What are your thoughts on Randy Lerner as an owner? As you know, Arsenal are nearly in the news daily about our particular American-based owner with nearly the same credentials as Lerner. Are Villa fans as up-in-arms about their owner as it appears many Arsenal fans are with Stan Kroenke?
I think it's pretty quickly approaching that level of agitation, but I think the path that's lead to Villa fans being less than enamored with Lerner is slightly different. When he bought the club, Lerner dumped a bunch of money into remodeling parts of Villa Park, restoring the pub and hotel at the stadium entrance and turning Bodymoor Heath into one of the better training facilities in the Premier League. He hired Martin O'Neill and gave him license to do pretty much whatever he wanted in terms of player acquisitions, and gave him a whole lot of rope financially. When Champions League qualification didn't materialize and it came time to address an unsustainable wage bill, MON threw a hissy fit and left at the worst possible time, and the chaos that ensued brought us to where we are today.
There's an emerging narrative that Lerner has lost interest in the club and has decided to run it purely as a business venture until he can sell, but I have a hard time believing that. Realistically, the MON-era spending orgy put the club in a terrible financial position and I think it's only now becoming apparent how bad things really are. I think Lerner has seen the error of the approach taken and it looks to me as though he's trying to rebuild the club using a model somewhere between Swansea and Arsenal; look for value on the transfer market, keep wages within a certain threshold, continue to invest in the academy, and only spend big when it's a risk worth taking. It's an approach that I think makes a lot of sense for Villa and if they can avoid relegation this year I think it's going to be very successful in the medium-to-long term. In other words, I think a lot of the complaints and inferences that have lead to them about Lerner's intentions are unfair.
On the other hand, he's clearly made a lot of really bad mistakes and though he's seen the light in some instances he's still far from perfect. I largely blame the actions of MON for the predicament the club is in today, but Lerner is the one that signs the checks and it's ultimately his responsibility. I get incredibly depressed when I think about how good the club could be today if the same level of investment was there but with different people on the football side of the operation. It's not unreasonable to believe that with more careful investment Villa could be where Spurs or Everton are today. And I fear that Lerner's experiences with MON (and to some extent seeing how the Darren Bent situation has played out) will lead to some hesitation when it comes to pulling the trigger on moves that have high price tags but are ultimately good value.
How do you feel Paul Lambert has done with the resources available to him this year? Do you think he has a vision of what he needs to succeed on the pitch tactically and long-term?
I'll say at the outset that I like Paul Lambert, I think the thought process that led to his being hired was a good one, and in the long run I think he's a great fit and could have some major success at Villa. And with that out of the way, I don't think he's done an especially good job in several pretty important areas this season. In terms of the transfer window, things went well; luring Brad Guzan (who was released by Alex McLeish at the end of last season) back to Villa has turned out quite well, Christian Benteke was a tremendous signing, and Matthew Lowton has outperformed expectations. I wouldn't put any of his signings in a negative light, and considering how many of them there were and the budget constraints he's faced, that's pretty impressive.
I also don't have much of a problem with the way he's all but banished players like Alan Hutton, Stephen Warnock and Stephen Ireland, which is something that the media and many Villa fans have relentlessly criticized him for. Hutton and Warnock have been bad players for quite some time now, and Ireland's 80% terrible/20% brilliant equation just doesn't work on a team in as fragile a state as Villa. I also don't have much of an issue with his preference for Christian Benteke over Darren Bent, because while Darren Bent is undeniably brilliant in front of goal he's absolutely terrible at pretty much everything else and without any kind of consistent service he's a complete waste of space.
But in other areas, he's had some enormous failings. The 3-5-2 experiment came about out of necessity earlier in the season, but he stuck with it well after it was apparent that it wasn't a good idea and it blew up pretty spectacularly. And if it weren't for Villa's collapse following the Chelsea result they wouldn't be in as precarious a position as they are today; an 8-0 thumping for a young team is bound to effect their confidence, and it's Lambert's job as a manager that's make a conscious decision to trust in youth to ensure that the hangover lasts for as little time as possible. It lasted for over a month, and in the process it put a Villa team that looked on the verge of carving out a nice spot in the middle of the table for themselves right into the thick of the relegation battle. I'm sure he's learned from all of this, and I think his long-term vision is sound. But he's most certainly not above some pretty harsh criticism.
Despite the senior team's struggles this year, the Baby Villans continue to produce, still alive in the NextGen series. Jack Grealish in particular seems to be doing the business. Do you expect more of these young players to start to crack the first team soon, or will it be a while before they have a chance?
I think one thing Paul Lambert has made abundantly clear is that he is not at all afraid to play young players if he thinks they're ready. I think there's a good chance Grealish makes an appearance with the senior team sooner than later (especially given Villa's need for width in attack) and I'd expect he won't be the only U-21 player we hear from before the year is out.
What do you see as Villa's most pressing needs, talent-wise?
I think Joe Bennett is a promising young player, but I do not think that he is a left back. Eric Lichaj is also not a left back. Fabian Delph? Same deal. It's easily the most difficult position to fill in football at pretty much every level, but it's a real problem for Villa at the moment. Outside midfield is a problem as well, though Lambert seems to prefer compact formations that don't really utilize wingers. All the same, you've got to get width from somewhere and when you can't risk it from your fullbacks because they're getting torched every time they press forward, it's a problem.
Can you describe just exactly how much you love Christian Benteke?
John Carew is probably my favorite ever Villan and one of my top-five favorite players period. Christian Benteke is John Carew that's better at all of the things John Carew was good at good at many of the things John Carew was bad at. He is also 22. If he actually hangs around for more than this season he could very well fill the Fredy Montero shaped hole that is currently in my heart.
What do you think the key will be for Villa on Saturday at the Emirates? (Some might say, based on recent Arsenal performances, "shoot the football at the goalkeeper after running past the defenders").
Aston Villa has been at their best when they've played deep, pressed hard in midfield, and looked to counter. It's not a negative approach in the same way it was under McLeish or Martin O'Neill, but it's also not the kind of heavy-possession, slowed-down, pass-heavy style Paul Lambert really desperately wants his team to play. Villa's 3-1 win over Liverpool was this team at their absolute best, and the way they played that day ought to be a blueprint for what they aspire to going forward.
Many thanks again to Aaron!