ANALYSIS Paul Lambert retains support at Villa but the club's place in the top flight is looking increasingly vulnerable, writes Hugh MacDonald
IT is the perfect storm that sinks a raft of managers. It is the diabolical combination of a club with an illustrious past, a turbulent present and an uncertain future. Paul Lambert stands at the helm of such a club at Aston Villa and has been battered by the events of recent weeks and assailed by criticism. However, the travails of the Scottish manager also speak to a revolution a Villa Park that tells the truth about much of the Barclays Premier League.
After years of overspending, Lambert has had to deal with the reality that budgets must be cut and that survival in the league would be an achievement rather than a formality.
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The aggregate defeat by Bradford City in the semi-finals of the Capital One Cup on Tuesday night has predictably put more pressure on Lambert with Andy Gray, a former Aston Villa player, not sparing his fellow Scot.
"I was surprised at Villa's selection, they should have mirrored Bradford's formation. They made a mistake by not playing Andreas Weimann, a guy who has scored seven goals in his last nine games. That surprised me from Paul,'' he said. "That was a mistake I wouldn't have made, I don't think. The last half hour especially really, really, really disappointed me. I don't know what Paul was trying to do."
Of the defence that Lambert is playing youngsters, Gray was dismissive. "Don't let anyone go on again about age. There was nothing in the ages of these teams to separate them," he said.
Yet Lambert, the Villa revolutionary, retains support in two vital areas: the owner and the supporters. Randy Lerner, the club's American owner, has told the 43-year-old former Norwich City manager that his job is safe even if the club is relegated. Supporters, too, have retained a belief in the manager and have shown a mature understanding of his problems, even after the defeat by Bradford.
"The fans will stick with Lambert even if we go down," said Tim Pearman, secretary of Studley and Redditch Aston Villa supporters' club. "There is no mood to get rid of him. Everyone knows the problems he has inherited. We have been on a slippery slide since Martin O'Neill left."
Lerner, who has put more than £250m into the club in just more than six years, has finally realised that he cannot win by throwing money at Villa. A strategy has been formed to reduce a wage bill that, at £55m per annum, is thought to rival the biggest clubs.
Players such as Darren Bent, Charles N'Zogbia, Shay Given, and Stephen Ireland are on £50,000-plus a week and others such as Stephen Warnock and Alan Hutton are on £30,000-plus. Lambert has to move players on to create a bigger recruitment budget.
The estimates of what Lambert was given to spend in the summer vary from between £18m to £22m but he signed 12 players for that amount in the summer. Bent's fee was £24m when he was signed from Sunderland two years ago.
Lambert, a European Cup winner as a player with Borussia Dortmund, has said keeping Villa up – the club are one point above the relegation zone with 15 matches to play – would be his greatest achievement.
He will rely heavily on the efforts of such as Christian Benteke, an inspired £7m buy in the summer, and Weimann. There is no doubt he needs reinforcements in the transfer window but he will be restricted by the new realism at Villa.
"It will be difficult,'' said Pearman, who has watched the club since 1975, witnessing the European Cup triumph in 1982. "We may have to win seven of our last games to stay up and that is a big ask."
The immediate problem for Lambert is to select a side for the FA Cup match against Millwall at the weekend before Villa face Newcastle United next week. Alan Pardew's side have re-invested in players, with other teams in the drop zone – such as Queens Park Rangers, Norwich City and Wigan Athletic – actively seeking players.
Lambert, an excellent holding midfielder with Celtic and Dortmund, knows he needs a defensive anchor to protect a fragile back four, and an experienced defender. With Gabby Agbonlahor back to fitness and Benteke in excellent form, Villa have the capacity to score goals but they must be more resilient in defence.
"We keep losing goals from set-pieces," said Pearman. "The manager says the team practise these all week but they seem to forget about it all on match day."
This may be a result of a lack of experience in vital positions but Lambert has a limited time to correct these matters before the threat of relegation becomes substantial. The manager, though, has stated regularly that he believes the club will remain in the Premier League.
"He has the stomach for the fight," a friend of his said last night. "He has bought into what the owner wants to do and has no intention of walking away. He knows Villa is a big club with expectations but he has a plan and is determined to carry that through."
Villa may be in the perfect storm but Lambert has set a course for a brighter future. He will hope the tide turns in his favour soon.