BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - AUGUST 25: Paul Lambert, the manager of Aston Villa, looks pensive during the Barclays Premier league match between Aston Villa and Everton at Villa Park on August 25, 2012 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Aston Villa's season-opening 1-0 loss to West Ham was disappointing, but when it was over it was possible to take away some positives. That isn't the case with yesterday's 3-1 loss to Everton; it was a horrendous performance in every phase of the game, and at this point a great deal of the optimism surrounding this season has evaporated. I'm still confident that the long-term future of the club is in good hands with Paul Lambert, but the comprehensive manner in which Everton managed to dismantle Aston Villa exposed every weakness in this side. I'm no longer confident that all this team needs is time to adjust to a very different style of play. A lot of these players just aren't good enough to be playing significant roles. This team needs help, and it can't wait until January.
Prior to the match, I said that I expected Everton to give Villa space in midfield and even went so far as to say that a higher-pressure approach would be beneficial. I was wrong on both counts. The Toffees pressed heavily from the outset, and Villa were incapable of dealing with it. I'm sure that the openings that tend to appear when faced with a high-pressure defense were there, but they weren't found in nearly enough time. It certainly didn't help that Villa trailed from the 3rd minute on thanks to a sublime strike from Steven Pienaar, but it was clear that it was never going to be Villa's day. David Moyes is a fine manager and Everton is a very good team; both of them got everything right.
It's tough to determine which aspect of Villa's performance was the most worrying; the defense, which looked so strong against West Ham, was on the back foot all game long. Pienaar's strike was tremendous and Maraoune Fellaini's header was almost entirely the fault of Shay Given, but the disorganization along the back kept Everton well on top for the majority of the game. And speaking of Given, his mishandling of Fellaini's header brought back less than pleasant memories of his play at the Euros. But in the end, it's the complete lack of attacking competence shown by Villa that has the greatest potential to derail this season. Even the best defenses have off days and on the slim chance that Given has regressed to the point that he's a liability at least Villa have a capable backup in Brad Guzan. But the lack of a cutting edge is a trend. It's practically part of the club's identity at this point.
It's quite simple to spot the issue; against teams that possess little credible threat from the wings, opposition defenses tend to play very narrow. With good enough attacking play through the middle that can be overcome, but Villa doesn't have anything approaching that. Darren Bent isn't the kind of forward that creates his own chances, Barry Bannan's strengths are most evident from deeper positions, and Stephen Ireland is just far too inconsistent to be trusted. Villa's best wide player at the moment is Charles N'Zogbia, but his strengths are largely nullified by defenses that funnel play to the wings. This team is in desperate need of a player capable of adding another element to the attack, be it a more traditional winger to supply crosses, a more well-rounded forward to create space for Bent, or an attacking midfielder capable of unlocking the opposition defense.
Yes, there are holes elsewhere; it would be wonderful to have more creativity and/or steel in central midfield. An actual left back would be a plus. Central defense could use a bit more depth. But without a significant attacking upgrade, none of that is going to matter a bit. Right now this club can't do much of anything unless Darren Bent is getting the ball, and there isn't anyone that seems capable of doing that. As far as problems go, that one is pretty significant.
I think there's been a lot of knee-jerkery and unfair assumptions floating around in regards to Randy Lerner over the past few years; he's earned his share of criticism (as has Paul Faulkner.) Mistakes have been made. But he's invested a whole lot of money in this club, and I find accusations that he doesn't care to be mind-numbingly stupid. Still, the facts are what they are; since the departure of Martin O'Neill, Aston Villa has sold James Milner, Ashley Young and Stewart Downing for somewhere in the range of £65 million combined. They've slashed the wage bill dramatically (and in the process losing some players that would be quite helpful right about now) and given opportunities to their highly-touted younger players. I'm all for keeping things on a sustainable path, but if that entails the kind of spending on the squad that we've seen from Paul Lambert this summer then this club is in pretty horrendous shape.
I do my best not to overreact, to balance my desire to see the club do well with an understanding of the financial realities at play. But when I see Aston Villa go down in flames to Everton, a team whose fans have loudly protested the lack of financial backing given to David Moyes and yet still has the money to bring in players like Steven Pienaar, Steven Naismith and Kevin Mirallas, it's a very scary thing. I still expect Villa to bring in a few new players before the window closes, because at this point it's plain for all to see that this squad just isn't good enough. But if it doesn't my opinion of Randy Lerner will likely the complete the 180-degree turn it's been taking since the end of the 2010-11 season.