Lambert's two closest assistants suspended
19 April ~ This is the fourth season in a row that Aston Villa have haunted their followers with the threat of relegation, the limp surrender 1-0 at Crystal Palace last Saturday being the fourth straight loss in another stop-start season. For every glorious win over the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City, there have been multiple let downs at Villa Park as a season-record ten visitors, most recently Fulham (2-1) and Stoke (4-1), so far have left with all three points, not to mention home defeats in both cup competitions.
Then on Tuesday the club made the shock announcement that manager Paul Lambert's two closest assistants had been suspended amid talk of disciplinary action. In the absence of detail over what actually happened, fans are not sure if Lambert is one step closer to being shown the door or about to save Villa's ever-present Premier League status with the help of Shay Given and bona-fide club legend Gordon Cowans. Everyone from owner Randy Lerner to Hercules the club mascot is calling for unity ahead of the visit of Southampton.
Unless they're completely incompetent, Premier League managers can generally expect a season's grace to show progress, and there were signs in his debut year that Lambert was developing a good attacking style but he seems to have gone tactically backwards in a difficult second season. With Christian Benteke and Libor Kozak out injured, the long ball is no longer an option and the team have looked short of ideas even against average opposition. Defending has been a model of inconsistency.
Lambert has looked for bargains in the transfer market and in some cases (Benteke and Ashley Westwood, signed from Crewe) this has worked well but he hasn't been backed with the funds to buy anyone proven. Too many of his purchases haven't been up to scratch and the feeling on the Holte End is that most of the squad is well below Premier League standard. The number of high-earning players either out of favour or out on loan raises further questions about Lambert's ability to man-manage at this level.
Southampton have the attacking talents to exploit space left by Villa's attempts to play an expansive game. Perhaps the likes of Fabian Delph and Grant Holt will raise their game to prove a point to Saints' Brazil-bound stars Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert, but the priority will be to avoid costly mistakes. Saints may have nothing to play for but their travelling support will rightfully expect a display and this is a risky fixture that Villa need to approach with an extreme caution that the fans might not like. Colin Peel