single one in the back of the net. Delph, Baker, Benteke, and Albrighton all had decent attempts, and Benteke had some poor ones, but though we finished with 16 shots to West Ham’s 10, the Hammers led the game in the only stat that matters.
Game over. Home form reconfirmed. The bills came and we paid them.
Lambert to the Slaughter
Scanning Facebook on the way home, I learned that Paul Lambert had lost us the game. He had no game plan, apparently, and, furthermore, he’s at fault for our abysmal home form. “Lambert Out!”, some fans’ quiet, season-long chant, grew louder: LAMBERT OUT! But any supporter who thinks our path to success lies with Lambert’s sacking is mistaken. Now, I’m not saying that because I think Lambert is our savior. I’m saying that because managers don’t matter—at least, not enough to make it worth changing them as often as we redesign the team kit.
First of all, taking this game by itself, did Lambert lose us this game? I’d say that Ron Vlaar’s absence might have lost us this game: without him anchoring the back line, our record is now one draw, five losses. (And when he was substituted late in the game against Everton, we promptly shipped a goal.) Vlaar’s hamstring would appear to be beyond the control of the gaffer.
And two players who were present certainly played decisive roles in the loss. Bertrand was beaten for the first goal. The Chelsea loan been bright for us, and no one argued against his selection beforehand, yet he had a bad game. It happens. The second goal was clearly Delph’s fault. He should have cleared it, didn’t, and was made to pay in the worst way possible. Bad timing and he should have been smarter, but would anyone claim that Delph shouldn’t be a mainstay of the team? He’s having a great year. He’s also still young and he did something stupid. I bet he won’t make that mistake again again.
Lambert makes the occasional odd choice in lineup or tactics, but it’s the players who win the games or lose them. And the surest predictor of where you’ll finish the league is how much you spend on player salaries. As Chris Anderson and David Sally write in their fascinating book, The Numbers Game (2013):
Wages and league position go hand-in-hand, and the connection is tight: the higher the club’s wages relative to the league average over the course of the decade, the higher up the table the club finished.
Now, Anderson and Sally are not arguing that managers are irrelevant, and I’m not, either. (They also make a strong case for the role of luck in deciding the outcome of matches, but that’s a topic for another day.) Clearly Jose Mourinho is a better manager than Sam Allardyce. But Mourinho has a far better squad to manage than does Big Sam. I would argue that, excluding the wunderkinds (Mourinho) and the goofballs (Paolo di Canio, justifiably sacked), most Premier League managers know enough about the strengths and weaknesses of their team to draw up the team sheet and place players in their proper positions. Most players will play to the best of their ability whether the manager is hands-on or hands-off. When a bad team desperately needs better results, they need better players.
But it’s the manager, striding alone on the touchline, who is the target of our fury. Some of this is their own fault. Many managers cultivate the image that, through hand-waving and theatrical facial expressions, they are actually conducting the players’ every move on the pitch. And why not? It’s clearly in their own best interest, career-wise, to be thought of as game-changers. As Anderson and Sally argue, managers do influence games, but only by the finest of margins. A truly gifted manager could probably improve on Lambert’s performance by ten or fifteen percent. Which would certainly be helpful—but a truly gifted manager is not going to come take charge of Aston Villa.
Any time you’re really mad at Lambert, just say these two words: Alex McLeish.
It all comes back to money. Yes, Villa has been underperforming its wage bill for some time, but the most expensive acquisitions, bought by Martin O’Neill, have taken some time to shift. The actually starting squad has been, for some time, much more threadbare than our numbers would suggest. If we want Villa to be better, then Lerner needs to loosen the purse strings a bit, and, more importantly, to spend wisely. (O’Neill’s approach was unfortunately closer to the old TV show Supermarket Sweep.) To that end, they should appoint a seasoned director of football who could help guide Lambert and Paul Faulkner in the transfer market.
When we’re frustrated by our team’s performance over time, not just a game or two, ownership and management most often deserve our frustration. But, with a few notable exceptions (the Glazers at Manchester United or Vincent Tan at Cardiff City or Assem Allam at the soon-to-be-renamed Hull Tigers), they usually get a pass. Lerner never comes to games—fiendishly clever of him, really—and we have to be mad at someone.
Hence Lambert. Managers are expendable. On average, even average players are paid more than managers. Why? Because they influence the game more. They’re also harder to shift. So sacking the manager is the easiest way for an owner to act like they’re doing something. There’s always a Sven-Goran Eriksson around. The owners likely know it won’t make all that much difference. Sack Lambert, replace him with who? Someone else who has been recently sacked? Would Martin Jol be an improvement? Villa would likely get a new-manager bounce with anyone, winning two or three games before reverting to form.
As for me: Lambert is good enough to coach the players we’ve got. But if Lerner cares about seeing the team do better—and, come on, even if Champions League is a pipe dream, we should be like Everton, perennially in the mix for the Europa League—he needs to give Lambert a few carefully considered upgrades come summer.
And before you start chanting, “Lerner out!”, let me ask you this: would you rather be Red Bull Birmingham?