False dawn, or fresh start for Villa?

Posted by Kevin Hughes

Press Association/AP ImagesWith Villa hitting form, consistency is now the key for Paul Lambert.

If a single performance can alter the fortunes of a season, Villa will use the example of their display at Anfield last Saturday as a platform from which to approach the remainder of the 2013-14 campaign.

Villa's players were so much sharper, more accurate and more assured in the 2-2 draw against Liverpool, it represented a total transformation from the group which has struggled in previous months. But will that improved performance inspire a genuine fresh start, or prove a false dawn? With Villa not in FA Cup action this weekend, it's a suitable time to assess the current position of the club, and look ahead to what the rest of the season may bring.

What Villa showed against Liverpool was far closer to the type of performance which pulled the club away from relegation trouble last season, and similar to the opening fixtures of this current campaign, which resulted in victory at Arsenal and an unfortunate defeat at Chelsea.

Playing off the front foot immediately, high tempo, controlled aggression, pressing the opponents in their own half. This is what Villa do well, but since the early part of the season, the team has lost its way, regressing into a negative mindset, sitting back and trying to contain opponents. If this was Paul Lambert's attempt to introduce a more patient, pragmatic style, it obviously didn't work.

Reverting to tried, tested and proven, much seemed to click into place. The front six who faced Liverpool were more or less the same combination which guided Villa to safety in 2012-13; Fabian Delph, Ashley Westwood, Andreas Weimann, Gabby Agbonlahor and Christian Benteke. Karim El Ahmadi has overtaken Yacouba Sylla in recent months. With that group on the field together -- and Ron Vlaar restored to the centre of the defence -- Villa were visibly more comfortable and confident.

It was at a similar stage last season that Lambert stopped tweaking and experimenting, and settled on his first choice XI. Doing the same now could help achieve the consistency which continues to elude Villa, a team which could be considered one of the most unpredictable in the Premier League. Remember, Lambert's men have won at Arsenal and Southampton, taken a point at Liverpool and beaten Manchester City -- and lost to Fulham, Crystal Palace and Sheffield United. Maddening, for supporters.

Injuries will dictate how often Lambert can call upon his preferred lineup. Often, it has been the unavailability of key players which has disrupted progress. Villa's squad lacks depth in certain positions. Defensively, the team has rarely been at full strength, but creatively, improvement is needed. Villa are sweating on the fitness of Agbonlahor ahead of next Wednesday's Midlands derby against West Brom, and he'd be a huge loss.

Agbonlahor was superb for 45 minutes against Liverpool, and once he was substituted, Villa didn't carry the same threat. Lambert doesn't have another player like him in his squad, a forward with the natural goal-scoring instinct of a striker, as well as pace and vision. There is no ready-made replacement, which is why Lambert has already spoken of his desire to sign a No. 10 before the January transfer window closes. A player who can open up a defence if Agbonlahor is missing or, to complement his attacking options further.

That player does not seem likely to be Wes Hoolahan, with Norwich refusing to countenance his sale, even though he remains on the fringes of the Canaries team. Chelsea's Gael Kakuta, Barcelona teen Jean Marie Dongou and Hoffenheim's Tarik Elyounoussi have all been linked; regardless of whether there's any foundation to any of those rumours, it suggests Lambert is looking for an extra attacking spark.

The right player could make a significant difference. With Ryan Bertrand drafted in at left back, Vlaar fit again -- hopefully for the rest of the season -- Jores Okore set to return around March, and Benteke looking something like his former self, the problem positions are being addressed. There's still that missing attacking midfield link to go.

Villa sit 10th in the league, which should be an achievable target for a final finish come the end of the season. That the club are in that position, despite some patchy form in the past three months, says much about the overall quality in the division, and also that, for a team which is able to find some form and put a decent run together, a place in the top half beckons.

Overtaking Southampton, in ninth place, might be beyond Villa, with the Saints seven points ahead, though the teams still have to meet again in April. Consolidating 10th should be the immediate goal, and over the next few weeks, Villa have a sequence of fixtures they really need to make the most of: after West Brom, Everton away (not easy, but the Villans have a good recent record at Goodison Park), West Ham, Cardiff, Newcastle and Norwich.

None of them are games that Villa can take for granted, but if Lambert's team can reproduce the fluency and energy they displayed at Anfield, the prospects are good. Then again, it's never certain which Villa will turn up on any given day -- the punchy, pacey, incisive version, or the subdued and hesitant model. Unlocking the former consistently is Lambert's biggest challenge between now and May.


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