Situations vacant

Villa’s run of poor form leads Dave Woodhall to draw an obvious conclusion.  

Stoke isn’t the most attractive destination at the best of times and a week before Christmas is just about the worst of them, so full marks to our support for selling out well in advance. Pity they didn’t have much to sing about as Villa’s good away form was well and truly scuppered, leaving supporters wondering whether this is a blip or if we’re in  for a repeat of last winter.

Nil-nil was the most common pre-match prediction and we got to half-time with that scoreline still looking a possibility. A mistake from each defence scuppered such thoughts but Libor Kozak’s equaliser should have seen Villa go on to at least claim a point. No chance – another bit of blundering around and Peter Crouch scored Stoke’s winner, albeit with a sniff of handball to it. The result matched the surroundings, which matched the climate, which matched the traffic there and back. No, I don’t like Stoke.

Looking at Villa’s current form from a wider angle it’s clear that there are problems, and where they lie. The players treat the ball like a hand grenade and none of them look comfortable when they’ve got it. Basics such as keeping possession and running off the ball are alien concepts, although this latter trait has been a problem for every Villa manager since Ron Atkinson.  Paul Lambert has been unlucky with injuries, but you can’t expect to go through a season unscathed and the strength in depth simply isn’t there. Villa need at least two decent signings in January, a midfielder who can put his foot on the ball and another who can do something worthwhile with it. A central defender is also a must, at least until the end of the season, when Jores Okore should be fit again.

Villa got away with making hardly any signings last January, because the one they did buy, Yacouba Sylla, fitted into the team well and Christian Benteke was on a run of form that he surely won’t be able to repeat. They can’t rely on the same things happening again. New players have to be bought and they have to be for the present, not some undetermined future when Lambert’s young bloods will miraculously blossom together. As I keep saying to anyone who will listen, the manager’s record when paying reasonable money is good; it’s his bargain basement gambles that are letting him down.

One of the major reasons why Villa have slipped in recent weeks is that players who made a good impression last season are now struggling. Ashley Westwood is typical – twelve months ago he was looking like a potential England international; now he’s barely worth a place in the team. Westwood, Joe Bennett and Andreas Weimann should have learned from the experiences of 2012-13 and improved their game. Instead, they’ve gone backwards. Whether it’s because they’ve been found out, or because they’ve become complacent, is open to debate. But they need to improve, and they’d have more chance if they had ‘been there, done it’ players alongside them instead of another collection of inexperienced youngsters. The idea of putting together a European Select under-21 XI and seeing them flourish is a noble one, but in practice it isn’t working.

Next up are Crystal Palace at Villa Park. A month ago this would have been a banker for three points but Villa’s drop in form and Palace’s new manager, the ever-charming Tony Pulis, have conspired to make it a lot trickier than should be the case for a pleasant Boxing Day afternoon.